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By Nancy Hahn

The STEM program at Wheat Ridge High School has an impressive record. In 2016 its students designed, built and raced its first vehicle, a hydrogen fuel cell powered car, at the Shell Eco Challenge, a fuel efficiency competition in Detroit, and took first place. Just last month in Sonoma, Calif., it entered two vehicles into the competition, both passing a demanding technical inspection and one placing third.

STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) is a class that requires students to ask questions and then discover how to find the answer. Charles Sprague, who teaches STEM, explained that this is not a class where the teacher knows all the answers.

Sprague invited me to visit the STEM workshop over spring break – about a week before competition – and watch the students at work. While their fellow students were on break, these were focused and readying their projects.

Students moved from one classroom to another: from vehicles, to computers, to white boards, to notebooks and back to vehicles. The variety of work and skills required of students provides a way for every student to shine. Imagine all the steps from design to finished vehicle. These students are passionate about their work.

What is it about STEM that engages students this completely?

"The work I'm doing here builds valuable skills for the job market," student Ali Hilton explained, "You are doing real work."

Another student found that a part was the wrong size and had to brainstorm a solution, since there was not time to make another. It was a real-life problem with a real-life solution, involving a lot of elbow grease.

Every student had their reasons to be in STEM and to be there during spring break. Students enjoy designing, hands-on work, technology, and manufacturing a real working vehicle. It takes work on the computer, cooperation with others, figuring out what question to ask, figuring out how to find the answer, and a lot of physical work, too. Two students, for example, were sawing the legs off a chair to use on a human-powered Mars Rover. Two other students were drawing diagrams on the board. All sorts of work done by all sorts of students.

I asked a student what is it about STEM that makes him willing to work over spring break.

"You aren't just solving a made-up problem on a piece of paper that you throw away," he explained. "You are solving real problems that matter in the real world."

That says it all.

This year the students built two vehicles to compete in the Eco Marathon, and a rover for a NASA competition in Alabama.

For the Eco Marathon, one vehicle was designed and built to compete in the Prototype category, and another for the Urban Concept category – a first for Wheat Ridge.

Both vehicles are powered by hydrogen, using a fuel cell. Hydrogen gas is pumped from a bottle into the fuel cell, which has a membrane separating the gas from the atmosphere. In the membrane, hydrogen combines with oxygen from the atmosphere, creating electricity as the electrons are stripped off, as well as water and heat. The electricity runs to a motor controller and then an electric motor, although each vehicle has a different driveshaft. This year's Prototype entry featured a hub motor, similar to that of an e-bike.

Although the Prototype vehicle placed third – earning the team a spot on the award podium – Sprague said Wheat Ridge became the first Colorado high school to get two cars through the technical inspection and race at the same competition. Teams sometimes don't make it past the inspection.

The technical inspection requires vehicles to visit 10 different stations before being allowed on the track, Sprague explains. One is a test to get the driver out of the car in 10 seconds.  Another examines the electric vehicle's wiring harness. A manufacturing station checks for sharp edges and compliance with guidelines. At the hydrogen station, fuel cells are checked for leaks and other problems.

"Those are the big ones. Basically, it's for safety and compliance with the rules. They put little stickers on the car before they can go on the race track."

It's the second year STEM students entered the NASA rover competition. Like last year's design, two student drivers sit back-to-back in the rover.

Changes from last year's design included creating wheels with tread like a tank and a lighter hub than last year's, Ali Hilton explained.

Sprague said this year's design was more complex, a completely different chassis design, made out of carbon fiber tubes, aluminum plates and clamps.

Unfortunately, it wasn't able to compete.

"The students weren't able to get it finished on time so we are turning it into a two-year project and we will be competing next year," Sprague explained later.

Next year's Prototype entry has been designed and is ready to manufacture, said Sprague, and the Urban Concept entry will be designed over the summer. The student teams will be almost the same as this year's.

"The majority of design starts in the fall, but this year we're ahead of game, and the design is almost complete," he said. "Then we teach the students how to build."

J. Patrick O'Leary contributed to this story.