Solar Rollers takes show to the big city on Saturday

Solar Roller race cars line up at the start of last year's competition held at Big Horn Toyota in Glenwood Springs. This year's event runs Saturday at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
David Sellmeyer photo |

A homegrown renewable energy education program based in Carbondale is taking its solar-powered student showcase to play what should be its biggest audience ever this weekend.

The traditional end-of-school-year Solar Rollers competition, which has been held at different venues in the Roaring Fork Valley for the past three years, will be taking place Saturday at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

“This is a really big step for us,” said Jackie Francis, director of partnerships for Energetics Education, the organization that introduced the Solar Rollers program into schools throughout Colorado’s high country.

The museum sees upwards of 10,000 visitors on a typical Saturday, she said, so a captive audience will be on hand to check out what’s new with solar technology and perhaps spark the interest of younger students.

“We decided it’s time to become something bigger and more focused on a national level,” Francis said. “A lot of the issues of climate change, sustainability and science education are coming together to make this program relevant on a broader scale.”

Student teams from area high schools, including Glenwood Springs, Yampah, Roaring Fork and Basalt, have been busy for the past several months designing, building and testing their custom solar-powered remote control cars.

Twelve different teams are expected to compete at the year-end event starting Saturday morning on the grounds of the museum, including the one-hour main circuit race starting at 12:56 p.m., which is “solar noon.”

Solar Rollers has grown in just three years to include several high schools across the region and now involves about 80 students.

Some schools have begun incorporating the program into their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, while others offer it as an extracurricular after-school program, Francis said.

Solar Rollers founder and Energetics Education Executive Director Noah Davis said his hope is to generate interest on the Front Range and begin to attract teams from the metro-area schools.

The program has been in development for three years with high school teams expanding to Eagle and Summit counties more recently.

“We are thrilled to come down from the hills to debut the program at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science,” Davis said.

The student-built cars are about the size of a doormat, equipped with sophisticated solar electric, lithium storage and brushless motor technologies. Some of the cars can travel at more than 30 mph.

“Each team has access to the same amount of sunlight so the team and their car must manage energy effectively,” Davis explained.

The Solar Rollers program is designed to teach hands-on electrical and mechanical engineering, photovoltaics, energy storage and energy efficiency.

Jon Fox-Rubin, who as CEO of the former FiberForge company arranged to donate carbon fiber when Solar Rollers first got started, now sits on the organization’s board of directors.

“I knew it was engaging for the students and that they were doing incredible work on these cars,” he said. “But I didn’t actually realize how much they were getting out of it until I came to my first race as a judge. It’s something to see.”

Francis said that schools in California are interested in starting their own Solar Rollers league, and top colleges are beginning to take notice.

“We hope to see this following the model of First Robotics,” she said of the nationally recognized science and technology program that has grown in popularity with its Lego leagues and robotics competitions.

“Our program is designed to be anything that a host schools wants it to be,” Francis said. “We would love to have more non-teachers involved, and attract anyone who wants to learn about energy systems.”

For Saturday’s event, on-track racing will be ongoing between 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Trophies will be awarded for six separate competitions, including an academic panel quiz, top speed runs and circuit racing.

Some competitions are also run without energy storage, using only the real-time power of sunlight hitting the team’s hand-built solar array.

The public is invited to come out and watch the race for free. Companies including Tesla Motors will host displays and educational tables to explain electric vehicles, solar electricity, battery storage and more.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is located at 2001 Colorado Blvd., on the grounds at City Park.

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