Building cars - building the future at SJAM

SJAM car club student - Livia and Helen

They say "seeing is believing", so I thought if I shared some photos of high school students building electric cars then more students would get involved, rightly believing that they can do it, too.

Darin White here doing a little guest blogging on the Waterloo Electric Vehicle Challenge site. I'm helping Waterloo Engineering's Peter Teertstra get some more eyes on this great program. There is a ton of info on the main site, but the one thing I want you to know is that May 28, 2016 is race day. Come out to this free-no-pay event on UW's east campus at Columbia and Phillip Streets in Waterloo. Everyone is welcome. Here are details for getting there.

While races happen a few days annually, the actual building of cars progresses intensely in high schools across Waterloo Region throughout the school year. I know this from the conversations around my own dinner table because my daughter Arden is in her second year of car club at Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School. As a maker and a parent, I see the many positive outcomes from this program. WEVC provides opportunities for design, hands-on fabrication and teamwork. It offers motivation for diving into the math and physics behind the design as well as good reasons for learning to use tools and study material science. It is applied engineering and it all starts in Grade 9.

Pictured above are SJAM Grade 9 students Livia and Helen who are test-fitting the rollbar on car #703. You can click on any of these images to enlarge them. 

Tag your social media posts with #WaterlooEVC and follow along on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

SJAM - car club with Mr. Bluemke

I dropped in for SJAM car club after classes last week. Tech teacher and car club mentor Mr. Bluemke reminded everyone about team shirts, an upcoming race in Michigan and then introduced me and my camera.

Click through for many more photos of SJAM students building cars and imagine yourself getting involved...

SJAM car club student - Saad

I found Saad organizing some CAD drawings. He's laughing here because I'm getting him to rearrange the whole desk to make a better photo.

SJAM car club student - Maaz

Maaz filled me in on the scope of their design work: "So basically our job is now to draw the whole car in SolidEdge." I asked how they got the hard job: "We worked in the shop and then we worked here. We did a good job making a wheel and impressed [Mr. Bluemke]. We are now more experienced with this [design] stuff than the rest of the people, so that's why we get this job." Maaz is in Grade 12 and has been with the car club for two semesters. He said it's a really good feeling when you make a part that you designed and then see it on the car. I asked him if he does any hands-on stuff outside of school: "I love to work on my parents' car, so I do that all the time. I do things like the brakes on my own."

SJAM car club student - Adrian

Adrian was pulling up photos of the car cockpit on his phone.

SJAM car club students - Saad and Adrian working on CAD designs

Saad asked: "Do you want to see the wheel we designed?" Yes, please!

SJAM car club student - Alessia

Grade 9 student Alessia was compiling a list of WEVC students from different schools, demonstrating that a lot goes into car club. At SJAM, where it's officially called the Avro Arrow Club, there are around 40 students involved, ranging from Grade 9 to Grade 12. "I just joined a few months ago. I attended an engineering course in the fall and was invited to join [the club] at the end of it." I asked Alessia what she hoped to learn in car club. "I always liked hands-on work. I've always wanted to go into a STEM program in my future. When I took the engineering course it was just so incredible, so working on a real car would be awesome. This is following my dream and making a race car."

SJAM car club student - Leon

In the shop, here's my neighbour Leon sanding a rollbar segment. Now in the bottom half of Grade 10, this is his second year in car club.

SJAM machine shop

Further on in the machine shop I found lots of students hard at work.

SJAM car club student - Melissa on the lathe

Melissa was turning some round stock on the lathe. Some car club work is learning about tools and materials. The classic machine shop project that I myself did in high school years ago remains the same today: build a hammer. It requires a wide variety of machining operations: facing, turning, boring, measuring, knurling and threading. It uses round and square stock. You learn how to cut a taper and most importantly how to hold the machined part in place. All these skills come in handy when students need to fabricate car parts.

SJAM car club students - Ayesha and Arden studying drawings

Ayesha and Arden were reviewing the drawings for the hammer design.

SJAM car club students - Ayesha and Arden

Thumbs up! I asked Ayesha what interested her about car club: "I really enjoy making parts. I enjoy tech in general and I wanted hands-on experience, so I thought this was the best way to do it." Ayesha is also a hands-on maker outside of school: "I'm a crafty person. I like making crafts and painting and art in general. This feels like an extension of art, just in a more mathematical and engineering-based way." I asked her about the progression in car club as students move up through the grades. She described Grade 9 work being an easy entry point because you didn't need to already have a lot of skills. Then in Grade 10 you start making parts for the car. Later in Grade 11 you can work on things like telemetry for the car. She said that what you work on is largely driven by what interests you.

SJAM car club students - Arden and Melissa

More design review with Arden and Melissa.

SJAM shop teacher Mr. Henderson and student Ayesha

Tech teacher and machinist Mr. Henderson checked in with Grade 11 student Ayesha. This is Ayesha's third year in car club. I asked how she got into it: "It's actually a prestigious club. Mr. Bluemke selects a few students and puts them into car club. I didn't want to take the chance so I went up to him and asked him if I could be in car club. He said 'ok' so that's how I got in."

SJAM car club student - Advait

Advait doing some precise measuring with the micrometer.


SJAM car club students - Livia, Helen and Luke

Then I ran into the most enthusiastic gang of Grade 9 students hand-sanding rollbar segments to aerodynamic perfection: Livia, Helen and Luke. Livia told me: "I joined car club because it seemed like a really fun opportunity to learn about engineering." Helen added: "We were both originally in tech class and [car club] seemed like a fun extension of tech class." They both agreed that it was fun to join with a friend, but assured me that you would make friends if you came on your own.


SJAM car club student - Misha

Misha in sanding stance. "I joined car club because I found tech [class] fun as a course." He told me you need to do well in that course and be invited into car club by a teacher or you could ask to join.

The rollbar pieces for car 703

I asked everyone to hold up their work and Misha said: "Let's make a square!"

SJAM car club student - Helen

Helen called car club "a very prestigious club" and Livia and Luke agreed with all sincerity.

SJAM car club student - Luke

Luke: "I joined car club because I really like doing things hands-on and I love engineering and how things work and building things. This was the perfect opportunity for me to do all that." I wondered if Luke had done anything like this in elementary school that led to car club: "In science class in Grade 8 we took a class where we worked in the woodshop out back and that was a lot of fun and that's what really got me into it."

SJAM machine shop

Almost time to test fit these pieces on the car.

SJAM car club student - Lyndon

On our way to the bay where the cars live, I saw Lyndon on the vertical mill.

Car 703 demonstration

On to the cars! I got a demo of the acceleration of the unloaded back wheel. Quick as you would expect from an electric motor.

SJAM tech teacher Mr. Bluemke

Mr. Bluemke noted that the performance tuning of this blue and white motor controller can be done by linking up to a laptop. He also talked about the calculations and experimentation that went into the aluminum heat sink below the controller.

SJAM car club students - Livia and Helen

Livia and Helen about to test fit the rollbar. These are 3-wheeled cars with the drive wheel at the back and steering at the front.

Bolting on the rollbar

SJAM car club student - Gunes puts cotter pin through axle

Grade 12 student Gunes was fitting a cotter pin to the axle for safety. These car bodies are made of wood which is shaped and bent and filled for good aerodynamics. The design incorporates beefier sections of wood for strength where components bolt on. Other areas are thinner to save weight.

SJAM car club students - Livia and Helen

Installing rollbar

Inside the car shell, this rollbar bracket connects with a heavy piece of threaded rod to provide the rigid strength needed.

Car 703 front end

There's some useful math that goes into figuring out steering geometry. Did you know that each wheel turns a different amount when you turn the steering wheel? That's because the front wheels trace circles of different radii in a turn. It's the same principle on larger cars and this is the sort of thing you learn in car club.

Car 703 steering cluster

This is the steering rig. The bicycle-brake-style lever on the right controls the front brake calipers.

Car 703 steering

There's the brake disk and caliper on the right. The front wheel assemblies are mounted to this beefy but flexible wing of aluminum which provides a simple suspension making the car ride more comfortably.

Over the years, the car undergoes constant improvement. New part designs are tested and the good ones are incorporated into the car.

Cockpit - batteries

Safety is top of mind with these cars that can travel a speeds upward of 55kph. The red straps are a 5-point harness, which is like an extra-safe version of the seat belts in your car at home. The heavy yellow batteries are mounted low and behind the driver's seat.

Car 703 - front end suspension

SJAM car club student - Gunes with charger

Gunes likes to work mostly on the electronics of the car. Here he's holding a battery charger.

SJAM car club group shot

Group shot. This is about one quarter of the overall club. (L-R) Luke, Misha, Helen, Arden, Livia, Ayesha, Melissa, Adnan, Lyndon, Gunes, Gong.

SJAM car club student - Arden

Arden, my daughter, showed me the various brackets and structural members that students make for the car as they advance in the club. "What's amazing about this opportunity is you don't have to be super experienced to be able to participate in car club. My teacher Mr. Bluemke finds ways so that people of all skills and prior knowledge can contribute to the project. These are the parts that I made when I was in Grade 9. I was experienced with the machines in the shop, but making simple parts like these helped me understand how to use the machines in a variety of ways."

SJAM car club student - Advait with Mr. Henderson

Back in the machine shop, Advait and Mr. Henderson were working on the lathe.

SJAM car club student - Arden with lathe tailstock

Cleaning up the shop, Arden explained: "The point of car club is to show you that engineering isn't just end-facing an aluminum rod. It's not just using AutoCAD to design the ideal car. It's using all of these skills and teamwork to create something practical."

Machine shop lathe - rolling the three-jaw chuck

"You need to roll the chuck to switch gears."

SJAM car club students - Arden and Ayesha

Arden and Ayesha wash up.

SJAM car club plaques

Back upstairs in the classroom...

Spare tires

I peeked in the parts cupboard...

Aluminum rim

and Mr. Bluemke described how the cars are a mix of purchased and fabricated parts. This store-bought aluminum rim for instance would likely require a custom hub assembly.

Many of the Grade 12 students on the team were away at extracurriculars for this Thursday photo shoot so I agreed to return on Monday morning...

SJAM car club student - Gunes

where I again found Gunes hard at work. The crew was changing motor sprockets to accommodate the track at their upcoming Michigan race.

SJAM car club student - Gunes

SJAM car club student - Andreas


SJAM car club student - Andreas

SJAM car 703

I asked this crew if any of them had participated in FIRST Lego League in elementary school. Nods all around, with numbers of how many Mindstorms kits they had at home.

SJAM EV carSJAM car club students - Andreas and Sam and Gunes

Sam pointing to the tool he needs to mount the new chain.

SJAM car club students - Gong and Ethan

Gong and Ethan mount the rollbar on car 702.


Group shot

Group shot (L-R): Gong, Sam, Ethan, Gunes, Andreas.

SJAM car club student - Gong

I asked what advice they would offer future students. Gong typed his answer: "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity."


When I asked what it takes to be in car club, he typed: "We have to be very dedicated."

rollbar install

SJAM car club student - Ethan

Ethan offered: "The infrastructure has to be there in the schools. If you don't have a tech program that is fuelling kids' desires to do work with their hands, then you're not going to have a program that can sustain itself."

SJAM 703SJAM car club student - Sam

On what he got from the program, Sam offered: "A lot of hands-on practical experience. Opportunities to make calculations, practical engineering choices, decisions. Seeing the project through from start to finish. When we came, most of our Grade 9 year was spent shining and sanding, puttying, filling, basically making it the smooth body it is now. Slowly we started making more complicated parts as we were trusted more. 'Making and re-making' is our motto." Ethan joked: "Why make it once when you can make it three times?"

SJAM car club student - Sam

I wondered if this experience influenced what the students wanted to do after high school. Sam: "Definitely. As kids, we all dream of owning go-karts, of building them. Actually doing it is really cool. The fact that you get to drive it and know exactly how each part was built and how to fix each and every one of them: it's something else."

ToolsSJAM car club student - Ethan

On advice to future car-clubbers, Ethan said: "To students I would say it's not as hard as it looks. You learn as you go. Everything comes into place. If there's a program that offers car club, they should definitely try."

SJAM car club student - Andreas


Performance stats

Tuning parameters.

SJAM car club students

These Grade 12 students observed that race-ready cars can take a couple of years to build. This takes a large commitment from students and staff, but it also requires student involvement across the grades to keep it all going. Getting Grade 9 students involved is a critical investment in the future of the program.

SJAM car club student - Gunes

So this is where you come in. If you're a student join your car club. If you're a teacher who wants to start a club, there's info on the main page to connect you with Peter Teertstra to kick that off. And if you're just curious what this is all about, come on out to UW's east campus on May 28, 2016 and see the students, cars, staff, parents and volunteers who put it all together.