July 22, 2005 - Scorching temperatures and rough, rocky terrain welcomed 28 undergraduate UC Irvine mechanical and aerospace engineering students, led by professor and advisor J. Michael McCarthy, Ph.D., at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Mini Baja 100, an intercollegiate engineering design and endurance student competition.
One of three U.S. regional competitions, the event was hosted by Caterpillar Inc. at the Tinaja Hills Training Center in Green Valley, Arizona in June. SAE celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, naming the competition “Mini Baja 100” to commemorate the celebration.
Each collegiate group was tasked with inventing an off-road, single seat recreational vehicle, powered by a 10-horsepower Intek Model 20 engine donated by Briggs & Stratton Corporation. The roadsters had to meet strict safety requirements, as well as be easily transportable and able to handle the challenges of tough terrain during the competition’s endurance tests.
Open to both undergraduate and graduate students, the competition gave a unique simulation of a “real-world” engineering project, complete with designing, building, testing, and attempting to promote and sell their vehicle to a fictitious firm.
The UC Irvine students were divided into two teams, each entering their off-road vehicle worked on during the 2004-05 academic year. With 132 cars in this year’s competition, on a scale of 1,000 points, the UC Irvine “F-one” team placed 61st with 529.39 points and the “Ramrod” team placed 85th with 270.37 points.
“The requirements were extremely strict, and challenged the cars significantly. This really gave students the best experience of how a team of engineers succeed in their own company,” said McCarthy, the team’s advisor.
For the second consecutive year, McCarthy taught an elective course open to undergraduate senior-level students that primarily focused on planning and executing a large scale design project connected with an intercollegiate competition, in addition to generating financial support and resources. This year was the Mini Baja 100, while next year will be focused on the “Formula One” competition.
He created the elective in order to give students an opportunity to apply classroom knowledge in a practical, realistic project, large enough to require the division of tasks and coordination of their efforts, and has had a steady stream of students enrolled each quarter.
He said that students could choose to take all three quarters of the class, or simply participate in one chosen quarter.
“I find that engineers, on a daily basis, enjoy their job and have a good time. So many students only experience engineering inside the classroom, and the course of this project provides exactly those aspects of engineering that are found in industry, complete with proving the worth of their design in competition,” he said.
During the three-day competition, the students made technical, design, and sales presentations, in addition to passing the vehicle’s technical inspections and participating in the endurance tests. McCarthy said this part of the competition was particularly challenging because the safety guidelines were very rigorous, and if the vehicle did not pass any part of the thorough inspection, students were expected to fix the technical problems immediately.
Once through the technical inspections, the students were given the opportunity to show off their vehicle’s durability, speed, maneuverability, and rock and hill climbing by racing through the training site during their endurance tests.
“This gave them the ultimate, real-world experience of whether the consumer would buy their product,” McCarthy added.
He also said that he learned an exceptional amount as both a professor and an advisor, and constantly looked for ways to improve this course for future students.
Next year, McCarthy plans to help re-establish and advise the SAE student chapter on campus. He said the primary purpose of the club will be to help promote, organize, and fundraise for these student competitions.