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The Car These Kansas City Kids Built Is A 'Vehicle' To Something More


 If you go to the 2016 Kansas City Auto Show at Bartle Hall, you may spot among the shiny new SUVs and tricked-out sports cars something more incongruous. It's squat and narrow, resembling a more advanced version of a Soapbox Derby car. 

Look again: that car was printed by a 3-D printer and designed by high school kids in Kansas City. 

The car, affectionately dubbed 3D1 by its makers, is the latest creation of MINDDRIVE, a Kansas City-based nonprofit that has kids design and build electric vehicles. It's the fifth fully operational electric car that students have created since MINDDRIVE's founding nearly eight years ago. And the first one to have its carbon fiber body created by a 3-D printer. 

Student Lizett Morales, who helped design 3D1, thinks MINDDRIVE may be on to something. 

"The way things in cars have been evolving, 3-D printed cars may just be the next big thing," she says. 

Possibly as testament to that optimism, MINDDRIVE's display at the 2016 Kansas City Auto Show will be given a prominent place in the central exhibition hall. 

But this isn't merely a display model. The car is for racing. It is designed to meet the exacting specifications of the Electrathon America competition, a national series of races for student-made electric vehicles, many of which resemble new-age Formula One racers.

The point of each race is to see which team's car can drive the furthest in an hour. Lizett and her teammates had to take that into consideration when crafting a lightweight, aerodynamic design. 

"There was the weight of the car itself, the friction created by wind, the airflow or air resistance through the car, the interior friction, the front area of the car." 

They sent their specifications to a 3-D printer run by Cincinnati Incorporated in Oak Ridge, TN (forget your desktop printer, we're talking a box the size of your bedroom), that churned out a 100-pound carbon fiber chassis in six hours. That frame was then incorporated into 3D1 with the other parts and is now powered by two 12-volt batteries. 

The team of 25 students who built 3D1 had 23 volunteer mentors assist them, people from professional industry with expertise in design, mechanics, and engineering, who work with students at MINDDRIVE's garage on Holmes Street for several hours every Saturday during the school year. 

And here is where this project, so to speak, goes into overdrive. 

"The cars themselves are a vehicle to getting the kids engaged," says MINDDRIVE co-founder Steve Rees. "It's experiential hands-on learning. It's about engagement, education and then expansion of their futures." 

In the past, the "vehicles" MINDDRIVE students have designed have taken them to some impressive places. They've driven a retooled classic Karmann Ghia along the Pacific Coast Highway, lectured to college students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, garnered international acclaim and attention for their creations and been retweeted by Sir Richard Branson
Rees says all this is the result of MINDDRIVE's intense focus on letting kids do the work themselves. He says form their first day in the Holmes Street garage, they are being asked to work out problems and try things, even if they fail at first. 
"When they come, if they don't have anything to do, they find something to do."
MINDDRIVE draws dozens of students from 15 high schools in and around Kansas City, mainly from the metro's urban core. Many of them are labeled "at risk" at their home schools. They may have an interest in tinkering, engineering and automotive work. (Though that's not required: MINDDRIVE also has a communications class, where a team of students works to publicize the program's creations.) 

Luis Rodriguez of Kansas City's Alta Vista Charter High School, had a teacher refer him. 

"My ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher was talking to me one day, and I told her I liked to work with cars and she told me about it," he says. 

Luis is on the team that designed and built 3D1. He knew a lot about what he calls "gas cars" before coming to MINDDRIVE, but thinks this project is something more special. 

"We are learning the future," he says. 

Where to see 3D1, MINDDRIVE's 3-D printed car:

  • At the 2016 Kansas City Auto Show at Bartle Hall, Saturday March 5: 10 a.m-10 p.m., or Sunday, March 6: 10 a.m-6p.m
  • At MINDDRIVE's garage: 2615 Holmes St., Kansas City, MO
Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
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