Steering in right direction: Sterling students build electric car

Paige Geil and Zach Shapiro, two members of a Sterling High School physics class whose project was to assemble an electric vehicle, talk about their experiences during a demonstration on Wednesday for the Sterling Public Schools board of education.

STERLING — The physics students at Sterling High School devoted the second semester to building an electric car.

How cool is that?

Members of the board of education and the administration thought so. Singly and in pairs, they eagerly took it for a spin in the parking lot on the north side of campus.

The car — a product of The Switch Lab of Sebastopol, California — comes as a kit and is designed so students using applied science skills can assemble it.

And, as it happens, disassemble it so they or another class can build it again.

Sterling High School Principal Justin Austin explains aspects of the Switch electric vehicle that physics students assembled, as Paige Geil and Zach Shapiro drive it out of Musgrove Fieldhouse, where it had been staged for a demonstration.

Sterling High School Principal Justin Austin and two students who worked on the project — Zach Shapero and Paige Geil — were on hand Wednesday at Musgrove Fieldhouse to demonstrate the vehicle’s capabilities and share their experiences constructing it.

Tim Kelleher, the instructor, was unavailable for the presentation. He’s spending the summer teaching school in Hawaii.

The students got a chance to see a completed version of it before tearing it down so they could put it back together. Over the Christmas break, the high school had served as a Switch Labs instruction site — meaning the Sterling vehicle served as an instructional model for teachers from high schools and community colleges across North America.

“All we had to do was provide muffins and donuts for breakfast,” Austin said. “So it was a win-win for us.”

And as the second semester started, Geil, Shapero and their classmates were hard at work.

Sterling Public Schools Superintendent Tad Everett settles in behind the wheel of a Switch electric vehicle on Wednesday evening at the high school. Director of Finance Timothy Schwingle is the passenger. The car was assembled by physics students as part of an instructional kit. From left, is one of the students who worked on the project, Paige Geil, board member Julie Zuidema, and Principal Jason Austin. During the demonstration, members of the board and school administration took turns driving it across the nearby parking lot.

“I mean, all of us were just in awe,” said Geil, now a graduate headed to St. Louis University in the fall. “We didn’t know what to do at all. We’re gonna take this apart and this apart, and I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what this is.’”

Besides the challenge of matching the science knowledge they already had, and researching the things they didn, Geil said the thing that really made the project a success was collaboration.

Before even digging into the car’s electronics — students attended a special relay lab to learn the basics — Shapero was tasked with taking the wheels off.

“I kind of knew, already, because I watched NASCAR,” Shapero said. “Before I got too sidetracked by watching, I learned that if you don’t have a gun on the lugnuts, so instead of about a second and a half, it can take a while.”

The kit comes with instructions. But the entire exercise tests students on all the aspects of science the administration was looking for when it started hunting for such a project in the early days of COVID-19.

“We were desperately trying to fill a void for our physics class to really make it more hands-on, interactive, in the way you learned about everything to do with physics: inertia, acceleration, velocity, electrical relays, everything you can think of,” said Austin.

The Sterling Schools Foundation also found the project worthwhile, footing the $40,000 bill to purchase the car. The district was on the hook for the cost of the tools, and access to the network curriculum (which renews and is updated annually so all the partner schools can learn tips and tricks from one another). This year it cost the district $4,000, but going forward the subscription is $1,000.

Members of the board of education and administration pilot a Switch electric vehicle during a demonstration Wednesday. The vehicle was assembled by Sterling High School physics students. The vehicle can be disassembled and reassembled by subsequent classes.

But the best part is that the car gets built and reassembled over and over — a learning tool that is repurposed year to year, Austin said. This version of the car will stay in one piece through to the homecoming parade. Then it will be disassembled in time for the next second-semester physics class to take a crack at building it.

Austin, whose own son was part of the same physics class, reiterated the trial-and-error that groups of students went through as they worked on aspects of the car. There were directions and schematics, but it was the pre-assembly work in the labs where a day’s success or failure was determined. Some groups finished their tasks early, others took two or three days.

“Their learning was all authentic,” Austin, said that student thoughtfulness and research were determining factors.

Shapero said one part took three trials. “After the first fail, I was kind of scared, because I thought, ‘Shoot, we failed.’ I don’t know if it’s going to work or not.”

Then he added, in jest, “I’m usually not that optimistic.”

But, in the end, they built an electric car.

And as Austin said in his presentation, with gas prices at record levels and expected to go higher, “it couldn’t be more relevant than it is now.”

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Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.