Students Apply Engineering Skills to Solar Car Design

By Dora Smith

Applied skill when I was in college meant writing for the city newspaper run by the Journalism school. The challenge was to apply all that we learned in the classroom into the newsroom under deadlines and heavily scrutinizing editors.

A few years ago I worked on an automotive CAD certification program. With it, employers kept asking for a curriculum at the college level that provided more applied skill so they could spend less time training new hires. The challenge was (and still is) to know CAD well and be able to apply it to a specific industry and even a specific discipline. Because powertrain design is much different than styling.

So it’s not surprising to hear that top engineering schools have intensive “applied skill” projects. But you don’t normally see engineering projects coming out of a liberal arts college with no engineering curriculum. Yesterday at our St. Louis office, we got a visit from Principia College, a liberal arts college in IL. Steve Shedd is one of the faculty advisors on the project and provides an overview in this video:

Now given that it’s solar powered, I would probably have been impressed with the car they built 10 years ago that didn’t even qualify for the American Solar Challenge, a 2,400-mile drive from Dallas, Texas to Calgary, Alberta. But I was very impressed with the car they just finished this summer that placed 2nd in the Challenge. The 10-day race ended in late July.

My main question (not knowing it actually linked back to our company) was how do you go from not qualifying to finishing in 2nd place? They credit NX. Steve explains in this video clip.

The car itself is pretty remarkable with a newly designed steering wheel with built-in LCD screen readout, completely redesigned battery pack, brand-new car body, and in-house custom circuitry. Click here to see more photos. The car can do 80 mph (although the max is 60 mph for the solar challenge race).


I was also very impressed with the students on the team. Most of them taught themselves NX. The new car presented several design challenges. The race regulations had changed and required a car that was six square meters vs. eight. It also required a new steering wheel (vs. joystick controls in the past).

In this video, Tom Brownell shows the new steering wheel and explains some of its new functionality. In the second video, Justin Sinichko, explains how he approached the new steering wheel project.

Here’s a final video clip of the students putting the solar canopy top on the car. Check out more on Principia’s website where you can download podcasts from every day of the race.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at