STEM students hope for sunshine in Tasmania

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Keen STEM students are converging in Tasmania this weekend for the annual Australian-International Model Solar Challenge.

The nationwide STEM competition is a collaborative initiative, with supporting partners that include Engineers Australia, the University of Tasmania (UTAS), and the CSIRO, and aims to help encourage a new generation of budding problem-solvers to find smarter ways to design solar-powered boats and cars.

“Right now, in our state event, we have approximately 50 solar cars and solar boats,” says Zane Farnum, the Vice-President and Secretary of the Tasmanian Model Solar Challenge and representative of Tasmania in the Australian-International Model Solar Challenge. “We then have 23 cars arriving for the Australian-International Model Solar Challenge, and the solar boats arriving from Victoria.”

Since relaunching in 2018 after a few years of minimal entries, a surge in STEM education has brought the competition back into the hearts and minds of a new generation of teachers across the country.

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“Since we started delivering model solar car kits valued at $200 – sent to schools free of charge – we saw approximately three cars in the first year, 26 cars in 2019 and this has increased by around five-10 cars a year,” Mr Farnum told EducationDaily.

Seeking solutions for an eco-friendly future

The motivation for the competition was inspired by a desire to battle effects of excessive fossil fuel consumption on global warming that had started becoming more apparent to many of the world’s scientists back in the 1980s.

“Research and implementation of clean energy alternatives was on the rise and there continued to be improvements in solar technology and cell efficiencies,” he says. “This ultimately led the emergence of the first World Solar Challenge race from Darwin to Adelaide in 1987, where teams from counties all around the globe needed to harness nothing but the sun’s rays to power their way across the Australian outback.”

When a Victorian-based team made up of university staff and students began contemplating whether a simpler, lower cost version of the event could be offered as a STEM competition in schools, the genesis of the first model solar challenge was formed, with many of the same scientific concepts and engineering problems faced by those at the World Solar Challenge being filtered down to the model scale. The first ever model solar car event was held in 1990 in Melbourne.

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“Cars initially raced on a 100m long S-shaped track but this was later updated to a continuous figure-eight, with the potential to allow for longer, multiple lap races. The event soon expanded to other Australian states with top entries from around the country then meeting at the first national finals in 1993,” Mr Farnum says.

Making model car design more accessible

As technologies that make solar-powered model vehicles a success – such as 3D printing and vacuum moulding – continue to become cheaper and more accessible for students to use in a classroom environment, he says “we now have international competitors coming from Taiwan to compete, with many other countries, such as Argentina, competing in the past”.

For school students, the lower cost and greater simplicity of solar-powered model boat design has seen many schools choosing the less labour-intensive alternative as their preferred entry – a reality that is seeing solar boat student competitors starting to catch up with the solar car entrants.

“This challenge is great for students who may not access traditional extracurricular activities, such as sport, and I think this challenge is important for students to gain skills in science, technology, engineering and maths,” he told EducationDaily. “Especially in Tasmania – our students lag behind national average in STEM education.”

By helping educators guide learning in the classroom space, Mr Farnum says the challenge enables students to “visualise different aspects of science in their hands, rather than in a book”.

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“They’re able to visualise why a car or boat needs to be aerodynamic, and how they should wire the solar panel to the motor, so it doesn’t go backwards.”

The battle for prizes is driven by STEM innovation

In the lead-up to the national final – being held for the first time since 2019 before the impact of the pandemic – each state event has different prizes for winners.

Competitors in this year’s national title are in the running for two main awards, including one overall winner in both a primary school and secondary school division. Entrants in each division can also battle for second, third and fourth prizes, with some additional wards to honour other achievements, such as fastest lap of the day.

Mr Farnum’s own connection to the challenge stretches back to when he was a student competitor – beginning in 2013 when he was a Year seven student.

“From there, I gained a lot of interest in designing and building model solar cars, and in 2016 I entered the Australian-International Model Solar Challenge, and I took out the title,” he says. “I then raced at the Australian-International level for the next two years, before becoming more involved in the state and national committees.”

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Celebrating creativity

STEM education, he says, plays a pivotal role in our ever-evolving world, “where technology is deeply integrated into our daily lives, and climate change remains a pressing concern”.

“Proficiency in these four key areas is essential for our students to develop versatile skills applicable in a wide array of job environments, enabling them to remain competitive globally.”

As this year’s final is about to commence, he says he’s looking forward to seeing how students have designed their cars to fit around the unique rules and regulations set out for this year.

“In the past, we have seen some great designs where students think outside the box,” he told EducationDaily. “It is great to see the students’ creativity and innovative thinking, instead of conforming to conventional techniques.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live