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Hands-on Education, West Philadelphia-style

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Hands-on Education, West Philadelphia-style

Before the education community was talking about project-based learning, Simon Hauger at West Philadelphia High School was already doing it. Before going green and fuel-efficient cars were cool, West Philadelphia High School students were building hybrid vehicles.

For the last 10 years, the West Philadelphia High School’s Hybrid X Team has built and designed vehicles that utilize existing technology in innovative ways to achieve ultra-low carbon emissions and ultra-high fuel efficiency. Unlike many alternative-fuel vehicles, their cars achieve these goals without sacrificing drivability, safety and style.

The after-school program consists of 15 students, mostly 11th- and 12th-graders, and five educators. Their awards roster includes three wins at the Tour de Sol, a showcase of advanced-technology that pushes the envelope toward zero-carbon-emission vehicles. They have built six vehicles, including the world’s first hybrid supercar, the K-1 Attack. Hauger adds, “The red convertible got a tremendous amount of attention. Hot rodders were attracted to it, but then they would find out the fuel economy and it was the icing on the cake.”

Hauger started the program when he was teaching at West and continues to direct the program after leaving the school to consult. He has such faith in his students he had them help build his personal vehicle, a biodiesel VW Jetta.

According to Hauger, it is their unexpected exceptional performance as the only high school students in an international fuel-efficiency contest that has garnered them the most attention. The team competed with two cars at the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, a contest for universities, car manufacturers and entrepreneurs that challenges them to design, build and sell super-efficient, consumer-friendly cars. Hauger explains that the team’s modified Ford Focus and GT utilize plug-in hybrid technology and get more than 100 mpg. Out of the 111 entrants, the West Philly Hybrid X Team made it to the final 21 before being cut.

“It was inspiring to meet our competition,” said Azeem Hill, a senior at West and the team captain. “It is beautiful to see young people like myself in a professional setting, competing, talking about the technology and giving speeches."

Their performance against trained professionals looking to make mass-produced vehicles was impressive. It got the attention of Pres. Barack Obama, national news organizations and even the winner of the competition, Edison2. Hauger said that Edison2 was so impressed with the work the kids were doing that they commissioned the students to build the drive train to power the company’s Very Light Car (VLC).

The team showcased their drive train work at the Green Gran Prix at Watkins Glen in New York. They won the competition, beating out top-notch schools like Cornell and big-time companies like General Motors.

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What it Means to the Students
All the prizes and attention are no match to the success and pride these students achieve. In an area plagued by high dropout rates, students who participate in this program are successful academically, and many go on to postsecondary institutions like Penn State and Drexel.

“My first year of teaching, I believed everyone needed to go to college,” said Hauger. “But it is not viable for everyone. People just need to be challenged and grow whether in an auto shop or as an insurance adjuster or engineer. It is important that they continue to grow.”

Hill has been involved with the program his entire high school career and has been with the X Prize cars since their beginning. He says he is not a car person but “found himself” during the project. “I came out of this with a sense of identity. I found out who I was with the way we had to think about problems.”

He explained how, before starting with the team, he was “made to believe you spend time in school and then you accomplish something. With the program we are doing both. Through education, we can create and innovate for the planet.”

While cars are not his passion, Hill’s strong convictions about contributing to environmental and economic change led him to other groups. During the summer, Hill will be training for a job at the Alliance for Educational Justice, a youth-led organization to help create a more equitable education system.

The students believe so highly in the program that alumni from the project lend a hand when they can. Hauger said they provide a lot of moral support for the current students. “It says something about the success of the program that they are still interested after they graduate. It feels great to have them come back. You build a relationship with these kids and it is good to see how they are doing.”

Hauger believes the school's success can be replicated elsewhere. “You just need to find an interest or field that a group of adults and teachers can work around. The kids are interested in solving problems. The resources and talents for us were building cars, but it can be anything.”

And the students realize they can achieve anything, as well. Hill’s experiences with the X Team gave him the needed push to teach himself music production. “When I joined the team, I had never driven a car or thought about cars,” says Hill. “The team showed me how this complex thing I never thought I would understand could be broken down into small simple components that made up this powerful car. That is what I did with the music production. I broke it down and started producing my own music.”

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The Association for Career and Technical Education is the nation’s largest not-for-profit education association dedicated to the advancement of education that prepares youth and adults for successful careers. Founded in 1926, ACTE has more than 25,000 members; career and technical educators, administrators, researchers, guidance counselors and others involved in planning and conducting career and technical education programs at the secondary, postsecondary and adult levels. ACTE provides advocacy, public awareness and access to information on career and technical education, professional development and tools that enable members to be successful and effective leaders.

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