National Geographic News
All six members of the ShopGirls team take a lap with the Iron Maiden around the school track

The Granite Falls High School ShopGirls from Washington state test out the Iron Maiden for what they hope will be a record-breaking fuel-efficiency run. From left are Pooja Sethi, Hoa Nguyen, Shante Stowell, driver Sara Rood (seated), Katie Jackson and Semira Kern.

Photograph by Harley Soltes, National Geographic

Stacey Schultz in Granite Falls, Washington

For National Geographic News

Published April 6, 2011

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Amid the din of power tools, three girls stand huddled in a shop room around the car they helped design and build. The vehicle looks more like a go-cart than an actual car—and right now, the teenagers are focusing on the brakes.

(See Photo Gallery: High School 'ShopGirls' Design for the Prize)

Crafting a car that will stop properly, as well as coast smoothly, is one of the many challenges they face in their drive to set a new national record for fuel efficiency.

The trio are part of a six-member team called the ShopGirls at Granite Falls High School in Washington State. The team is gearing up for the second year to compete in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas. The Americas competition, scheduled for April 14-17 in Houston, Texas, pits teams of high school and college students against each other in a race to create the most energy-efficient vehicle. With similar races set for May in Lausitz, Germany, and July in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, it is part of a global effort that Shell* has been sponsoring for 26 years to stimulate student innovation and attention to saving fuel.

Raising the Bar

The pressure is on for the ShopGirls, the first all-girls team to compete in the Eco-marathon since it began in 1985. Last year, the team (five of the six members are returning from last year) earned first place in their energy class category—diesel vehicles—by completing the six-mile track at an efficiency mark of 470 miles per gallon (199.8 kilometers per liter). They also earned third place in safety out of 42 teams competing, the majority of them college teams. Both achievements came with cash prizes ($1,000 for the win, $500 for the safety prize) and plenty of accolades. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan even singled out the team for praise in a speech on the importance of career and technology education.

(Related: "Even Modest Increases in MPG Can Equal Big Gas Savings")

Now the girls hope to propel their school of 640 students, 40 miles northwest of Seattle, to even greater notice. They are aiming for fuel economy of 678 mpg, an achievement that would break the Shell Eco-marathon Americas record for diesel fuel efficiency by 100 mpg. (The previous mark was set by California's College of the Redwoods in 2009.) But to do that will take plenty of tweaks, adjustments, and wholesale modifications—including, they explain, on the brakes.

"Originally we had mechanical brakes on the front and basically, in order to get them to work well enough to meet Shell rules, we had to tighten them to the point where they were actually dragging on the brake discs all the time," said Shante Stowell, 18, a senior. "Now we're going to use hydraulic ones and they're not going to drag and will only touch the brake discs if we're actually braking."

Building a homemade high-efficiency vehicle that runs on diesel fuel, as opposed to gasoline, is not an easy undertaking. In mass-market autos, diesel engines vehicles—more popular in Europe than the United States—get better mileage than gasoline-powered spark-ignition engines, due to their higher thermal efficiency. But it's hard in a school shop to duplicate the commercial designs, including turbocharging, that regulate air reaching the combustion system. So to help their chances, the ShopGirls, in addition to changing the brakes, have been rebuilding and moving parts from outside the car to inside to make it more aerodynamic. It has been hands-on learning.

"The obvious things I've learned have been about manufacturing, like using tools and going from a design to an actual finished product," said Pooja Sethi, a 15-year-old sophomore. "And I think there are other things, like teamwork, that I've also learned."

An Educational Model

Some 31 college teams and 18 high school teams from the United States, Canada, and Mexico are participating in the Eco-marathon this year, and Granite Falls is fielding two of them.

In addition to the ShopGirls, the school has a coed team named UrbanAutos, which is entering a car in the relatively new "urban concept" car category, first introduced at the Shell Eco-marathon in 2009. The 15 teams in this category must build cars that would actually prove roadworthy; they look like small "smart cars." The ShopGirls' car, on the other hand, is among the majority of entries in the so-called "prototype" category; students concentrate on making the vehicles light and aerodynamic without any concern over whether they would safe to drive on actual roads in traffic.

(Related: "Hybrid Cars Losing Efficiency, Adding Oomph")

While Granite Falls' program is in just its third year—the first year a group of girls went to observe the race—it is already garnering national attention as a model for "career and technical education" (CTE).

"The United States has much to learn from other high-performing countries about strengthening and modernizing career and technical education," said Education Secretary Duncan at a Harvard University conference titled "Pathways to Prosperity" in February. "But one of my favorite examples of the new CTE is homegrown. It comes from Washington State, where the Granite Falls High School ShopGirls built homemade cars focused on fuel-efficient designs."

The program got off the ground with a $10,000 grant from the state superintendent's office for women in non-traditional roles. It is spearheaded by the school's manufacturing teacher, Michael Werner, a native of Switzerland, who previously worked as an endurance race car mechanic and restored vintage airplanes. "This is in line with what I believe must be a part of today's education," said Werner, who is now in his eighth year of teaching (his fourth at Granite Falls). "Real world, hands on."

Werner, himself a diesel car driver, thinks the diesel engine challenge has been a good one for the students. For one thing, there is less competition; only the ShopGirls and Pennsylvania State University competed with diesel engines last year, and this year there are only six diesel teams. But Werner also believes the ShopGirls' effort can help raise awareness of diesel as a viable fuel-saving alternative. And he has no qualms about either of the Granite Falls teams competing head-to-head against college students. They are "not biased towards an (over-) engineered solution," he explained in a recent e-mail, and have "the freedom to explore, often fail and pull it all together under the guidance and watchful eye of our volunteers from industry and myself."

(Related: "A Fuel-Saving Car Engine in the Blink of an Iris")

Hard-Won Skills

With Werner's guidance, the students design and build the cars, spending countless hours wielding tools and learning the intricate details of car manufacturing. "It's really rewarding to see how much our knowledge base has increased," said Semira Kern, a 15-year-old sophomore. She said last year the girls often had to ask Werner for help. "Now he can tell us do something and most of the work we can do by ourselves and even show newer people things that they don't know how to do."

These have been hard-won skills. Both teams are in the shop at 6:30 a.m. every day to work on the cars before the regular school day begins. They also come back to the shop twice a week after school and often on the weekends. It is a challenging schedule that can be fraught with difficulties.

"Sometimes you get up at 5:30 so you can be here by 6:30 and you have to redo something that you spent hours working on," said Kern, who recently had to remake a steering stop she built because the pieces were too thin. "You think, 'I don't want to be here anymore,' and then it's just reminding yourself that it's worth it. Going to the race is worth all the hard work and getting through setbacks."

Kern said she also became a better math student as a result of working in the shop. "Math wasn't my best subject but I've gotten better since I've started high school, and I think this program has probably helped," she said. "Instead of just finding the circumference, it's actually knowing the circumference and then working backwards to find the radius so we can make a wheel cover and it will fit perfectly."

Energy Needs

Outside the shop, Shante Stowell says the focus on fuel efficiency has made her more aware of her own energy consumption. "When I get in my car, I notice a lot more how much fuel my car is using," said Stowell, who plans to study engineering in college. "When I press the brake pedal I notice that's wasting one more little bit of fuel."

(Related:"Paths to the Future: Amory Lovins, Efficiency Advocate")

And Sethi says she now thinks about the need for alternative energy sources in the future. "We're teenagers and when we grow up we're going to have this problem later," she said. "We're going to have to be the ones to fix it so it's good that we're getting a head start on it right now rather than waiting."

A few of the girls have expressed interest in studying engineering in college, a goal that the school's director of CTE, Vervia Gabriel, credits to the manufacturing program. "I don't think the girls pictured themselves able to compete or perform at this level," said Gabriel. "I think their futures have been dramatically impacted by this. Now they have set their sights a whole lot higher than they ever would have before."

(Don't Miss Photo Gallery: High School 'ShopGirls' Design for the Prize)

* Shell is sponsor of National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.

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