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Solar cars, STEM and paradigms

John Lawrence’s message from June 6, 2017

My first ride was a 1971 Ford half-ton pickup with a 360 V-8 and 4-speed. I think it had been in a wreck because it was a bargain and dog-tracked like a blood hound going down the road. It also was a gas guzzler and got about 12 miles to the gallon. With a tank full of gas I could travel, at most, 200 miles from home.

I thought about that old truck on Friday, as I witnessed the unveiling of Penumbra, Iowa State’s, and the world’s, first solar utility vehicle. The students of Team PrISUm designed and built this practical solar car because they want to change the paradigm of transportation. They also want to inspire future generations to pursue their passions through education. So they’re going on a #SunRun99. They’re going to crisscross the state with Penumbra to promote renewable energy and STEM education. By the time they finish at the end of June, they will have traveled through all 99 counties (with some extension county office stops along the way).

Their travel schedule may seem a little ambitious, but we appreciate their enthusiasm. We also share their commitment to educating young people about science, technology, engineering and math. Whether the topic is rabbits or rockets, cattle or chemistry, gilts or gadgets, 4-H Youth Development uses the experiential learning model – teaching youth to do, reflect and then apply. Did you know?

  • Our Iowa 4-H Clover Kids program includes a focus on STEM literacy. Sara Nelson, a postdoctoral scholar at Iowa State, is working with our state 4-H staff to ensure that all new Clover Kids kits and programing build the STEM skills of kindergartners through third graders in Clover Kids.
  • STEM 4-H projects cover content from aerospace and robotics to crops, livestock, the environment and the science in everyday living.
  • Three Iowa youth received third-place awards at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. They qualified for the international fair because they were finalists at the State Science and Technology Fair of Iowa, which ISU Extension and Outreach sponsors.
  • This spring 30 youth from Des Moines, Henry, Jefferson, Lee, Louisa and Washington counties explored the “STEMs of Crop Science.” The all-day field trip focused on crop production innovations at Monsanto and Mairet Farm. The youth participated in hands-on experiences with Monsanto technologies and local foods producers to further their knowledge and understanding of how technology effects our food supply and local economy. Before the trip 43 percent of the youth reported they understood how technology is used in agriculture, compared to 83 percent afterward. The youth also shared that they enjoyed the experiments, technology and chemical reactions that were highlighted.

Next fall the Iowa State students of Team PrISUm will haul Penumbra to Australia to compete in the 2017 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. And yes, they plan to drive it across the continent. The longest trip I ever took in my old gas guzzler was Iowa to Arkansas. Talk about a paradigm shift!

— John D. Lawrence
Iowa State University Interim Vice President for Extension and Outreach

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  1. Yes, my grandson has spent many hours working on the design and construction of this new solar car. What is really fun is that his dad helped design and build Iowa State Universities first solar car.