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Engineering students cultivate community and build skills with Dal Solar Car

A woman wearing a black hat and sweater seated at a table with a laptop Photo by Danny Abriel

Posted: December 5, 2023

By: Sal Sawler

This past summer, the Dal Solar Car team hit the road to Heartland Motorsports Park in Kansas for the Electrek Formula Sun Grand Prix. The team, which was founded by Electrical Engineering student Gina Park, joined students from all over the world at the road-style, closed-course competition to race solar cars that they’ve designed, built, and maintained themselves.

“To be competitive, the vehicle has to run for three days,” says Noah Bugden, also an Electrical Engineering student and the team lead for the 2023-2024 competition. “Generally, the faster ones win because they complete the most laps. This summer, we ran 135 laps, which was almost 543 kilometers, and our vehicle worked without issue for the full three days.”

A man wearing a white t-shirt with black writing that reads DALSOL Noah Bugden (Photo by Danny Abriel)

Community connections

Michelle Yee, another Electrical Engineering student and the team’s operations manager, says the community is one of the most rewarding aspects. Team-building happens naturally as the group drums up donor support and works on the car in the year leading up to the event, but there are also opportunities to network and knowledge-share outside of the Dal team.

Getting a head start

The team also gives students the chance to develop important skills early on. Yee, for example, has already completed three co-op terms – one at a power conversion equipment company for the navy, and two in the space sector. Each position required the organization and processing of data, and she says her experience on the solar team equipped her for that.

“I use Excel a lot, and I’ve gotten a lot better with it thanks to the solar car team,” she says. “I’ve gained other non-technical skills too, like communication and presentation skills.”

Bugden agrees. “I get to work with systems that include the high power system, battery pack, motor and motor controller, so I’ll have a head start on some things, especially if I go into the automotive or renewable energy sector. The solar car team lets me work with things that I just wouldn’t see until after graduation.”

The Grand Prix also exposes students to employment opportunities they might not access otherwise. “At the event, there were representatives from MathWorks, Blue Origin, Altair, Tesla, SpaceX, and a few other large companies, all actively recruiting,” says Bugden.

A solar car on a race track Dalhousie's solar car

Finding the funds

The perks of competing on the solar car team are myriad, but participation doesn’t come cheap. Donor funds can and do help. Last year, the team ran a campaign through projectDAL, a Dalhousie Fund crowdfunding platform that anyone in the Dalhousie community can apply to use for student-focused causes.

“We were able to replace our old motor controller because we raised enough money,” says Bugden. “Now we have a brand new one to work with, and that will directly impact the car’s performance.”

This year, the team plans to use donations to improve the car’s efficiency by rebuilding the solar array. “We’re going to replace all the solar cells because many of our current solar cells are damaged or otherwise coming to the end of their service life,” says Bugden. “We’ll be more competitive because we’ll be able to charge our battery more efficiently. We also want to make a lot of smaller improvements.”

“It’s a big project that needs a lot of financial backing,” says Yee. “Donations enable us to buy parts and materials for the car and its subsystems. We also put funding towards outreach events. It’s so important to have support from our community.”