Samantha B. Bonar

Area high school science students converged on the Occidental College campus on Saturday, Jan. 31 to find out what floats their boats.

Three hundred students, teachers, and parents from 35 high schools from throughout Southern California learned about electric boats and solar energy from seven Occidental student instructors as part of the 2009 Solar Cup™ program.

Solar Cup™ is a seven-month-long program sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, in which high school teams build and race 15-foot solar-powered canoes. The program, which started in 2003 with eight teams, began in November and culminates in May with a three-day competition at Lake Skinner in Temecula Valley. In the process of participating, students learn about conservation of natural resources, electrical and mechanical engineering, problem solving, and much more. Occidental is providing technical assistance--at workshops, school visits, and the three-day event itself--throughout this year's Solar Cup™ program.

"Oxy has a history of engaging our students with the community. This is another example where our science students put into practice what they’ve learned in the classroom to the benefit of local high school students," said Occidental assistant professor of physics Adrian Hightower, who is coordinating the effort. "Renewable energy happens to be a timely and fun subject. All the instructors are working hard to give the students what they need to bring their designs to fruition. This usually entails instructing students on safety, science, and scheduling."

Saturday's workshops covered mechanics ("how to make sure your boat doesn't sink," Hightower says), electrical work (how to wire solar panels, electric motors, etc), project planning, and using internet resources. Occidental's teaching model of a solar-powered boat went for a test run in Taylor Pool; visiting students built small solar-powered cars because the key electrical and transmission components are conceptually the same as for a boat, Hightower says.

Metropolitan sponsors the program, providing the teams with boat kits and tools. Local water agencies and others sponsor the teams, giving newcomers $3,500 and veterans $2,500 to equip their boats.  Boat-building workshops were held in November at Three Valleys Municipal Water District in Claremont. Teams are given kits of pre-cut marine-grade plywood and tool chests to build their boats. Hulls, which cannot be modified, resemble single-seat canoes and are 15 feet long and weigh about 50 pounds. Boats are equipped with solar panels, electric motor, batteries, instrumentation, and steering.

Boat speeds in the 200-meter sprint races can reach up to 16 miles per hour.  The endurance race is won by the boat that circles the 1.6-kilometer course the most during the 90-minute heat. Each team also is required to submit four written reports on technical issues and complete a special project. This year, teams must plan and produce a 30-second video or radio announcement or design a brochure promoting water conservation. Winners are determined by the total scores from their race results, technical reports, attendance, and special project.

In addition to first-, second- and third-place trophies, trophies for sportsmanship, teamwork, best-looking boat, and best visual display are presented at the end of the competition. Each participant receives a medal at the final awards ceremony. The Spirit of Solar Cup™ trophy is given each year to the student who exemplifies the spirit and goals of the program.

Participating high schools are River Springs Charter High School, Paloma Valley High School, Rancho Verde High School, Rancho Cucamonga High School, Upland High School, Ayala High School, Francis Poly High School, Roosevelt High School, Franklin High School, Long Beach Poly High School, El Toro High School, Damien High School, Nogales High School, San Dimas High School, Walnut High School, Gabrielino High School, El Monte High School, Los Altos High School, Duarte High School & Pamela County Park, Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, City Honors High School, Citrus High School, Patriot High School, Murrieta Valley High School, Poway High School, and La Canada High School.