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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Nerd Girls design solar powered car for seven-day race across Australia in 2009

Nerd Girls, a group of female engineers at Tufts, made progress over the summer in designing and building a solar car that they will race across Australia next October in the 2009 World Solar Challenge.

Karen Panetta, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, started Nerd Girls 10 years ago to expose young female engineers to large-scale projects and interdisciplinary research.

The solar car construction project was started two years ago, but its development really picked up speed over the summer. Corporate sponsors like Textron Inc., MathWorks and Verizon provided the team with summer scholarships to work on the car.

"One of the things about this summer is that we were able to work on [the car] full-time and not on top of other schoolwork. That really gave us the opportunity to get a better sense of the car as a whole," said senior Courtney Mario, one of the project leaders.

The team made many improvements to the solar car, the most significant being a shift to lithium ion batteries in response to changes in the weight regulations of the competition. The car now uses more efficient solar cells and has additional safety features, including cameras for backing up, a healthier ventilation system, a dual braking system and a Kevlar-lined cockpit to protect the driver.

One of the main goals of Nerd Girls is to provide girls with access to industry professionals with real world experience. Tufts alumnus Matthew Heller (E '97), an engineer at Aastra Technologies Ltd., and Richard Colombo, an engineer at IMPACT Science and Technology, volunteer as mentors and help the group break down the project into manageable pieces.

Industry professionals have evaluated the car design to ensure that it meets real design criteria and is feasible. "They know a lot of hands-on stuff and help to bridge the gap between what we know and [the actual designing]," said senior Perry Ross, the second project leader.

"We can get a very good understanding of the general electrical concepts but not really understand the little details, and they can really help explain those," Mario added.

Nerd Girls' work on the solar car earned them an invitation to the Australia challenge. The seven-day-long race will begin in Darwin and end in Adelaide.

The race poses particular challenges for the car's design. "Vehicles have to be built to face wind storms and very rugged terrain. Also, you have to be aware of climate changes," Panetta said.

While the Nerd Girls face financial constraints and lack the budgets that other professional teams have, they remain confident that they will be competitive with a design that makes the most out of available resources. "The design is thoroughly researched, applying lessons learned in the classroom. It is very good for their level. The project is a multi-disciplinary effort that is very real world. I think their chances are quite good," Heller told the Daily.

"The Nerd Girls have a very small budget and we go slower because we don't have the financial resources. But at the same time, we're showing how part of engineering is being able to design with limited resources, and that's a very valuable experience," Panetta said. "You're going to have to be much smarter and more efficient about your design."

The team is currently working on a wooden frame prototype and hopes to complete it by April. While the team is happy with the design, its main concern is financial. "There's a tradeoff between money going towards building the car, shipping it, registration fees and spending seven days there. So now we're in a massive fundraising process hoping we can get all the money needed," Panetta said.

According to Heller, although Nerd Girls would like to win the competition, they are limited by budget and experience. The main goals are to be competitive, complete the race and learn from the experience.

"We're not hoping to win, since the top teams have millions in funding. We're hoping to get there and finish," Ross said.

Mario reiterated her sentiments. "One of the great things about actually being able to do the race is that you're racing for seven to 10 days. You can actually see the design and why it goes wrong rather than building a car and driving it around for five minutes where you showcase it but don't really understand what you design," she said.

While the emphasis is still on research, Nerd Girls has gained prominence on the public stage for challenging stereotypes about women in engineering and were recently featured in Newsweek and on "The Today Show."

"A by-product is that we are dispelling myths about engineers and scientists as these creatures that sit in dark basements with lots of pizza boxes just playing video games," Panetta said.

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