All-female team pours heart and soul into car-building contest
Dan Bates / The Herald
Team manager and driver Erica Jensen can't resist mimicking a race car driver as she tries out the ShopGirls' new eco-car as it sits on a work bench.
Rita-Mae Hatch welds a section of frame as Katie Jackson watches at Granite Falls High School in January,
ShopGirls team member Semira Kern (right) jokes with seventh-grader Jasmine Bates during a Mini Eco-Car Academy held last June.
Shante Stowell of the ShopGirls drills holes in the firewall for rivets. Shante worked on the carís chassis and suspension.
Rita-Mae Hatch (left) works with frame fittings while Sarah Turner struggles with a difficult front axle assembly Thursday night as the team readies the car for shipping.
Maia Hanson takes the car for a test drive on Saturday.
Neither Gertrude, Betsy nor Edna was substantial enough.
For the nine Granite Falls High School students, the forest green and hot pink car they designed, engineered and built from scratch needed a bold name. They wanted something with an attitude that would reflect the hours they spent molding metal and the pride they have in being an all-girl team.
Their car would be called the Iron Maiden.
“It's a tough name,” said Erica Jensen, who will slide her slight 5-foot 2-inch frame behind the car's pink steering column later this month in a national fuel-efficiency competition in Houston, Texas.
“Iron maiden also was a (18th century) torture device,” said a smiling Maia Hanson, who worked on the car's drive train, engine and electrical system, “and we all have been tortured by it at some point.”
Their car has been a labor of love that has caused tears from fatigue and frustration. There have been months of early mornings, late nights and Saturdays and Sundays spent in the school's manufacturing shop. Down the stretch, their teacher, Michael Werner, often would get home after midnight and try to get four to five hours sleep before heading back to the shop.
“It has been a little insane,” said Shante Stowell, a junior who worked on the chassis and suspension system while taking calculus and chemistry classes and learning her lines as the magic carpet for the school's musical version of “Aladdin.”
Organizers believe Granite Falls will be the first all-girl team to enter the Shell Co. Eco-marathon, an annual competition for students to build a car that can go the greatest distance on the least amount of fuel. Typically, only a handful of girls participate in the event that has roots back to 1939 with scientists competing against each other in a Shell lab. It later was expanded to high schools and universities.
A $10,000 federal grant that aims to prepare girls for high-demand jobs in nontraditional fields got the car-building project rolling in Granite Falls. Along with a boys' team that is also building a car, the school has raised $41,000 in grants and donations to pay for materials, training and travel.
The ShopGirls never set out to win the overall competition that includes engineering students from major universities. Last year's winner produced a vehicle that went the equivalent of 2,757 miles on a gallon of gas.
Mainly, the teen team wanted to see if they could build a car that runs.
They have done just that. The Iron Maiden, a snug one-seater with two wheels in the front and one in the back, took its first test drive Friday before being rolled into a trailer for the trip to Houston. It measures 10½ feet long and 2½ feet tall.
No joking now
Last spring, the ShopGirls' industrial arts teacher would hear boys in his classes say, “Hey, Mr. Werner, you want to hear a joke? Some girls say they are going to build a car.”
No one is doubting them any more, Werner said.
Slowly, but ever so surely, the girls have found a sense of belonging in their second home, a loud clanging, whirring world of drills and saws, lathes and welding torches, Green Day and Pink Floyd.
“I knew absolutely nothing,” said Sarah Turner, the team's lone senior who built the steering system and is planning to major in engineering at Washington State University. “I had no idea what they were talking about.”
Last fall, Turner felt overwhelmed when she was asked to decide between rack-and-pinion and Pitman arm steering systems. She eventually opted for the Pitman arm, which converts angular motion of a shaft into the linear motion needed to steer the wheels.
Today, Turner knows what she's talking about and can give a 10-minute technical description of Ackermann steering geometry she needed to understand before designing the steering system.
In Houston, she will be a on the pit crew, at the ready with a manual tire pump as their car covers a 33-foot-wide, three-lane course on a stretch of roadway around a downtown city park in Houston.
Turner and her teammates have shared the load, splitting up grinding, sanding, cutting, drilling and welding duties. They learned to gauge how to choose the right drill bits and speeds for different metals.
Every day is a new venture in problem solving. What started out as yellow sticky pad notes and whiteboard scrawl turned into hundreds of interconnected parts.
Sophomore Katie Jackson, who moved to Granite Falls from Missouri last summer, was recruited onto the all-girl team even before her first class at her new school. The first teacher she met was Werner, who wasn't shy about pitching the project. Since then, she has learned to weld and work with electrical systems.
“It was scary at first,” she said. “The toughest part was being told to do something and then figuring out how to do it on my own.”
Sara Rood and Pooja Sethi make up the aerodynamics team. They have spent hours with masks over their mouths and Latex gloves on their hands crafting fiberglass into the nose and rear sections of the car. It has been a long and dusty journey from models to molds to auto body that has taught them how to make something from resin, putty and wax.
“We have learned so much,” Rood said.
Really getting started
Late last week, the car took its final shape. Wires were connected, paint was sprayed, the safety harness was adjusted.
Some girls reflected on the knowledge they had gained over the grueling months.
“I didn't know what a clutch was, and that is really kind of sad,” said Hanson, a junior who designed and assembled the drive train components, including the diesel engine, fuel system and transmission and exhaust system.
“I was frightened of the big machines,” said Semira Kern, a freshman who worked on the aluminum and Plexiglas canopy that includes nearly three dozen parts.
The girls plan to compete in a diesel car category at the Shell Eco-marathon. They'll see how far they can go on a 250-milliliter fuel tank; that's about 100 milliliters less than a 12-ounce pop can. They know there will be more sophisticated entries using more creative sources of energy.
That matters little to them.
They'll be happy to be at the starting line with a chance to compete.
“This is our entry ticket,” said Werner, their Swiss-born teacher. “You get to get yourself measured against established teams, against the world and go for it. They can see where post-secondary education can take them.”
The girls have had plenty of company in the shop. The boys building a car of their own have offered a helping hand. Adults, too, have taught skills and made suggestions.
School board member Bob Quarterman, a professional engineer who likes to design, build and race stock cars, is a regular in the shop.
“This,” he said, pointing to the still bustling shop two hours after the school day ended, “is what we hoped for when they designed this school. We wanted a solid manufacturing program because of all the jobs it can produce.”
As they look back at a process that started last spring, the girls describe the trials and errors, perseverance and patience it took to build their car. Their numbers dwindled. Many of their teammates simply became too busy with school and other time demands to continue on.
Those who stuck it out are glad they did.
Rita-Mae Hatch welded much of the car's frame. The hardest part, she said, was presenting her work for inspection, knowing the chances were good she would be sent back to redo it.
“It has to be done right,” she said. “That's one thing you learn.”
Werner, the manufacturing teacher, has witnessed the growth in confidence and skill among the ShopGirls over the past year. Their hands are more sure, their hearts more determined and minds more nimble.
“That tangible product is not the instant gratification that so many of today's youth is used to,” he said. “This came together slowly. It challenged them in so many ways.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, email@example.com.
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