Solar Rollers competition teaches Summit students how to build and race remote-controlled cars

Summit High School students Enrique Nunez, left, and Emanuel Gomez work on their solar-powered, remote-controlled cars for the 2019 Solar Rollers competition. The competition was paused due to the pandemic, but students are now raising funds and preparing for the competition’s return in April.
Rick Karden / Courtesy Photo

A group of Summit High School students get ready to participate in the Solar Rollers competition, which brings together high school teams from all over Colorado to build and race solar-powered, remote-controlled cars.

Rick Karden — an engineering, architecture, computer science and robotics teacher at Summit High School — said the school has been in the program for more than 12 years and that local students have always been leaders in the competition. He said Summit has achieved the state record for top speed almost every year.

Students are divided into teams, and Karden said Summit has more teams than most schools because he wants all kids to get as much hands-on interaction as possible. This year, Summit plans to enroll three teams of four students and is raising money for the competition.

“I like having as many teams as we can afford to run because then the kids all learn something and they get hands-on experience,” Karden said.

The competition entry fee is $500 per team, and it costs about the same for all the materials to build a vehicle. Karden started a GoFundMe page titled “SHS Solar Rollers 2022,” which aims to raise $3,000 for the competition, and said the community is generally supportive.

Karden said the biggest aspect of the competition is the one-hour race. The cars are expected to be badly beaten up along the way, so students should prepare for this by practicing repairing as quickly as possible. He said the cars are going 25-30 mph, and with about 20 schools competing — some with multiple teams — the race could get bumpy.

“There’s a lot of engineering in terms of how to build a lightweight car that can withstand crashes at 20mph repeatedly,” Karden said.

The students learn structural engineering to build the chassis of the car; what physics is all about designing an aerodynamic, lightweight car; and knowledge of wiring and electronics is needed to wire and solder the solar cells, Karden said. He said they have also made more advanced cars, such as a car made of solar cells, so that the car can be smaller, lighter and more agile.

Summit High School student Cassie Pierson is working on her solar-powered, remote-controlled car for the 2019 Solar Rollers competition, with past high school Solar Rollers awards right in front of her. The competition was paused due to the pandemic, but students are now raising funds and preparing for the competition’s return in April.
Rick Karden / Courtesy Photo

Karden said the practicality of the competition is great, especially when you see how engaged the students are.

“They stay after school just as long as I do,” Karden said. “When we build those cars, I’ll be there until about eight in the evening to help them keep the lab open so they can build their cars. … They’re really picky, there are always little issues that need fixing, and it’s just that process of, ‘If something breaks, how do I fix it? And how do I make sure it doesn’t break during the race?’”

Solar Rollers is one of the many aspects of Summit High School’s technology club, but junior Cooper Hyland said it’s the club it’s all about. The club also participates in the Technology Student Association and some other technology-related competitions.

“If you go to our Tech Club, we only have a lot of Solar Rollers trophies,” Hyland said. “We’re kind of the best team out there.”

Hyland was preparing to compete in Solar Rollers in 2020 before the pandemic canceled the competition, so he is looking forward to competing in the race this year.

“I’m excited to go out on the field and just meet the other people who are kind of like-minded in a way, because we’re all here, and we all want to do this. We’re all doing this voluntarily,” Hyland says. “You never really know how it will go until you’ve actually field-tested your car, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

Hyland wants to become an engineer after school and said the experience he gains from this competition will only give him more experience in the industry he wants to work in.

“If you’re interested in electrical engineering, it can be incredibly useful to know how to use the (solar) cells and how much they produce,” Hyland said. “…It’s nice that we can have variety in our engineering program, so instead of doing just one thing, there are a lot of options, and this is one of those routes that our school has a lot of experience with.”

The match will be sometime in April, but the exact details are yet to be finalized. Karden has been absent from the competition for a while due to the pandemic and is looking forward to bringing students back to compete with Solar Rollers.

“It’s really exciting when all the cars are on the track and everyone is racing,” Karden said. “Something magical just happens, and you kind of lose track of time, and it’s really, really amazing.”

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