While most universities concentrate on following more theoretical pursuits, engineering students at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) are encouraged to delve into the real world while applying their minds. And, although UJ only adopted this strategy after their success in the 2010 South African Solar Challenge (their first hybrid vehicle, the BAR-1, won the Adventure class and came in second overall), it’s a policy that’s already deemed a success.
Theory vs. reality
If you’ve been working for a while, chances are you’ve already realised that not everything goes according to plan. The oft huge chasm between theory and practice is a reality that can take fresh graduates some time to acclimatise to. However, thanks to UJ’s Alternative Energy Vehicle Project, their engineering boffins-in-the-making are getting a decent head start.
Here’s why: First off, the students involved in the project have to physically build their designs from scratch. This means they have to learn practical skills such as how to build a chassis, fabricate circuit boards, work with composite materials and develop sophisticated software (used to manage their race strategy). Master’s student Warren Hurter elaborates “It didn’t take us long to realise that coming up with a viable CAD design was by far the easiest part!”
Communication is key
Secondly, the students – drawn from various disciplines on campus (including the mechanical, electrical and electronic engineering, industrial design, IT and marketing departments) – also have to interact closely with each other to get the job done. And let’s face it, effective communication is critical if you want a diverse group of participants to agree on a single course of action.
In fact, much to the surprise of UJ’s faculty heads, students taking part in the programme considered the development of this “soft skill” as the most important aspect of the project. According to Master’s student Kegan Smith, the guy who heads UJ’s alternative energy vehicle project, this observation makes perfect sense. “A large part of this project is about communication, team work, as well as systems and project engineering. These aspects require a lot of management that has very little to do with the actual product.”
Hitting the road
When the next internationally recognised biennial South African Solar Challenge takes place this September, UJ hopes to have all three of its designs on the start line. The Ilanga I will take part in the entry level solar class and the other two (one running on hydrogen and the other incorporating a small turbine) will compete in the Adventure class. Work has also begun on their second-generation vehicle, Ilanga II. Once finished, this futuristic looking set of wheels will be entered into the prestigious Olympia category for the next event, taking place in 2014.
Follow the progress of Ilanga I and Ilanga II on the University of Johannesburg’s solar car Web site www.ujsolar.co.za