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Solar Cats

Bath County students power up The Sun Surfer to place fourth in national race

Photo: John Slone
Photo: John Slone
Photo: John Slone
Photo: John Slone
Gavin Brown finishes the install of the Sun Surfer's windshield. Photo: Brian Coleman
Texas Motor Speedway nationals, where the team came in fourth place. Photo: Solar Car Challenge Foundation

Making the Solar Cats team was based on passion, not grades or skill. “We have no auto repair program here,” says Bath County High School teacher Brian Coleman, “so every student had to learn from scratch.”

The journey started a couple of years ago when Coleman purchased the back of a used dirt bike for $50 and donated it to the high school, where he is an information technology/computer science teacher. It ended in July 2019 with a national championship few could have predicted.

During that span of approximately 24 months, Coleman led a team of Bath County High students as they built a solar car from scratch, raised $24,000 for expenses, learned to race it, entered competitions and, against all odds, won fourth place overall in a national competition held at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

“As teachers, we are always looking for projects with real-world applications,” Coleman says. “I heard about the Solar Car Challenge, talked with Dr. Lehman Marks, president and race director of the Solar Car Challenge Foundation, and flew myself to Texas to research it further.”

Then it was “back to the future,” Bath County style. 

As in that ’70s movie where Doc Brown pieces together a one-of-a-kind car from odd parts, Coleman’s goal was to have his students do likewise.

The team had a lot to learn, including the intricacies of solar cars, the engineering basics, fundraising, computer programs, welding, public speaking and writing. Perhaps most daunting: this was a two-year program that would devour their time after school as well as their summer vacation.

Instruction was formatted on a just-in-time basis, with Coleman teaching the students what they would need for the next step as they moved through construction of the car. 

“It’s like trying to learn how to swim by being thrown in a lake— going right in the deep end,” says 2019 team member Maynard Reinhardt. 

Coleman says the students learned skills that had nothing to do with solar cars, such as teamwork. “They learned to think like a mechanical engineer, about graphics, about staying focused and getting the job done,” he says. “They worked after school every day until 8 or 9 o’clock without a single break except for five days during the summer. They became one of the best teams I’ve ever seen.” 

Marks, whose foundation is based in Plano, Texas, concurs. 

“We were excited that the Bath County team was the first school from Kentucky to register,” he says. “Brian Coleman did a remarkable job, and they had an outstanding car. The kids knew what they were doing, were very informed and represented themselves and Bath County very well.” 

The Solar Car Challenge started in 1993 with a school that had developed its own solar car but had no one else to race with, Marks says. Today, the race draws competitors from across the nation. Data shows that students who participate in the program are 23% more likely to enter careers in engineering or science. 

“This is a top STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program. The program equips them with life skills they really need, such as commitment, dedication and how to enjoy success and deal with failures,” says Marks.

Race time in Texas

The racing program begins with a three-day scrutinizing process. Advisors are not allowed to help as the students answer questions while inspectors comb through six inspection points. The Solar Cats’ car—named The Sun Surfer—had to be legally roadworthy for street driving. 

The goal for most first-timers is to go through this process, make modifications and come back to race the following year. However, Bath County High School’s car passed the first year, which is almost unheard of, and the team was permitted to race.

The students drove the car through laps for four days. At the end, they came in fourth place overall in their division.

The team couldn’t have enjoyed such success without help from others, including sponsors Clark Energy Cooperative, Winchester, and Fleming-Mason Energy Cooperative, Flemingsburg.

“Clark Energy is proud to support education, particularly in the next generation of energy professionals,” says Lois Hatton, marketing services coordinator for Clark Energy. “These students are learning about making solar energy and using it for transportation, which is one of the most energy-intensive areas. Their experience and the knowledge they gain is very practical and valuable.”

After their success, Coleman’s team didn’t quit. Instead, they became supervisors and instructors for new students entering the program. The goal now is to develop a self-sustaining program that will continue for years. 

“We surpassed our expectations by a lot,” says team member Jaycie Bussell. “It is amazing. I hope we can inspire other teams from Kentucky to make their programs and to learn new things, because this experience is honestly the best experience I’ve been through.” 

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