Kalei Brautlacht (right) and Gwen Stokes take the ethanol go-kart for a spin.
Kalei Brautlacht (right) and Gwen Stokes take the ethanol go-kart for a spin.
Author: Michelle [Shelly] Hillman
Date: July 14, 2017
Categories: Academics|Biology|Chemistry|Physics

With blue skies and wispy clouds overhead, four go-karts wait, each surrounded by a small group of excited and slightly nervous students. One by one, the groups step up to a microphone to address a crowd of campus administrators, faculty and staff members, and community visitors eagerly awaiting the demonstration of months of learning and collaboration.

These 17 students are from the college’s innovative and highly selective Science Honors program, bringing the top scientific minds of the freshmen class together for a first-year learning experience like no other. They combine months of biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics instruction with a powerful hands-on learning component that few freshmen – here or across the country – have the opportunity to experience.

A hallmark of science at Houghton is real-world, hands-on learning experience, where students go beyond the classroom to learn by doing. Instead of waiting until the junior or senior year to collaborate on a real-world project with faculty members, Honors students jump in immediately.

Each of the four Science Honors teams in the multi-semester program this year prepared and presented plans for prototype alternative energy vehicles – biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen fuel cell, and solar power – before building and testing them this spring.

The challenge undertaken by Science Honors students echoes the efforts of scientists across the country and the globe. The biodiesel team used synthesized biodiesel fuel – made from the college’s used cooking oil – for their hybrid car, since diesel pumps are already widespread in the country and would require relatively easy conversions for this new fuel. Distilling ethanol, an alcohol that burns cleaner than fossil fuels, was the goal of the second team, which attempted to use chemicals, enzymes, and yeast to convert sawdust into this alternative source. Hydrogen fuel cell power was the choice of the third team, with an efficiency of 50 percent as opposed to 30 percent for combustion engines. The solar energy team added adjustable photovoltaic panels to achieve maximum sun exposure and a wall socket charger that expanded their vehicle’s versatility.

For Leslie Hull, a member of the hydrogen fuel cell team, the experiential learning component was invaluable: “I feel like I learned a lot more by having this hands-on experience than I ever have in a traditional classroom setting. The feeling of success was definitely worth all the hard work put in.”

Next year’s class – the ninth cohort to take part in the Science Honors program since its inception in the 2009-2010 academic year – is slated to tackle issues in biodiversity by building mobile robotic biodiversity assessment devices and taking them to Arizona to test in the desert. Students will use real-world engineering specifications and restraints as they customize their robotic device with measurement tools such as atmospheric reading instruments, radar, and infrared.