Students win big through high school mentorship program

car_raceStudents in the Department of Mechanical Engineering have a record of success in competing at the Shell Eco-marathon Americas, including two first-place wins in the hydrogen fuel cell prototype division. Now, for the second year in a row, engineering students—under the guidance of two faculty and as part of the CU Denver Community STEM Clubs—are mentoring students involved with Wheat Ridge High School (WRHS) STEM/Engineering in the planning, design and construction of two hydrogen-powered vehicles to compete in the 2016 Shell Eco-marathon Americas.

“We currently have 41 students working on the two vehicles,” says Charles (Chuck) Sprague, STEM/Engineering advisor at WRHS. “The goals for WRHS STEM/Engineering are actually very simple. We decided that we wanted to offer an ‘out of the box’ approach for students to learn engineering and engineering techniques. This idea especially came to light last year with the offer to work with CU Denver and create a team to compete in the Shell Eco-marathon.”

The WRHS students are developing vehicles to compete in both categories of the Shell Eco-marathon: a hydrogen-powered prototype vehicle and a hydrogen-powered urban concept vehicle. The difference between the two categories, according to the Shell Eco-marathon website, is that the prototype is focused on maximizing fuel efficiency while the urban concept category focuses on more roadworthy fuel-efficient vehicles. This is the first year WRHS and CU Denver have participated in the urban concept category. It’s estimated that the WRHS students will spend up to 300 hours creating the vehicles.

The project is supported in part by an Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) grant from the National Science Foundation, which was awarded to the CU Denver Community STEM Clubs. Associate professor of mechanical engineering Ronald Rorrer is a co-principal investigator on the grant.

The IUSE program promotes diversity among the STEM fields and requires two undergraduates and one graduate student to participate in each project. Mechanical engineering seniors Laura Marshala and Susan Waruinge, along with a graduate student studying anatomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, are the CU Denver mentors for the Shell project, and none of them have experience with building cars. These CU Denver students are challenged to use their skills and knowledge acquired thus far to guide the WRHS students while gaining invaluable experience to help them be successful in their careers.

“I want the students to experience the learning process that’s involved with these types of projects,” says Marshala. “I get to use the concepts I’ve learned to help them think critically. We answer their questions with questions and make them figure out a solution instead of telling them what to do.” She adds, “I’m gaining experience with mentoring and networking. The technology is relevant to the career I want to pursue, and never having worked on cars before, I’m learning a lot about that, too.”

According to Sprague, the emphasis for the WRHS students is twofold, and parallels much of what the CU Denver students experience in their Senior Design capstone course.

“On the engineering side, we are teaching the students how to work together as a team and toward a common goal,” he says. “Students will learn to understand the link between design and manufacturing and how they fit together. Once all the parts are manufactured, they then have to assemble, troubleshoot and test the vehicle.”

He also works with the students on the business side of engineering. They’re required to develop presentations, dress professionally, make professional contacts and present their ideas to industry as they seek funding—the students need to raise about $36k to fund the project.

For Sprague, the benefits of this partnership extend well beyond the physical projects.

“Having CU Denver students working side by side with the students at Wheat Ridge gives them an additional voice in many areas that they wouldn’t otherwise get,” he says. “First off, the students are in a college career that the high school students are considering, so they can ask questions. Also, we have seven ladies in our STEM/Engineering Shell program, and it is wonderful for them to meet other young women who are on their path in engineering.”

As vice president of the CU Denver Society of Women Engineers chapter, Marshala echoes this sentiment and hopes she and Waruinge can inspire confidence in the high school students, especially the young women.

“I want to encourage young girls to pursue engineering if that’s what they’re passionate about,” she says. “I don’t want them to be intimidated. I was intimidated … I knew nothing about engineering, and there was so much math. But it’s not all about the math. It’s design and has artistic aspects, too. I want them to see there’s so much more to becoming an engineer.”

If she has her way, the partnership between CU Denver and WRHS will make a lasting impact on both groups of students. Sprague feels the same way.

“I couldn’t ask for a better partnership than the one we have with CU Denver,” says Sprague. “It allows my students to work with well-respected professors, instructors and top-notch engineering students who have a very broad and deep knowledge base.”

The Shell Eco-marathon Americas will take place April 22–24, 2016, in Detroit, Michigan. Follow the WRHS teams’ progress on their website at