LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 17, 2023) — Dozens of schools across the Commonwealth want to join a STEM-based program run by the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER).
The GEN-EV program teaches students engineering and team-based skills while they work on an exciting project: designing, building and racing an electric car.
“When I make a presentation on this program, one of my first questions to the audience is, ‘How many of you know a fourth grader that can look at a wiring diagram and wire a car?’ Unless you know some kid in this program, nobody knows one,” said Shiela Medina, CAER’s assistant director for policy and engagement, who is also the GEN-EV program director. “I now know 200 kids that can do that in fourth and fifth grade. That is amazing.”
Medina has roughly 50 schools, mostly middle and high schools, interested in joining the program, which means she needs $500,000 for electric car kits.
“I am overwhelmed with schools. CAER is launching a development program to be able to raise money just to buy cars. Right now, I have about 48 schools or school systems that are waiting for cars,” said Medina.
The STEM education program is primarily in elementary schools for now, with more than a dozen schools already participating. It starts with fourth graders and other levels continue through middle and high school. The program is generally run as an afterschool club made up of 10 to 15 students spending a semester building the car.
“They learn physics concepts. They learn about transportation, different types of fuels in transportation, and those sorts of things,” said Medina. “There is a team commitment form. Students have to be there every time, keep their grades up and have good behavior.
“I had one principal tell me, ‘This is a sport disguised as a STEM education program.’”
Elementary school students build the Goblin car. The cars are pushed to start with speeds topping out at 15 miles per hour. Middle and high schoolers build the F-24 which can reach speeds of 25 miles per hour.
CAER sends a car kit filled with nuts, bolts, batteries, tires, wheels and other car pieces to participating schools. For the first year of the program, elementary schools were also given the tools needed for construction.
“But we do not give them everything they need,” said Medina. “They need gloves, helmets, pizza for their club, team T-shirts and travel expenses. They must either write letters or go out and make presentations to companies and ask for money for their club. Remember, these are fourth graders.”
On race day for Goblin-level teams, winning the race is half of a team’s score with their presentation to the judges the other half. Students have to tell the judges about their teams, how they worked together and what they learned.
“It was very clear where the leaders were, the students who were natural leaders, and how they were developing their little teams within their team. It was awesome,” said Medina.
The program is looking to expand GEN-EV racing into Eastern Kentucky and introduce more students to the electric car industry as the Commonwealth ramps up manufacturing.
“We’ve lost a lot of jobs in the coal industry,” said Medina. “We're looking to bring new industries in to bolster the economy, and we’ve got to prepare those kids.”
Medina also plans to take a Goblin and F-24 car to the Hardin County area where construction is underway at the 1,500-acre campus that will include twin plants rolling out EV batteries in 2025 to supply Ford plants across North America.
“We would like companies like that to be able to help sponsor the program because we are creating their workforce,” said Medina. “We’re not just developing the students. We’re developing the teachers. They’re learning about manufacturing in the future for the state.”
Program leaders are working with the Kentucky Department of Education on career and technical education and workforce development. State leaders have already shown interest in the program. Last October, GEN-EV racing was recognized at the Governor's Conference on Energy and the Environment. Students from Lexington’s Rise STEM Academy for Girls and Cassidy Elementary attended the second day of the conference.
“They did very well. Those girls would walk up to people standing around and say, ‘Can you come over here? I want to tell you about my car.’ Look at what we’re developing from a young age,” said Medina.
Medina says the program is worth it to introduce students to a variety of concepts early on and to see them have fun.
“You see those kids smiling, that’s my favorite part. Because they’ve gained so much within themselves,” said Medina. “I mean, it’s incredible what those kids have done.”
Companies interested in volunteering at future race days can reach out to Shiela Medina (firstname.lastname@example.org). Anyone interested in sponsoring teams can contact Dave Melanson (email@example.com).
You can learn more about GEN-EV racing online here.
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