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A local non-profit organization is putting at-risk high school students in the driver’s seat of electric vehicle engineering. Phoenix Garage (PG), located in Fort Collins, Colorado, has begun to change the lives of a handful of high school students through its educational mentoring program.
“We’re interested in helping at-risk kids prepare themselves for the technology jobs of the future,” said founder Steve Koehmstedt, who has been working with students for the past three and a half years. “We’re very interested in green propulsion technologies. More specifically we’re focusing on electric vehicles knowing that that’s the future.”
Most recently, Steve and four students, with help from a variety of technical experts, built an electric motorcycle that has an estimated 130 miles of range.
Building the electric motorcycle proved to be a long and arduous process, but the excitement of finding solutions through engineering and accomplishing an ultimate goal drew the students in week after week through the project’s entirety.
“It’s the cool project that gets the kids in the door,” explains Koehmstedt. “The drive to see the project to completion with problem-solving and hands-on experience makes them stay.”
Koehmstedt describes a typical day in the garage as dinner, followed by a class lesson, followed by an application of that lesson in the garage. Sometimes PG will bring in guests from mechanical engineering careers to teach the students different skillsets they can apply to their project.
For example, the owner of Casper Electronics, a company who provides GM, Ford, and Fiat/Chrysler with electrical harnesses, taught the students to build a high voltage harness.; two Master Mechanical Designers taught the students to design using Solidworks; a senior research and development engineer with Woodward taught calibration of EV systems; and the list goes on. Phoenix Garage really emphasizes the importance of practical, applied learning for their work to be truly meaningful to struggling students.
In building the first electric motorcycle through the program, there were a number of areas in which the students were directly involved in engineering. They welded, fabricated components, and learned that initial failures and challenges are inevitable to ultimately achieve success.
One example of this was in building the battery packaging. The students needed to incorporate 27 tool batteries, which meant creating racks that would hold nine batteries on each side plus nine on the bottom. The students created the design, made models and templates with cardboard, and eventually cut and assisted in welding the final product, but not without many struggles in between.
“If the template is not of good quality or if the solution is not very good, they know that they’ll go back and redesign it until the solution is right,” said Koehmstedt.
One student even took a project on himself, recognizing that changing the final drive ratio would improve efficiency, he asked if he could design and build new sprockets. While studying sprocket design, it was determined that producing sprockets for a belt, instead of a chain, would further increase range, so Paul designed a belt drive. He took measurements, made some calculations, 3D printed his model to perfection, and then tuned the belt, demonstrating that applied learning is the most effective way to learn about engineering.
“If you try to teach science and you bring a kid in for an hour, it doesn’t impact their life very much,” said Koehmstedt, who researched this concept for a Master’s project towards his degree in adult education. “Instead, the most impactful thing is real engineering, real problem solving, over time, and encouraging the students to wonder what their possibilities are.”
It’s clear that this approach resonates with the students. By offering real world engineering experience and problem-solving skills, the students show motivation to pursue engineering careers and continue their education. One student wants to be a mechanical engineer, another wants to create 3D models for industrial parts, and another wants to be a mechanic with a very technical specialization. Phoenix Garage has been the catalyst to provoke this motivation for students who previously struggled with education.
“The thing I’m most excited about is that the kids seem to be getting good things out of it, and the families are excited,” said Koehmstedt.
“The wonderful positive atmosphere at Phoenix Garage has let Paul make relationships outside of school and family, taught him respect for authority, attention to detail, how to use tools properly,” said Connie, the mother of one of the students. “Paul is forever imagining grand projects. PG is helping him make plans and learn skills that will help him accomplish these projects. He is also exposed to careers; doing things he loves that he never knew existed.”
Another mom described her son’s excitement about the project. “My son would come home and really want to talk about what he was working on at Phoenix Garage. He was actually excited about what was going on,” said Ann.
With the electric motorcycle project complete, a new group of students will tackle the next project, an all-electric dune buggy. And with the skills they’ve developed and continue to learn, these students could very well be the future of electric vehicle engineering.
To learn more about Phoenix Garage, visit their website at http://thephoenixgarage.org/. To get involved, contact Steve Koehmstedt at email@example.com.
A message from the founder, Steve Koehmstedt:
We have an excellent team of volunteers but we are always looking for additional people, with technical expertise that they want to share with kids, on project related activities.
Our next project is an electric dune buggy so we are looking for people with electric vehicle knowledge or experience, battery and or battery management and software development knowledge or experience.
We can always use help with organizational activities as well. If you want to share your skills in areas like marketing, organization, planning events, fundraising etc., please let me know. If you have any other ideas about volunteering, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, we currently have need for space to build our next project in. If you have a space, approximately 2000 sq. ft. with lighting, a bathroom, and a big door that you are able to donate or rent at a low cost, please contact us.