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2012 June 11 - 12:00 am

STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Va. Students Learn by Doing in Buggy Design Competition

 AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Eric Brady

Gary Young, second from right, faculty advisor of the Baja Lab at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke, Va., talks with students (left to right) Colin Butler Mike Wilkinson, Elle Rakes and Paul Hill about the car the students designed and built. Virginia Western is one of only three community colleges participating in the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Mini Baja Competition.    

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — As his team unveiled its off-road buggy in front of a crowd of about 50 outside of Webber Hall earlier this year, Mike Wilkinson said he had a good feeling about the model.

The team leader and three-year veteran of the Virginia Western Community College Mini Baja Team said at this point two years ago, the team had only a frame with wheels on it; now they say they have a chance at earning one of the top spots at an international collegiate design series competition.

The Virginia Western team has been test-driving and making modifications to its vehicle before competing in the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Mini Baja Competition. About 120 teams from around the globe will attend the three-part competition in Madison, Wis. The competition includes static events such as engine and technical inspections, a test of the car’s dynamics such as maneuverability, and a four-hour endurance race.

The Society of Automotive Engineers gives each team a 10-horsepower engine and a 63-page rule book, and from there they build a single seat off-road buggy with a roll cage.

Building a vehicle nearly from scratch and competing in a race is no small feat for any group of college students. It’s even more difficult for a community college team.

Virginia Western is one of only three community colleges that participate in the competition, said Paul Hill, another team leader.

It costs the Virginia Western team about $20,000 to build the car and send students to the competition, faculty adviser Gary Young said. The college provides half of the money, and the team is responsible for coming up with the rest.

Virginia Western has a smaller budget than other schools, Young said. So team members can’t afford to outsource projects and must build nearly everything by hand, Wilkinson said, meaning they often have to go back and learn how to fix what they originally created.

“They understand the trouble and the difficulties of designing something that’s not correct,” Young said. “If they put something in there that’s very difficult to manufacture, then they see firsthand why it was a bad idea instead of having someone else fix the mistake for them.”

The Virginia Western team is a one-credit capstone project, though being on the team can feel more like a job at times, students said. They are required to put in 10 hours a week, but the team expects more, Wilkinson said. He said he has been putting in at least 30 hours each week.

As students just starting to learn the material at a two-year college, they often don’t have the skills that the more experienced competitors do. Tasks such as welding, steering geometry and computer-aided design are things they need to know in order to be serious contenders but don’t learn until they are upperclassmen and transfer to a four-year college, Wilkinson said. So they have to teach themselves.

“At Virginia Tech they do this as seniors. We have to do this as freshmen,” Hill said.

A student who earns an associate degree with a GPA of 3.0 or higher at Virginia Western is guaranteed admission to the general school of engineering at Virginia Tech. Some join the Baja team at Virginia Tech, which consistently places in the top 10 at SAE competitions.

“I’ve been on both sides of the aisle, and I know that when they transfer to Virginia Tech they’re prepared. They come in and they’re able to keep up with the students who have been here for two years already,” said Dewey Spangler, a former assistant professor at Virginia Western who heads the Ware Lab for engineering projects at Virginia Tech.

While the Virginia Western team faces more challenges than the average university team would, they have one key advantage: hands-on experience from Day One.

“Our Baja team really likes those kinds of students because they have been to competitions and know how to make things better ahead of time. Someone who doesn’t have that experience can’t offer that kind of input,” Spangler said.

For a relatively small team with little funding, they know how to compete with the bigger schools. The Virginia Western team has finished in the top 20 in individual events in the past and placed 53rd overall out of more than 100 in 2008, Young said.

While they are hoping to earn one of the top spots this year, many say the outcome isn’t nearly as important as what they learn in the process.

“I promise that this will change their lives if they let it,” Young said. “It completely changes the way they approach education.”

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