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March 28, 2017

SunChase races help STEM students see the light

Sophomore Gabriella Giliberti has a couple more years of college ahead of her, but the civil engineering major already has post-FGCU plans that pair her passions.

Gabriella Giliberti

“I just want to build stuff,” the 20-year-old Cape Coral native says. “I want to pursue something with solar technology and sustainability integrated into buildings and bridges or whatever. Math has been my favorite subject since first grade. I really liked physics in high school, and I’m all about solar power.”

That enthusiasm was sparked, at least in part, by Giliberti’s early experience with FGCU’s SunChase Solar Challenge, an annual competition in which teams from area high schools retrofit go-karts with solar panels and batteries and then race the contraptions by harnessing the power of sunlight. This year’s races start at 11 a.m. Saturday on the campus loop; spectators are welcome to watch the action from the second and third levels of Parking Garage 2, which is adjacent to the finish line and pits.

Giliberti, 20, first got involved in SunChase as a junior at North Fort Myers High School – in 2014, her team won first place in the speed race. Now, as an Eagle, she volunteers any way she can, from mentoring racers to inspecting go-karts to recording race times.

“Seeing the high school students excited about it gets you excited about it and about what they’re going to do with they come here,” she says. “This is what got me interested in sustainable energy.”

SunChase is a joint project of the Whitaker Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education and the U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering at FGCU. In addition to the go-kart races for high schoolers, the event features elementary school teams competing with mini solar vehicles they’ve built and middle-schoolers racing remote-controlled solar cars.

Giliberti first heard about the competition from a high school chemistry teacher who was an FGCU alum. She recalls hours spent after school with a handful of dedicated science club members customizing kart designs for optimal solar collection and aerodynamics. The vehicles can reach 30-35 mph. While some of her high school peers were more into the racing aspect of SunChase, she enjoyed applying math and science on a project outside the classroom.

“I’m a hands-on learner,” she says. “Activities like this reinforce what you’re learning. You see how it’s going to be useful.”

Giliberti hardly needs to tell you she’s an official Engineering Ambassador — her activities speak for her. She’s active in several engineering clubs, serves as a teaching assistant for introductory engineering and mentors middle-school students in FGCU’s GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math and Science) program. She’ll be paddling along with her peers in the Rotary Club of Cape Coral’s annual Cardboard Boat Regatta on April 22 at Four Freedoms Park. As a freshman, she collaborated with faculty on research into electric bicycles that was published in Aquila – The FGCU Student Research Journal.

“I really love the engineering program,” Giliberti says. “The professors really want to work with you and see you succeed. You really have a personal connection with them.”

  • FGCU student can receive service-learning hours for volunteering with this STEM event. Sign up here and get a free T-shirt and pizza lunch.
  • More SunChase details