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Your Guide to the Solar Car Challenge - 8 Tips to Help You Win

If you are passionate about STEM, entering various STEM competitions can be a great way to showcase your knowledge and stand out on college applications. In this blog, we will take you through the Solar Car Challenge, its structure, prizes, eligibility, prestige, and 8 tips to help you win!


What is the Solar Car Challenge?

For all lovers of science and technology, the Solar Car Challenge is the competition for you! Established in 1993, the competition is designed to promote STEM education and inspire high school students to explore careers in science and engineering while highlighting sustainable transportation solutions.


Participants will form teams to design, build, and race their own solar-powered cars. This challenge provides students with hands-on experience in engineering, physics, aerodynamics, and renewable energy technologies.


The tournament includes both regional and national races where students can test their solar cars against those built by other teams



Dates and Deadlines


A team can fill out the “intent to race” form anytime between September 1st and January 31st. This notifies the event of your team’s intention to participate in the Solar Car Challenge


By March 1st, teams will be required to fill out the File Registration Document. This document includes the official registration document, your team’s proposal, and the registration fee. Find out more about how to fill out these documents and the specific rules of the competition here.


If chosen to participate, the actual duration of the Solar Car Challenge can vary depending on the specific competition or event within the program. There are several stages and components to the Solar Car Challenge.

  • Regional Qualifiers: some Solar Car Challenge programs have regional qualifiers or preliminary events where teams compete to earn a spot in the national competition. These qualifiers occur later in the year and are typically held over a few days

  • National or International Race: the culminating event of the Solar Car Challenge is the National or International Solar Car Race. During the National Race, top performers from all regional events are asked to come together to compete. During the International Race, top performers from all national events come together to compete. This event can last several days, with teams from different regions or countries coming together to compete



Eligibility


Teams, including drivers, must consist of high school students in grades 9-12. Team members must be from the same school district. Any number of people may form a team; however, the event suggests a manageable core team of approximately 12 members. There must be at least two drivers who have valid driver’s licenses.



Prizes


The prizes awarded in the Solar Car Challenge can vary depending on the specific competition or event within the program. Prizes may include:


  1. Trophies and Awards: Most Solar Car Challenge events offer trophies, plaques, or medals to recognize the achievements of participating teams. These awards can be given for various categories, including overall performance, innovation, design, safety, and more

  2. Cash Prizes: The larger national or international events offer cash prizes for top-performing teams.

  3. Sponsor Prizes: Sponsors of the Solar Car Challenge may offer additional prizes, such as equipment, technology, or resources related to solar power, engineering, or STEM education

  4. Internship opportunities: Some sponsors or partner companies may provide internship opportunities to high-performing participants



Is the Solar Car Challenge Prestigious?


The Solar Car Challenge is considered a well-known and prestigious competition for high school students, attracting teams from around the country and even around the world. The Solar Car Challenge has won many awards for the opportunities it provides students. It was recently awarded the 2023 NBCUniversal Foundation Award, and named as one of Technology & Learning Magazine’s Top 10 Most Innovative Education Programs. All of these recognitions add further prestige to the challenge. Highly competitive, there are only a few regional winners and even fewer national winners. To win the Solar Car Challenge shows one’s skill level, teamwork capabilities, and passion for engineering.



8 Tips to Help You Win


The Solar Car Challenge can be a difficult competition to navigate when one is new to the game. We’ve compiled a list of 8 tips to help you approach the challenge with the best possible odds of winning!


1. Make sure you know the rules!


One of the best things you can do is familiarize yourself with the specific rules and regulations of the Solar Car Challenge event you are entering. You can find the full list of rules for the 2023-2024 event here. The worst thing you can do is build a car without knowing all of the regulations and then have your car disqualified once you get to the event. For example, there are maximum dimensions that your car needs to follow: maximum length of 5 meters, maximum height of 1.6 meters, and maximum width of 1.8 meters. There are safety regulations, warning systems, battery restrictions, and more, all detailed in the rulebook. It’ll be essential to know these rules inside and out!


2. Prepare well in advance

We recommend that you start planning and building your solar car far before the competition begins. The teams who spend the most time with their car are likely the ones with a better understanding of their car, and thus a higher chance of winning. Starting early means your team will have more time to design, test, and refine your vehicle, taking care of all the little details that might make the difference between winning and losing. Start thinking about your car as soon as you can: more time will give you the biggest cushion for fixing potential mistakes in the process and the highest chance of entering the competition with a car you are 100% proud of.


3. Get to know your team


The Solar Car Challenge is a team-based competition. This means effective communication and collaboration will be key. Take moments to get to know each other one-on-one and take into account everyone’s strengths, weaknesses, ideas, and interests. This will lead to effective delegation, as your team will then be able to assign roles and responsibilities based on each member’s strengths and interests. Ultimately, you are each other’s resource. One of the biggest factors that could lead to success is building a car and a team that each one of you has contributed to and has deep investment and passion for.


4. Learn from previous competitors


Past winners can be found on the Solar Car Challenge website here. On this page, you’ll be able to see the top 4 or 5 teams for each division and day of the tournament. If you click on a team, you’ll be directed to a page with information about that team and their design. For example, here is the page for the Okemos Solar Racing Club, the first-place winner of last year’s classic division. You now have access to their team site, with information about their process and members, as well as data on the vehicle. This is very valuable information. Past winners are great examples for you, as they serve as an “ideal” model of what you can do to win: you can now see what kind of batteries they used, how large their solar cells were, what motor they used, what the ideal vehicle height may be. You can even reach out to the members of that team and ask for advice!



Okemos Solar Racing Club’s Vehicle Data
Okemos Solar Racing Club’s Vehicle Data


5. Test your car again and again


Your team should commit to regularly testing your solar car design. This is the only way to identify weaknesses and areas for improvement and make the necessary adjustments before the actual race. Testing the car again and again is also a great way to make sure your drivers are super comfortable with navigating the cars and will be able to adjust quickly if there is a potential issue. The best way to get better is to practice more.


6. Focus on efficiency


Focus on maximizing the energy efficiency of your solar car. You’ll want to develop a strong understanding of the technical aspects of your solar car, including the solar panels, battery system, motor, and more. Learn which solar panels are most efficient. Learn what materials can best optimize both weight and functionality. Learn what ways of charging your battery are most efficient. Learn what kind of aerodynamic design would be best for your car. These kinds of commitments to optimized efficiency will give you a faster and faster car, and a better and better performance.


7. Plan your race strategy carefully


Planning your race strategy carefully means understanding the race route, weather conditions, and how to make the most of available sunlight for your solar panels. It also means being able to adjust quickly if something goes wrong. Once you know the route, try to replicate the route with your team on your own. This way, you can mimic any real-life problems and solutions and really familiarize yourself with your team’s strategy. There are also plenty of videos online of previous cars’ race routes. For example, here is the Prosper Engineering Team demonstrating how to pass one of the solar car tests. There are also plenty of photos and videos from every year and every event provided for you here. Learn from these to come up with an optimal strategy for your upcoming event.


8. Don’t forget to work on your proposal


Once you submit your team’s proposal, your proposal will be evaluated by the judges and sponsors of the event to determine whether or not your team will gain entry. This means your proposal can’t be something your team whips up a day before it’s due. You’ll need to put lots of time and thought into this proposal: make sure you take into account exactly why you want to participate, what your team’s goals are, and what value you think your team will be able to add to the competition. Prepare a compelling presentation about your solar car, its design, and your team’s journey. This will be the best way to impress judges and sponsors and ensure a spot in the race.



If you are passionate about research then you could consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 2100 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.


Amelia is a current senior at Harvard College studying art history with a minor in economics. She’s enthusiastic about music, movies, and writing, and is excited to help Veritas AIs students as much as she can!




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