Dubai event rolls out the red carpet for Carbondale-based Solar Rollers
Dubai didn’t hold back in welcoming Carbondale’s Solar Rollers education team last month.
The organization’s first solar car race held abroad was more than a step out in the STEM-based education program’s effort to teach solar-electric concepts to high school students. It was a big step up in terms of event production and international exposure.
The Oct. 22 Shams Dubai Solar Rollers event was staged at the Dubai Autodrome, a Formula One race track, and backed by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority. It included a race track in the pit area, banners, a covered driver’s stand for the 17 teams, and a VIP-viewing area filled with some of the United Arab Emirates’ top energy officials.
In Solar Rollers, teams of students build a basic car with a solar panel on top and a remote-control motor. From there, they can work together to adapt the design to make the car go faster and run longer and more efficiently on a solar charge.
The invitation got its spark when a Solar Rollers delegation attended the 2016 World Energy Innovation Forum at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, Executive Director Noah Davis said.
“That event drew in people who have a high-level interest in energy-based solutions for climate change and where the clean energy industry is going,” he said.
Among them were representatives from Dubai, where the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority aims to install rooftop solar photovoltaic systems on every building in the city by 2030. To help educate the city of 3 million people about solar PV works, Solar Rollers was invited to stage an event there.
“It’s a fairly new concept over there,” Davis said. “So, we’re using Solar Rollers to teach high school kids how the entire clean energy systems work, and they can use that as an analog to teach adults how they might be able to put solar on the roof of their house.”
The project took several months of talks and sending proposals back and forth. During a trip to Dubai, representatives also distributed solar car kits to the 17 high school teams and conducted a workshop for the teachers and students. Davis got three weeks’ notice that the October race event was a go. His four-person crew, including wife Danika Davis and instructors Maciej Mrotek and Jayvin Krysch, were on their way to Dubai.
“It was a huge event and really well done,” Davis said. “Dubai has multiple sustainable and clean energy events all year long, and they are incredibly good at getting media attention.”
The 17 student teams represented a mix of United Arab Emirates high schools, as well as American, British and Indian international schools.
“The experience for the students was just absolutely unbelievable, because they got to take part in this event at this amazing facility, and they got to meet and spend time with some of the biggest energy decision makers in the world,” Davis said.
Several all-girl student teams also participated while wearing hijabs, the traditional headscarves worn by Muslim women.
“They were incredibly optimistic and resilient and working very hard on this technology,” Davis said. “It was very cool to observe.”
Davis noted that Dubai takes energy innovation seriously and is striving to become the most sustainable city in the world. A big part of that effort is tied to educating all ages about sustainability, in a country where 25 percent of the gross domestic product is spent on education.
The Dubai event was a learning experience, as well, for Solar Rollers and its nonprofit arm Energetics Ed. The 4-year-old program is rapidly growing its reach beyond Colorado.
Solar Rollers strives to “inspire young people to develop knowledge in the field of energy and empower them to improve the world’s energy systems,” according to its mission statement. “We teach energy education by challenging high school teams to design, build and race remote-controlled solar-powered cars.”
“For us, it’s all about learning to grow as a company to be able to serve the level of interest we’re seeing,” Davis said. “It was really good for us to run an event like the one in Dubai so that we can see where we’re heading in terms of production. They set a really high level for us and made us realize we have a lot that we need to improve.”
On the domestic front, Solar Rollers featured 21 high school teams that participated at the state event in Denver in May. Gov. John Hickenlooper was on hand to give out the awards, and a follow-up event in June attracted teams from other states. The current year includes 30 Colorado teams.
Solar Rollers also travels to Earth Day Texas. Last April, 15 high school teams were involved in that event, which was part of the biggest Earth Day event in the world.
This past year, Solar Rollers has reached 150 students, including the 82 students who participated in the Dubai event.
“We’re also talking to Houston, Silicon Valley and possibly New York for 2018,” Davis said.
Whether those events come together will depend on lining up financial sponsors, volunteers and other support.
“The events are really starting to become a lot more dynamic,” he added. “When we started building these cars we were barely able to make them move for an hour. We gave them to the high school students and let them start innovating, and they’ve really pushed it to another level.”
Solar Rollers continues to line up new donors, sponsors and other types of support to fund the program and help it grow. For more information, visit the Solar Rollers website at solarrollers.org.
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