Wyatt Slifcak driving for the maneuverability run at SAE Louisville.
Resilience and pride
Student groups found creative ways to keep going despite the pandemic.
Baja racing is a team sport that begins with brainstorming, design and prototyping — all activities that became a challenge when Covid-19 shut down maker spaces and restricted gatherings.
So members of CWRU Motorsports Baja SAE were especially excited to arrive at a national competition in Louisville in spring 2021 with an off-road vehicle they managed to build and test. Not only were they the first of the engineering student groups to re-emerge from the pandemic at a live competition, but they took two first place trophies — in Maneuverability and Hill Climb.
Wyatt Slifcak ’21, who led the team to Louisville as captain of CWRU Motorsports, said the team’s best showing in years was made sweeter by the uncommon challenges. Without regular access to Sears think[box], team members worked with local parts makers, tinkered in their home garages and collaborated via Zoom.
“It was a wild year for us and it was great to come home with the hardware,” he said. “Me as captain, I’m just absolutely amazed at the effort and the resilience the team showed.”
CWRU Motorsports is one of about two dozen engineering student groups that saw a year upended by Covid-19. CWRU closed campus in March 2020, a few weeks before the end of spring semester, and school did not return to near normal until this fall. For much of the 2020-2021 school year, the student groups saw schedules scrambled, events canceled, and collaboration challenged by the switch to remote learning.
Yet their missions, to enhance science and engineering education with real-world experiences, remained as critical as ever. So most of the student groups strove to soldier on, engaging members now scattered to hometowns or living alone in dorm rooms.
“We tried really hard to keep students engaged, because you could never really be sure where they were. Their connection to the campus community might have been broken,” said Sonia Velu, a fourth-year chemical engineering major and a Peer Advisor for the Case School of Engineering.
She noted that some student groups had an easier pivot than others. The Entrepreneurship Club, which she co-founded, could hold meetings and feature guest speakers via Zoom. Others found ways to improvise.
Student groups get creative
To continue its tradition of staging a Lightbulb Drop for Engineers Week in February, the Women in Science and Engineering Roundtable (WISER) offered both in-person and virtual options. Students signed up for time slots at the on-campus competition, assuring social distancing, or submitted a video of their off-campus drop.
With in-person workshops impossible, the Case Rocket Team focused on the future and what it could do. Team members were able to design and manufacture two small test rockets and complete a competition paper that garnered rave reviews. Both accomplishments put them in good stead this year, when some live competitions are scheduled to resume.
Meanwhile, the Humanitarian Design Corps/Engineers Without Borders, a student group that typically sends problem-solving teams abroad, had to find a new way to nurture globally-minded engineers.
Instead of flying teams to Malawi and the Dominican Republic to carry out water purification and solar energy projects, the students switched to “remote implementation,” contracting with local builders to complete plans drawn up on campus.
“We kept the projects going, which I think is a huge success,” said club president Eileen Petros, a fourth-year student majoring in biomedical engineering and computer science.
She noted the student group also raised money to buy masks for the community it assists in the Dominican Republic. “So there was a lot we could still do,” she observed.
Many groups adopted that motto and ran with it.
Baja breaks out
The Society of Automotive Engineers sponsors Baja SAE, inter-collegiate competitions that challenge engineering students to design and build an off-road vehicle for rough terrain. CWRU Motorsports aimed for SAE Louisville May 20-23 and its return to live competition — despite an unprecedented engineering challenge. For the first time, SAE called for an all-wheel drive vehicle.
Normally, the team of about 30 engineering and engineering-minded students convenes in fall to review the new standards, design a car and manufacture and assemble parts at Sears think[box].
With the campus maker space closed for much of the year, group members sent parts orders to area machines shops and to sponsors, trying to get a car built. The Case Alumni Foundation had provided critical funds for materials to make and test one car, but group members had bigger ideas.
In the second semester, when access to think[box] loosened, the maker space was busy with Baja members most every night, Slifcak said. He noted that some students invested 70 to 80 hours a week.
“We had this idea for a top secret system, and we didn’t know if it was going to work,” he said. “So we made a four-wheel drive prototype to test it. We were basically able to build two cars.”
The competition car was completed in time for SAE Louisville, but the team now had another problem: no money to travel. The Case Alumni Foundation came through again. It provided $3,500 to send 11 team members and faculty advisor Professor Richard Bachmann to the national competition.
“So all these people who worked their butts off all year were able to go,” Slifcak said. “The alumni made that happen. Obviously, we’re incredibly grateful. There’s no way we would have been able to pull this off on our own.”
Janna Greer, the Manager of Donor Relations and Grants for the Case Alumni Foundation, described it as a good investment.
“When Wyatt reached out to me to let me know that they had permission to travel and compete, I was thrilled and knew the foundation board would appreciate the use of these funds,” she said. “Knowing what Baja has been able to achieve during this complicated year is a testament to all of the students’ dedication, passion and drive. I’m so proud of their accomplishments in Louisville!”
Against 60 collegiate teams, CWRU Motorsports placed 23rd overall and came home with two first-place trophies, posting the two fastest times in both Maneuverability and the dramatic Hill Climb.
“Essentially, our all-wheel drive system was just incredibly light and incredibly powerful,” Slifcak said. “We were the lightest car at the competition. That engineering was really critical to making the car handle well, and go up a hill drive like that.”
Slifcak, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, feels the club is in good hands — led by engineering students Mike Buccieri ’22 and Leland Frantz ’22 — and ready to roar into the post-pandemic world.
He understands their motivation.
“We do it because we love it,” he said.
To help support Baja and other engineering student groups, please contact Janna Greer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Baja team lifts the nimble car that won key events at SAE Louisville.
Students in the Humanitarian Design Corps worked
on a water project in Costa Rica in 2018.
Members of the Case Rocket Team hope to
return to live competition in 2022.