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Hands-on Activity: Racing with the Sun - Creating a Solar Car
Contributed by: Techtronics Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University

These are solar cars built by middle school students from Rogers Herr Middle School in Durham, NC, while participating in the Duke University Techtronics Program.
These are solar cars built by middle school students from Rogers Herr Middle School in Durham, NC, while participating in the Duke University Techtronics Program.


Students use engineering design principles to construct and test a fully solar powered car. Several options exist, though we recommend the "Junior Solar Sprint" (JSS) Car Kits that can be purchased with direction from the federal government. Using the JSS kit from Solar World, students were provided with a photovoltaic panel that produces ~3V at ~3W. An optional accessory kit also available from Solar World includes wheels, axels and drive gears. A chassis must be built additionally. Balsa wood provides an excellent option though many others are available. The testing of the solar car culminates in a solar race between classmates.

Engineering Connection

Engineering analysis or partial design

Building and testing a solar car combines aspects of electrical and mechanical engineeering.


  1. Pre-Req Knowledge
  2. Learning Objectives
  3. Materials
  4. Introduction/Motivation
  5. Vocabulary
  6. Procedure
  7. Attachments
  8. Safety Issues
  9. Troubleshooting Tips
  10. Investigating Questions
  11. Assessment
  12. Extensions

Grade Level: 6 (6-8) Group Size: 2
Time Required: 3.5 hours
Activity Dependency :None
Expendable Cost Per Group
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Related Curriculum :

Educational Standards :    

  •   International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
  •   North Carolina: Science
Does this curriculum meet my state's standards?       

Pre-Req Knowledge (Return to Contents)

Students should have completed the lesson "From Sunlight to Electric Current."

Learning Objectives (Return to Contents)

At the end of this lesson students should ...

  • Connect a solar photovoltaic panel to a motor and a run the motor forwards and backwards.

Materials List (Return to Contents)

JSS-KIT and JSS-ACC (solar car and accessory kit)

The Junior Solar Sprint (JSS) kit and accessory kit may be bought separately from Solarmade with the following materials:
  • Solar panel
  • 2 axles
  • 4 wheels (sized to fit axle)
  • Driving gear (sized to fit axle)
  • Electric, DC powered motor
  • Different gears for motor
  • A drill with bits is also needed to help size gears to fit axles

Chassis materials

  • Balsa wood – flat 4x 8 inch boards and ½x ½ inch pieces
  • Wood glue
  • Paints for decoration
  • Paint brushes
  • Utility Knives

Introduction/Motivation (Return to Contents)

Cars are intrinsically exciting to many students. Solar powered cars are even more so. Very little is required to motivate students to engage in this project. Discussing solar car competitions in which college students participate and providing some statistics about those solar cars and the challenges they face can be a good way to introduce this activity.

Vocabulary/Definitions (Return to Contents)

Current: movement of electrons
Voltage: designates "electric pressure" that exists between two points and is capable of producing a flow of current when a closed circuit is connected between the two points (can also be considered with the analogy of elevation: just as a hill will have water flow down it, a voltage will have current flow in the direction from high to low)
Photovoltaic Cell: This is a semiconductor device that converts the energy of sunlight into electric energy.
Conductor: This is a material that allows electricity to move through it easily. That is, it is a material with low electrical resistance, one in which a fairly small voltage will produce a fairly large current.
Chassis: This is the frame that holds the body and motor of an automobile together.
Axle: This is the supporting shaft on which a set of wheels revolves.

Students should construct their cars in the following order:

  1. Setup the car body (chassis).
  2. Add the axle and wheels.
  3. Add the motor.
  4. Then mount the solar panels.
  5. Once the vehicle is completed, testing can begin (weather permitting).
  6. The activity culminates in a race!

Consider the following though:

  • Using the materials listed above, students should be given the freedom to choose their own designs.
  • Photovoltaic cells do not deliver nearly as much power to a motor as a battery does. Keep your solar cars light.
  • You should judge where your motor should go BEFORE you actually add it to the body.
  • Make sure your panels point towards the sun and that they are steady.

Safety Issues (Return to Contents)

  • A drill may be needed to bore out the holes for the gears and wheels. Only instructors should do this. A nail just smaller than the axle may also be used to bore out the holes if necessary.
  • Glue should not be ingested.
  • Use of utility knives should be supervised.

Troubleshooting Tips (Return to Contents)

  • If the motor is running backwards, reverse the wires.
  • If acceleration seems to be quite slow or the motor is not producing enough torque to get the car moving from rest, change the gear ratio.

Investigating Questions (Return to Contents)

  • How can the power created by the solar cells be maximized? (A possible answer: The sun light should be striking the surface of the solar panel at about 90 degrees.)
  • How can acceleration be maximized? (Work with gear ratio)

Solar Car Assessment Questions

  • Did the angle of the solar panel affect the performance of your car? Why?
  • How does the sun power your car? Please explain each step.

Activity Extensions (Return to Contents)

If the teacher is interested, students may use these kits to compete in the Junior Solar Sprint competition sponsored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratories.


Rahmin Sarabi, Primary Content Creator, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University, Roni Prucz, Primary Content Creator, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University


© 2004 by Engineering K-Ph.D. Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University
including copyrighted works from other educational institutions and/or U.S. government agencies; all rights reserved.

Supporting Program (Return to Contents)

Techtronics Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University

Last Modified: April 24, 2014
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