Research & Innovation

On and Off The Road, Stevens Mechanical Engineering Students Get Their Hands Dirty

Designing and building racecar systems provides real-world engineering experiences and teaches the value of teamwork

Dirty Ducks Baja Race car

Switches, a gas tank, a steering rack, and various materials and tools to build a frame, suspension, and powertrain – amid the sounds of clanging metal and buzzing machines in a small garage on the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology, students are getting their hands dirty designing and building a Baja off-road car.

It is hard work, but the thrill of building something that drives is something the students all share. “It is a labor of love, sometimes more on the labor side though,” says Joseph S. Kaczynski, who is entering his senior year in the bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering program at Stevens. “But getting in and driving never ceases to put a smile on my face and everyone around always shares the same sentiment.”

For William Harris, who recently graduated from Stevens with a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, both in mechanical engineering, the work involved in designing and building a Baja off-road car fulfills one of his favorite past times. “Personally, building cars and working on them has been a strong hobby of mine since I was very young,” he says, adding that he has also rebuilt dirt bikes and jet skis in his free time.

But these days, free time is a luxury for Harris and Kaczynski, and fellow members of Dirty Ducks Racing, the local school chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The team, named after Stevens’ beloved mascot, Attila the Duck, is getting ready for the Baja SAE competition in Rochester, New York from June 6-9.

SAE is a professional organization that promotes student participation in the field of automotive engineering. Part of the SAE collegiate series, the Baja SAE competition encourages young engineers to apply the theory they’ve learned in the classroom to a complex, real design problem, while gaining exposure to the practical and professional aspects of the automotive engineering field.

More than a competition, an opportunity for teamwork and camaraderie

The goal of the project is to build a prototype “for a reliable, maintainable, ergonomic, and economic production vehicle that serves a recreational user market,” according to Baja SAE competition rules. Ready to hit the dirt road, the team’s single-seat, all-terrain sporting vehicle will undergo a technical inspection for safety. Tests on acceleration and braking, handling, hill climb, suspension, and endurance will take place at the event as well.

“The competition challenges my engineering knowledge in a real world, complicated, and fun project,” says Harris.

Race car frame
Students working on the 2018 race car.

Fellow Dirty Ducks team member, Kaczynski, sees the competition as more than just a race at the end of the school year. “It is an extremely powerful way to get people to work together,” he says. The team is made up of two sub-teams of students, from graduating seniors to first-year students and across different majors. Each group is focused on a system. The Senior Design Team designed the critical systems, mainly the powertrain and suspension. Other team members built components such as body panels, seat, and the steering system. And at every level, there was input from various other people involved, including faculty advisors.

“Designing and building racecar systems for the Baja SAE competition teaches real-world engineering experiences and the value of teamwork,” says Dr. Alexander De Rosa, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering & Science at Stevens.

Their vehicle is more than an engine on wheels built for a competition; it is complex integration of systems and parts working in synergy – a reflection on the power of collaboration. Because each system that is designed requires integration with other systems and into the car as a whole, teamwork is an integral part of the project, explains De Rosa.

There is kinship felt among the students, even from the other colleges, according to Harris. “The SAE BAJA has a great atmosphere, is competitive, and extremely fun. All of the other teams from different colleges across the world are eager to help and lend advice,” he says.

But he is reminded that Baja SAE is ultimately a competition. “When it comes down to the static events such as the design and cost competition and the dynamic events, and especially the suspension, maneuverability, hill climb, acceleration, and the endurance race, everyone gets down to business and wants to win.”

Even as the Stevens team aims to win, they are clear eyed about the opportunities to learn.

“Our project is less about building the fastest car possible and more about enriching the education of everyone involved,” says Kaczynski. “The value of learning and enjoying the countless hours spent in the shop is much higher than climbing a few spots in the competition.”

Building upon lessons learned and a Stevens education

Building on the knowledge and experience gained from last year’s car, the first built by a team at Stevens, this year’s car is mostly new. A few minor components from last year’s car were used: the gas tank, some switches, and steering rack, for example. But the major systems, including the frame, suspension, powertrain, and seat, have been completely redesigned and rebuilt.

“We started the process in August 2018,” says De Rosa. “Though the students are using experience and knowledge gained from last year's car, major improvements in this year’s car are in the powertrain as we built a custom gearbox rather than using something off the shelf as we did last year.”

Baja SAE mandates a standard engine and frame material for all teams. “Very few systems in the car can be improved upon solely by injecting more money into the program,” explains Kaczynski. “Design is king, and the successful teams have engineered the best solution with what they are given. To make our car go faster, it takes real investment to understand how the system works.”

This year’s car is significantly lighter and incremental improvements have been made to other systems such as the braking system, steering, and others.

“The 2019 vehicle is over 100 pounds lighter, manufactured much better, and overall has a more performance-oriented design,” says Harris. “Institutional knowledge is priceless in these competitions and we are only at the tip of the iceberg.”

“My academic experience has been great at Stevens and has set me up well to compete in Baja. We have a strong theoretical foundation and it shows in our initial design iterations,” Harris adds. Kaczynski agrees. “The combination of this competition and my coursework has pushed me further than I ever thought possible.”

NYC auto show booth
Dr. Alexander De Rosa with Stevens student at the 2019 NYC Auto Show.

While these competitions allow students to get their hands dirty, on and off the road, it also provides opportunities to learn other valuable real-world skills.

“Students gain valuable exposure with recruiters from leading companies in the mobility industry to help land their first engineering job after graduation,” says De Rosa.

As part of the project, students are exposed to the business side of the industry. They have to provide documentation that goes along with the car, including production plans and cost reports. Student participants must also demonstrate budgeting, communication, project and resource management skills.

While on display at the Auto Show in NYC earlier this year, the car generated interest from potential donors, as well as potential students. And in addition to funds provided by the Stevens Student Government Association and Senior Design Sponsorship, the students fundraised more than $2,000 in donations to support their efforts.

For the love of building and engineering

Many of the undergraduate students involved in this project will take lead roles in next year’s efforts, aiming to build upon this year’s success.

“The hands-on application of engineering theory is really what the students take away from the project, as well as the need to work in teams and communicate as they would do in the real world and in their careers,” says De Rosa.

For example, after graduation Harris will begin his new role as a rotational engineer to work on research and development into fusion energy. His experience at Stevens has helped to provide a path into the role as he discovered his enjoyment of energy transfer through his love of engines. He plans to continue building and hopes to one day rebuild a classic car and complete his vintage motorcycle.

As for Kaczynski, he will continue to pursue his formal education; he is looking to earn his master’s degree in 2021 through Stevens’ Accelerated Master’s Program. After that, he hopes to work full-time close to home for a couple years before pursuing his dream job of designing mountain bikes. This job would most likely relocate him to the west coast of the U.S., according to Kaczynski, but he realizes that not everything may turn out the way he plans. “I just want to enjoy what I do for a living,” he says.