Solar car race on a track

MITRE San Antonio Celebrates 25th Anniversary of Elementary School Solar Car Race

By Bill Eidson

MITRE started a solar car race for the Northside Independent School District 25 years ago. Since then, 20,000 students have crossed the finish line.

Forget the gas pedal. Or gasoline, at all.

When Northside Independent School District’s (NISD) fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade drivers whip aside their cardboard, the sunlight hits the solar panels, and the race is on.

No steering required. The model-sized race cars speed along fixed lines of monofilament fishing line, streaking from one set of teammates to the other, their months of work coming down to the finish.  

Parents and other fans watching from the Gustafson Stadium in San Antonio, Texas, appear just about as thrilled as the young racers.

The race all began when Bobby Blount, now manager of MITRE’s Austin iHub, went to NISD in 1996 with an idea: Give students an exciting experience to learn science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). “Believe it or not, it was kids who came up with the idea of solar race cars,” says Blount.

“We started with 16 students. Then we heard there was a school in Houston being mentored by NASA that we could race. We didn’t do so well that year, but we learned from it, as did the students. It just grew from there—we’ve now grown to 80 schools participating.”

Blount and MITRE employees have been an integral part of NISD’s Solar Race Day ever since. And with MITRE’s introduction, the United States Air Force has joined in as a sponsor of the event.

“The Air Force is committed to supporting STEM all the way from kindergarten through 12th grade,” says Matt Aguirre, U.S. Air Force. “Our goal here is to introduce kids to the design lifecycle. Get them used to the idea that we increment over time. Failure is OK… we learn and improve when we do that.”

Mary Freeman, a parent at Boone Elementary, says, “This experience has allowed the kids to be open-minded and bring their skills, bring their talent… I just can’t wait to see the future and what it brings.”

“Twenty years ago, my daughter participated in the solar car races,” says Kathy Jimenez. “She had so much fun building [the car] at Monroe May Elementary School. We were really happy and surprised when she won first place. Now I’m in my second year as a solar car coach.”

Also attending the 25th anniversary of the NISD Solar Race were MITRE employees who have been long-time supporters, including systems engineer Bill Fetech. He has been supporting the race since 2005. “Right now, we’re running four tracks concurrently of eight cars per track. Back then we had one track of eight and we were done by noon. This is a really good partnership to help kids get ready for their future—for most, this is probably their first effort with a group and teamwork related to engineering.”    

Community Involvement Matters at MITRE

Nationwide, MITRE has a long history of community involvement. And while the NISD Solar Car Race is MITRE San Antonio’s longest running project, we also support many others, such as:    

  • Project Xander—MITRE and the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) are working together to protect local faith-based and nonprofit organizations against external cyber threats. In this project, MITRE serves as mentor to teams of UTSA students that conduct cyber assessments and provide recommendations to organizations based on found vulnerabilities. In addition to addressing security threats, this program serves as a means for cyber workforce development. The program has included 150 UTSA students in the last year.
  • Department of Energy National Science Bowl Competition—MITRE oversees the Department of Energy National Science Bowl Competition in the San Antonio area. MITRE brought the regional program to San Antonio over 20 years ago and supports the national competition. Middle and high school students serve on teams of five, answering questions quizzing their science and math knowledge.
  • Cyber Threat Defender—MITRE established partnership with UTSA to implement the Cyber Threat card game at elementary schools. This game starts at kindergarten and introduces students to cyber in a fun and competitive way. We are also working with schools in San Antonio and other MITRE sites.

Watch the Solar Cars in Action

How students ultimately make use of this STEM experience is still far ahead in their futures. But there’s little doubt they enjoy the teamwork, learning about the technology, and race day itself.

As one of the young racers put it, “I’m glad that we were able to build a solar car in eight-to-ten weeks.... I learned how the motor works, the axle—actually the whole entire car.”

Of course, seeing a race beats reading about it every time. Check out the video of the 25th Anniversary NISD Solar Car Race Day. You can also view KC Callicotte's tribute to MITRE’s Bobby Blount about three minutes into her valedictory speech.