ISD electric car

Iowa School for the Deaf metal student Curtis Dobias, left, communicates with driver Kory Wattier during a test run of their hand-built electric car, which they'll use to compete in the Power Drive program. 

Metal shop students at the Iowa School for the Deaf built a translucent electric car as part of a classroom project designed to fuse teamwork with engineering principles.

The vehicle was built by students after working on a prototype earlier in the year. The Power Drive program offers organized rallies to show off and test vehicles, culminating in a contest scoring the vehicles on braking, maneuverability and endurance.

DJ Meyer said the driver must weigh less than 120 pounds and be able to exit the car in 20 seconds – their main driver can do it in 12 – in case of an emergency. The car’s insignia, N-78, refers to it being in the novice class, open to teams of students who have not participated in the contest previously.

The students’ goal for the next competition, the state contest set for May 3, is to make the car drive uninterrupted for an hour.

Doing so will require adjustments to make the vehicle energy-efficient, keep the batteries charged and otherwise make sure “all of the ducks are in the row,” teacher Scott Versch said.

“I think we’ll do pretty well,” he said.

Toward that end, the group was out testing the car earlier this week, doing laps in one of the school’s parking lots. At one point, the students proved the quality of their brakes – “we have good brakes,” Versch said – with a not-quite near-miss with a car pulling into the lot.

A short while later, the driver, Kory Wattier, pulled in for the pit crew to do an examination of the vehicle, which was starting to have difficulties.

“It wasn’t working,” he told his classmates. “I’m not really sure what is going on – it was hard to turn.”

As the students spend time in the shop preparing the vehicle for competition, Versch is getting ready to present the car to the Iowa Board of Regents, who will be meeting next week at ISD. He is scheduled present Thursday afternoon, according to the regents’ meeting agenda.

Working on the electric car teaches students a lot of technical skills, such as measuring, working with metals and problem-solving, Versch said. But the soft skills, like working together as a team, are just as crucial, he said.

“Teamwork is something some students may not get access to,” he said.

That’s an area where the team already excels. At the Big Red Invitational on April 5, the ISD team won the pit crew award for teamwork after the car had a problem with its electrical system.

Wattier had stopped the car during the contest, pulling over so it could be examined. Meyer lifted the wheel to get to the trouble spot. They then worked as a group and didn’t blame anyone, Versch said.

“They found the problem and found a way to fix it,” he said.

The students in the class learn how to ask for help and how to do work that could land them a job someday. Some of them are ready to make that leap from the school’s nurturing campus into the real world, a transition already fraught with challenges for any high-school senior.

Take metals student Curtis Dobias, for example.

Dobias plans to attend Metropolitan Community College’s South Omaha campus to study heating, ventilation and air conditioning, with the dream of traveling around the country repairing heating and cooling systems.

“I’d like to be able to have a job where I can go out of town,” he said. “I like going outside rather than being indoors only.”

He said he was drawn to HVAC repair as a career because he enjoys fixing things, and he happens to be quite good at it.

“I love anything that’s hands-on,” Dobias said.

Dobias said he started saving for college last June, when he took a summer job cleaning up dog waste. He also hopes to turn a profit selling a couple cars he bought at auction and has since renovated.

“I’ve been trying to put money aside,” he said. “I want to be successful, and I know going to college is going to help.”

Finding a part-time job, though, is challenging, he said. He said he had to fill out a lot of applications, and he would feel frustrated when an opportunity fell through because he required an interpreter to be interviewed.

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To be able to help students like Dobias afford to attend college, ISD will host a benefit luncheon on May 7.

“Sound Futures” will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Lied Multipurpose Complex on the ISD campus at 3501 Harry Langdon Blvd.

The luncheon will include a scholarship presentation, a brief program and interactive exhibits, including the 300-pound electric car built by the students. Tickets are $50 per person, and reservations must be made by Wednesday by calling (712) 366-0571.

At the luncheon, Dobias will be one of several students receiving college scholarships. He will be presented with $500 donated by a family of one of the school’s alumni, Outreach Coordinator Cynthia Angeroth said.

Upon learning he would receive the scholarship from Angeroth, Dobias said he was shocked. He said the money will help pay for textbooks and tools he will need to complete his studies.

“Oh, that’s wonderful – thank you,” he said. “College is not cheap.”

Angeroth said competition is fierce for low-skill jobs in Iowa, and many employers do not want to pay for interpreters for the interview and training if they feel the employee will move on after only a few months on the job. She said locally interpreters charge $40 an hour for a two-hour minimum.

Employers are concerned that communication may be more difficult and that deaf employees could pose a safety risk. Making matters harder for students at ISD is the fact that residents of the school go home on weekends – so their work schedules aren’t flexible – and many students do not have cars, making transportation to work difficult as well.

That’s why many students at the school may agree with the prevailing notion that college students ought to “get a job and pay for it yourself” but lack the opportunity to do so, trapping them to either go deep into debt or skip college – decisions that can have serious financial consequences.

Thus the importance of the May 7 fundraiser and the scholarships awarded by the Iowa School for the Deaf Foundation, Angeroth said.

Dobias said an education will provide him an opportunity to make money to do what he loves, such as working on cars. At the end of the day, he has the skills to be employed, and he knows that will carry him past any obstacles in his path – like any other job-seeker who has the skills but has struggled to find the opportunity to show them.

“I know I can do anything with my hands,” he said. “I know what to do.”

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