Electric car shop

People stop and stare as teacher Derek Smith drives through town in the three-wheeled electric car. The vehicle is a spectacle, resembling a space rover, but its true beauty is that it was built by his students.

“When the state patrol inspected it, they couldn’t believe 13-year-olds built it,” said Smith, teacher and STEM director at Friday Harbor High School.

Since the car was built from scratch, state patrol examined it to assure it was safe on the road. It is registered as a motorcycle because Washington only has regulations for vehicles with two or four wheels, not three. Smith waited until after the inspection was complete to disclose it was built by middle school students, in case the information would negatively influence the patrol officers.

He recalled that the officers were blown away and told him the students had done an incredible job.

The project began when Smith’s friend Bruce Niden told him that a company in California, called Switch Electric Vehicles, works with schools to teach students how to build electric vehicles. Switch provides kits, complete with parts, directions and PowerPoint presentations. It took some time for Smith to figure out how to work the project into his middle school class curriculum.

The class was broken into four teams. Some students were responsible for building the vehicle. The media and outreach group was responsible for taking photos and documenting the project, concept and design and to decide, among other things, what colors to paint the vehicle. The test pilots created models and tried to work out any possible issues.

Thirteen-year-old Bailee Lambright, girl engineer in the making, headed up the building team. Smith admits he had to give the boys on that team a talking to since they had trouble believing a girl could be lead car builder.

“It was pretty ridiculous,” Smith said, shaking his head.

As the team leader, Lambright was the first student to drive the car around the school’s parking lot, not the road, since she is still too young to have a driver’s license.

“That means the very first car Bailee drove was a car she built,” Smith said, “How many people can say that?”

Smith said the car is safer than mopeds because it is low to the ground and has an overhead roll bar, wide wheelbase, seat belts and windshield. Plus, unlike mopeds, these vehicles can go up to 60 mph.

Smith would like to build at least 40 vehicles over the next four to five years and provide a fleet that islanders and tourists could rent. The vehicles would have informational cards in them so renters could learn they were built by local students.

That isn’t Smith’s only dream. He would like to work with Tesla to have his students assist with product testing and designs, even assemble a rocket, and have Elon Musk – of Tesla Motors, SpaceX and SolarCity – himself, visit and speak with the students about the technology.

“We want to give the students the skills they need for the future when they walk out of here,” said Smith. “They will need to know about electric, self-driving cars and rockets.”