Hard work and ingenuity helped The University of Texas-Pan American Mini Baja "Potro" team outpace many well-known universities during an off-terrain vehicle competition earlier this month.
The team placed 15th out of 110 universities from three countries in the Mini Baja 2010 Competition in Greenville, S.C. The event - sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers - involved having students design and build an off-terrain vehicle that can withstand various tests, including pulling another vehicle for 75 feet and driving the mini baja through a track of dirt paths that weave between trees.
Some universities the Potro team bested include John Hopkins University, the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Rochester Institute of Technology.
"It makes you feel confident in what you know and (being) a member of the team," said Humberto Rodriguez, a 21-year-old senior majoring in mechanical engineering and the team's co-captain.
UTPA's team has been competing in the event for the past 10 years, and each year members use what was learned in previous years -as well as some vehicle parts - to improve their models. For this year's competition, members began designing a new car last May and testing their prototype after winter break, Rodriguez said. Potro received much help from the university and alumni, but its budget was far smaller than some other schools that competed. Team members improvised and recycled parts from other vehicles to build their new one. Altogether, Team Potro spent about $7,000 in building the mini baja and traveling to South Carolina, members said.
At the competition, vehicles underwent testing to see if their engines and breaks worked properly, how fast they could accelerate and how much they could endure.
The UTPA vehicle fared well overall. Team co-captain Felipe Saavedra was able to pull a BMW sport utility vehicle all 75 feet and Rodriguez managed to drive the mini baja for 43 laps on the 1.3-mile race track.
Saavedra, a 20-year-old sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, said he was a bit nervous because this was the first year he was able to drive the vehicle, but overall was confident because he knew he and his fellow teammates built a reliable machine.
"In these types of events you learn to trust each other," he said.
The team co-captains and fellow members said they believe this year's competition was fiercer than last year's because there were so many well-respected schools participating.
"It's forcing us to pay attention to minor details," Rodriguez said.
The team's sponsor, Dr. Arturo A. Fuentes, an associate professor of engineering at UTPA, said the competition is a great learning experience because students must design their vehicles according to specific guidelines set by the organizers, just as they would have to create products according to a customer's liking. They also have to make sure their models can withstand the tests.
"There is no better way of teaching engineering than by doing engineering," Fuentes said.
The team already is working on making improvements for next year's competition. It hopes to place among the top 10 schools in 2011.
To see the team and "Potro" compete, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Uwasz_Zu8w&feature=related.