Car Competition Opens New Opportunities For Houston Students

At one Houston high school there’s a class that doesn’t rely much on textbooks or blackboards. Instead, the lessons can often mean getting your hands dirty. And what some of the students are learning is taking them to places they might otherwise never go.


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You could mistake it for your neighborhood car repair shop. There are big bay doors and noisy tools and a few cars up on the rack. But in this case it's a classroom at Elsik High School in Alief ISD.

Angel Rodriguez, 18, is a senior at Elsik. He and his family are from Mexico and they immigrated to the U.S. a few years ago.

They needed a family vehicle and Rodriguez did some research. And he ended up getting bit by the car bug.

"I found that cars actually have more than what I used to know," says Rodriguez. "That you just get in a car, turn it on and just drive it. But I found out that a car is much more complex than that."

Now Rodriguez is taking his interest to the next level. He's leading Elsik's team for the Shell Eco-Marathon.

In April the team will go to Detroit to compete against high school and college teams from all over North America, to see who can build the most fuel-efficient vehicle. Rodriguez is hoping they can get some mileage from a single-cylinder gas engine.

"This gasoline engine gives us hundreds of miles per gallon," explains Rodriguez. "We're not 100 percent sure of what's our mileage. But we predict that it's going to be in the 200 range."

Now when the students say they're building a car, they really mean it.

They came up with a design for their stripped-down vehicle and put it on paper. Then, they constructed a fiberglass chassis.

But Rodriguez says the Eco-Challenge is not just about creating a vehicle. It's also about teamwork.

"Me, I want to go ahead and do everything that I know how to do," says Rodriguez. "But as a team leader, as a team manager, I have to let my partners, my friends work on things they have never done before. And this is the whole point of this project here at school, for us to learn things that we have never done before."

Overseeing the shop is auto tech instructor Ernest Lozano. He came to Elsik after running his own car repair business and he's now teaching the next generation.

Lozano explains that Elsik's shop is nationally-certified. That means students can earn certificates that help them go on to further education.

"The most important feedback we get from people that hire our students is that your kids come in and they actually know their way around a shop," says Lozano. "And that's a big plus to them since they work safely, they don't get hurt."

And kids get that training through activities like the Shell Eco-Marathon.

During the four-day event in Detroit, the students actually camp out at the convention center and work on the vehicle throughout the competition. There's also a multi-point inspection. Students have to answer questions to prove they actually did the work.

But for the aspiring mechanics at Elsik, the trip itself is a big deal.

Lozano says over 80 percent of Elsik's students live below the poverty level and many hardly ever leave the neighborhood. He says when they return from the competition, students will often tell him that their lives will never be the same.

Meanwhile student Angel Rodriguez is looking at what's ahead. He already has a job fixing cars in a body shop.

"All I wanted to do was to be able to build one, to be able to have one," says Rodriguez. "And I saw that a body man, that's what they do. And I like painting the cars. I like working on the body, making it look good, making the paint look shiny. And that's what I would tell to another person, other young people, just follow what you like and do what you like."

The Elsik team hopes to have its competition vehicle up and running by mid-March.

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Gail Delaughter

Gail Delaughter

Transportation Reporter

From early-morning interviews with commuters to walks through muddy construction sites, Gail covers all aspects of getting around Houston. That includes walking, driving, cycling, taking the bus, and occasionally flying. Before she became transportation reporter in 2011, Gail hosted weekend programs for Houston Public Media. She's also covered courts in...

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