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April 3, 2019

Go-kart races challenge students to navigate STEM

Students and faculty at Bishop Verot Catholic High School in Fort Myers initially took a measured approach to competing in the solar go-kart races at Florida Gulf Coast University.

First, they saw an FGCU-made kart on display at another local race. Then they learned FGCU had a grant enabling the university to provide karts, solar panels and other key parts to schools. This dramatically reduced the private school’s cost to compete, “so we were able to begin a solar go-kart team,” says Kurt Prey, a chemistry teacher who would become advisor to Verot’s fledgling team, which first competed in FGCU’s annual contest in 2014.

Bishop Verot then fired up its solar-powered engines and passed the competition. The school has participated five times, winning twice, and will return this year for the seventh annual SunChase High School Solar Go-Kart Challenge.

The competition will be held April 6 on the FGCU campus and followed by solar challenges for middle and elementary school students in the afternoon.

High school racing teams will line up Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at Garage 2, site of the start/finish line. Spectators are encouraged to arrive by 9:30 a.m. to avoid traffic congestion on campus and can park in Lot 7; viewing is best upstairs in Garage 2.

Bishop Verot senior Julian Perez, who is in his third year on the team, says the competition has greatly increased his interest in subjects such as physics and chemistry to learn how the go-karts and solar panels work and how teams can improve them.

Through the annual solar challenges, FGCU encourages K-12 students to practice critical thinking and problem solving and develop science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills, according to Laura Frost, director of FGCU’s Whitaker Center for STEM Education. It’s never too early to get them thinking about college degrees that prepare them for rewarding, good-paying careers in growing STEM fields.

Community engagement like this is part of the mission of the Whitaker Center as well as the university as a whole. For the initial competition in 2013, FGCU gave sets of go-karts and solar panels to five area high schools, whose teams built solar-powered vehicles and brought them to race on campus. FGCU students also built a kart that year.

This year, 16 teams will compete, including schools from Lee and Collier counties and Miami (including the defending champion).

Teams will arrive on Friday, April 5, for safety inspections and to give presentations to judges, including a renewable energy specialist, the FGCU alum who built the school’s first kart and faculty from the U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering.

High school students and teachers work on their entries after school, usually spending hundreds of hours designing and testing before the competition. Go-karts are capable of reaching speeds of about 30 mph.

“We meet many times to discuss changes to our kart and prepare for the presentation, along with making improvements to the kart,” says Verot veteran Perez, 18. “During this time it’s very easy for people of any grade who is interested to discuss both the kart and just interact.”

Prey says the event has helped his students learn a variety of hands-on skills related to building solar-powered vehicles and understanding the science of how they work. They also hone soft skills such as how to organize and execute a presentation.

Another reason that FGCU’s annual SunChase High School Solar Go-Kart Challenge is more than just fun in the sun.