An EVolocity design in full flight. Photo: EVolocity

The hands-on charity asking Aotearoa’s kids to design our EV future

EVolocity is using innovation, creativity and the incoming electric vehicle revolution to encourage kids into STEM education. Madeleine Chapman talks to its founders about the how and why of their mission.

If the kids make an electric vehicle that can travel faster than 50km per hour, there may have to be an intervention. That’s too fast for school health and safety standards, even if it’s kind of the point. The kids are really teenagers, and their electric vehicles have been conceptualised, designed, and built at school as part of one charity’s push to teach STEM in an accessible, hands-on, and most importantly, fun way. 

The electric vehicle movement has grown exponentially since even five years ago, and a whole new sector will require future experts sooner rather than later. To get young people interested and involved in the future of technology, Rob McEwen, a 40-year business veteran who has been involved in the clean energy sector since 2003, started a programme in 2014 where schoolkids could literally build an electric vehicle. The EVolocity programme supplies schools with a basic toolkit: a 350-watt electric motor kit and batteries. It’s then up to the students to design and build a frame to house the motor and become an electric vehicle. 

The programme isn’t simply to let kids have fun souping up old bikes. It serves a dual purpose, said McEwen in 2017. “Its first purpose is to get more youth interested in engineering because New Zealand has a big skills shortage of engineers so we thought a future-focused programme would be appealing to youth and it has proven so.”

McEwen highlighted the importance of distinguishing kids from their parents and accepting that the teenagers of today won’t be working in the world their parents grew up in. “At the same time as getting them interested in engineering we want them to learn about the merits of electric vehicles. Both the environmental merits and the economic merits. Then sharing what they learn with their families and communities so that we’re driving greater uptake of electric vehicles in New Zealand.” 

The students work on their vehicles within their schools and then showcase them at the end of the year at regional competitions around the country. Most are held at go-karting tracks where vehicles are judged on performance, innovation, show, and teams on reporting and community awareness. 

Last-minute tuning at the 2019 Wellington/Manawatu Regional finals. Photo: EVolocity/Facebook

It’s proven to be a successful formula. When the first EVolocity competition was held in Canterbury in 2014, there were 16 teams entered from 11 schools. There are now over 100 schools from over 70 schools entering around the country. There’s no shortage of organisations wanting to be involved in supporting the programme, with EVolocity now a Z Energy Good in the Hood charity. 

Z’s support of EVolocity is unsurprising, given the company’s ethos. “Z stands for empowering our youth and communities, and taking real, meaningful action on climate change,” says Gerri Ward, Z”s head of sustainability and community. “EVolocity’s kaupapa enables both of these outcomes beautifully, and in such a tangible and fun way.”

With greater competition comes greater innovation. At the latest showcase in December, two teams built and entered mono-wheels (single-wheeled vehicles), causing a categorisation headache. For CEO Debbie Baker, the growth has been welcomed, despite the logistical hurdles. “Teachers that I speak to are just so enthusiastic about it because it’s hands-on learning in STEM,” she says. “Instead of sitting there with a whiteboard and going ‘this is physics’, they’re actually doing things like designing, welding, they’re learning how to calculate, how to work out what’s making a vehicle go faster or slower.” 

The mode of learning was vital to the programme’s success with a diverse range of students. “It’s really important for young women, Māori, Pasifika,” she says. “Kinesthetic learning, for many students across the country, is how they learn best.” For young women in particular, who are typically believed to be less hands-on in their learning, EVolocity has proven a game-changer. One girls’ school joined four years ago and didn’t have any tools or classroom space to work on their project so had to use part of the janitor’s office. Now they have workbenches, welding equipment, and any number of hand tools for all students to use. Girls will forever be hands-off learners if they’re never given the chance to use their hands.

Some schools enter student teams in EVolocity as an extra-curricular activity, but most integrate it into their curriculum, offering NCEA credits in exchange for skills demonstrated throughout the programme.

But while the short-term goal of EVolocity is to inspire passion in engineering and design among teenagers (they also plan to branch out into smaller communities without such access to engineering facilities) the long-term goal is far more wide-reaching: helping to stem the disastrous effects fossil fuels have had on our planet.

The designs produced by the programme range from traditional to ambitious. Photo: EVolocity

“Right throughout the programme there’s a lot of talk about sustainability, the impact that petrol powered vehicles and fossil fuels have on the environment,” says Baker. “We know that electric vehicles aren’t perfect but there’s a lot of movement in countries like Japan to see how we can recycle and improve it.”

There is already a shortage in qualified mechanics to fix the influx of electric vehicles, and by the middle of this decade, the need for knowledge and expertise in a relatively new sector will be even greater. “In three or four years’ time, if there are more electric vehicles full stop – I’ve seen electric forklifts, electric trucks, electric trains – we’ll need people who know how to fix and maintain them.”

In 2018 the Young Enterprise winners were a team of young men whose business electrified standard push bikes brought in by customers looking to upcycle. The winning team was entirely made up of EVolocity students. 

The world is swiftly moving to alternative sources of energy, both through innovation and necessity. Concepts that felt distantly futuristic last decade are now distinctly possible. Electric vehicles are the first, though certainly not the last, step in curbing the catastrophic effects of fossil fuels and petrol cars. The world is changing fast and young generations need to move fast just to keep up. At the regional EVolocity challenges, vehicles that travel over 50km/h may require an engine. You can’t move that fast on a vehicle designed, built, and ridden by teenagers. That’s the rule, but the kids always want to go faster.

This content was produced in paid partnership with Z Energy. Learn more about our partnerships here


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