Engineering students participate in the SAE Baja competition for senior capstone seminar

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The small off-road vehicle was created by UAA Baja team for the SAE Competition at the end of April. The team's vehicle will be tested through a variety of terrain tests. Photo credit: UAA Baja team

Since the fall semester of 2016, the UAA Baja team has been designing, building and preparing for the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Baja competition taking place in Gorman, California on April 27-30. Baja is one of the SAE’s colligate design competitions that challenges senior engineering students to design, plan and construct a micro baja car. The purpose of this competition is to allow students to use what they’ve learned in engineering courses and apply it to a real-world engineering challenge. The competition consists of various events to test teams from all over the United States on their engineering capability. Some of the events will include acceleration, hill climb, maneuverability and suspension. These students will be competing for awards and scholarships based on their vehicles performances and efficiency.

A majority of the UAA Baja team members are participating in the SAE Baja competition as their senior design project for their capstone credit. Dustin Cook and Logan Sutton, mechanical engineering majors and co-captains of the UAA Baja team, have put in countless hours and hard work into the off-road vehicle along with the rest of the team.

“My favorite part was also probably my least favorite part because I am the only one on the team capable of the welding that needs to take place. I do enjoy welding and fabricating and that’s why I was chosen as kind of the fabrication half captain,” Sutton said. “So, I enjoy the hands-on welding and grinding and making something from nothing, but with that, I’m also the only one who really does a lot of the welding, so there have been a couple late nights where it’s just been required that I had to get it done, so it’s a double edge sword.”

There are a few underclassmen on the team volunteering with the development of the project, like Zachary Lestenkof, civil engineering major, who will help in their senior capstone project in the future.

“This project doesn’t give me any credit as an underclassmen. However, this has been a great learning experience for me and has helped provide me for knowledge that I can use when I do this for my senior design project,” Lestenkof said. “It has been extremely fun and has been a great use of my spare time. Another awesome thing about this project is its ability to teach someone how to work effectively under pressure, which is a valuable tool for an engineering student to have.”

The upside of participating in the SAE Baja competition is the learning experience gained from the project development. Sometimes, it is difficult to gain experience throughout college courses and this competition gives a way for engineering students to learn the full process of being an engineer.

“Whatever you’re building, you make it tangible. You make it alive instead of just in the computer, it’s now in front of you and you can see how it works based on what you design, so that huge for any engineer because a lot of us just don’t get the experience and that’s why Baja is really good for that,” Cook said.

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Designing and building the car is a major part of the competition. However, there are many different aspects that come into play in the development of the off-road vehicle such as documentation, finance and other paperwork that does not involve building.

“It’s not just for people who are gearheads that are into cars because there’s so much else involved with design reports and logistics and things you wouldn’t think would be in it into building a go-kart,” Sutton said. “So, if somebody was curious about the other side of any sort of project, this shows every aspect of a project, not just how to build a car and compete with it.”

With designing and building a micro baja car, there are bound to be problems that occur. Although a problem might be difficult to fix, in the end, there is no greater feeling than overcoming an issue.

“When you’re working through something for hours or sometimes days trying to get it to work the way you wanted and being able to finally figure it out and have all that spent energy be worth it feels amazing,” Lestenkof said.

This project has not only helped engineering students gain experience but find a calling through their school and future career.

“One of my biggest passions in life is cars. I’m currently a civil engineering major but this project confirmed something I was on the fence about; switching my major to mechanical engineering,” Lestenkof said. “When I got to drive the car for the first time it was definitely a rewarding experience, and I now look forward to participating in Baja in the coming years. It’s also been nice to collaborate and work with other engineering students around me because I feel like working with your peers is a highly educational experience.”

With the competition coming up in April, the UAA Baja team are now working on their final touches and repairs, but most importantly, fundraising for shipping of the off road vehicle, airfare for the team, transportation and other traveling expenses. The UAA Baja team is looking for sponsors to help bring them down to California and show what the UAA engineering students in Alaska have to offer.