University City

Students' brains a driving force

Deep in the belly of Vance High School, a secret weapon gurgles - or revs, depending on whom you ask.

Every Thursday after classes, students from Vance's Ten80 Student Racing Challenge team meet in a windowless room on the ground level of the school, surrounded by miniature car parts and computers that line the walls.

Their plan is to use both components to build a radio-controlled car capable of taking the championship at the Ten80 Student Racing Challenge finals in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

And they think they have a good chance of succeeding.

"We are very close to an actual prototype, and it's all in that box," said adviser Matthew Wykoff, pointing to a tattered cardboard container kept under wraps. Wykoff remained tight-lipped about the car and would reveal only that it will be solar powered.

Ten80 Education programs encourage students to apply science, technology, engineering and math, often called STEM subjects, to real-world situations. The Ten80 Student Racing Challenge is a NASCAR STEM initiative in which students model a motorsports team in every aspect, from drivers to researchers to marketing specialists.

The use of STEM subjects when building an RC car serves as another real-world reflection of motorsports professionals.

Today's NASCAR garages house more than just greasy wrenches and screwdrivers. Advanced computer software and a strong grasp of high-level math and science rank just as high as other essential tools in the shop.

"I wish that was better depicted during the race," said Wykoff. "When most of the public looks at NASCAR, they just see racing in a circle, but it's so much more interesting when you look at the engineering involved."

Vance's team is putting most of its energy into creating a cutting-edge prototype.

"We do a lot of tinkering. Tinkering for innovation," said Wykoff. "I'm proud of these kids because their focus is research and development. How well they drive these cars is only one small portion of the overall scoring system."

In May, judges will award points based on categories like creative engineering, teamwork and team logo in addition to a series of lap races around a specially made track in the pits at the speedway.

Teams can be penalized with added seconds for infractions like needing a battery charge or an extra extension cord from the sanctioning body.

Last year driver Josh McIlwain, 15, hit the wall early, costing a few points. "On the qualification lap, I was kind of nervous," he said. "We came in seventh out of 15." He practices in the school's courtyard or on the narrow paved road between the school's trailers.

STEM subjects have played a big role in Vance's prototype development. During club meetings, students often can be seen working on everything from complicated algebraic equations to creating 3-D graphics using specialized computer software.

Each aspect prepares the 18 members for their individual jobs.

"Alex's strength has been analysis, 3-D modeling and blueprint development," said Wykoff of 15-year-old freshman Alex Chen's contribution to the team. "He developed the 3-D model of the chassis."

Like many other students, the experience has made Chen consider a career in engineering.

"I've always had a curiosity of how things work," he said.

No matter the outcome in May, Wykoff said, the lessons students have learned along the way have taught them about their potential.

"They're all so young and figuring out their roles in all this and what their strengths are," he said. "Every day they are coming up with innovative ideas. I'm seeing it on a regular basis."