Every day, North Haven Community School’s student-built electric vehicle gets used for its intended purpose: carrying single or multiple passengers for school-related trips on North Haven. The vehicle is a converted Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro with four-wheel drive and seating for seven. It looks and operates like a conventional vehicle, but at the end of the day, after Jessica MacDonald, the school’s secretary, has dropped off the superintendent at the ferry and picked up the mail, she plugs the van into an electrical outlet rather than filling it up with gas (which currently costs $2.20 a gallon on the island). The vehicle’s range between recharges is 50 miles at highway speeds, and further at low speeds, such as those that are typical on the island.

We originally set out to build this vehicle in order to provide an integrated educational program for the students while at the same time creating a green transportation alternative for the school.

The project emerged from a class called “Project Physics.” Essentially, it’s an engineering course with vocational components in welding, electronics, mechanics, and fabrication. All of the physics concepts are connected to real-world applications.

This project included all of our 11th and 12th grade students (18 students) over the last two years. All of the theoretical work had applications on the vehicle. During a typical three-hour class period, the first part would consist of a lecture or demonstration about a concept of physics – such as magnetism or battery chemistry – then we would shift over to the shop to apply that theory to our work on the vehicle. Students divided themselves up into teams, each of which was responsible for taking some aspect of the project from design to construction and testing.

As a part of the project, we drew in island experts in electronics, welding and fabrication – not to do the work for us, but to teach us how to do the work for ourselves. Boat electrician Phil des Lauriers’ interest in electric vehicles was the inspiration for the project, and Phil consulted on the wiring and connection of our components. Of the project, Phil says, “The enthusiasm of these students for learning and doing is one of the things that makes a project like this one worthwhile. There is no substitute for hands-on learning to instill in students a desire to understand.”

The island’s sole welder, Guy Hurd, taught a semester-long course in welding to interested students. Mina Bartovics, a senior who worked with Guy, said, “It’s wonderful to learn about electric vehicles and electrical engineering, but I walk away with much more if I actually do it. In any other place, not only might a professional welder be unwilling to teach, but a school might not allow the lessons to happen due to liability concerns, and that would be a shame. Guy is a natural teacher, and the truly unique experience that I had while welding the battery boxes will stay with me the rest of my life.”

Even though safety is a critical, ongoing component of the electric vehicle project, liability concerns on the part of an uninformed or unsympathetic school board could shut down a project like this one. Fortunately, our school board is just as concerned about bearing the responsibility for inspiring young minds as it is about its responsibility for accidental shocks or battery acid splashes and has supported the project from its inception.

Our standards for quality of design and construction had to be high – the vehicle would be used to transport schoolchildren and staff, and would be driven by a wide range of people. The operative phrase during construction was that “We want it to look like it rolled off the assembly line in Wolfsburg, Germany.” Among the resources that helped us to create a safe, practical vehicle were the Maine State Police and the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). Early on, we talked with Sgt. Cousins, the Maine State Police officer responsible for inspecting our school bus. He helped guide us in the process of creating an inspectable, legal vehicle.

We were well into the project before we decided to enter the Tour de Sol, and honestly, receiving the half-inch thick rulebook was a bit depressing. But as we read through the rules and technical requirements, we found that we were already building our vehicle in accordance with the bulk of the requirements. Where we weren’t already meeting them, NESEA requirements made good sense, and we were happy to comply with them. NESEA Tour de Sol Technical Director Spencer Quong provided valuable guidance via e-mail as we developed our energy storage system.

The Tour de Sol (The Great American Green Transportation Festival) traveled from Washington, D.C. to New York City over the course of five days. On the tour we found that the van gets the equivalent of 59.6 miles per gallon, based on the amount of fossil fuel that needs to be burned in order to produce the electricity it uses to travel that distance. Currently, students are working on a project to make the electric vehicle completely “green” by creating a combination solar panel and wind turbine setup capable of generating all of the electricity that the vehicle will use during the year. When this is accomplished, we will be the first net-metering customer on our local electric cooperative’s grid.

One of my students, a 17-year-old named Joan, told me a story the other day: she had hit something with the bottom of her car, and thought her dad would be angry, so she wanted to check the car out before he got home. She told her mom that she was going out to the garage to jack up the car and check out its underside. Her mom initially said: “What? You can’t do that!” But Joan could, and perhaps more importantly, she had the confidence to know that she could.

Almost a year after the vehicle’s completion, it is still reliably doing the work that it was designed to do. For me, that’s the real test, and the students’ ideas and work are up to the challenge. In educational jargon, this is called “authentic assessment,” and it is.

John Dietter teaches math and science at North Haven Community School. A longer version of this story ran in the Spring 2003 issue of the Northeast Sun, published by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.