Solar Car Challenge Opens Doors For Young Women In STEM

By Sakshi Venkatraman
The Dallas Morning News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Margaret Seastrand, a rising junior from Plano Academy High School in Texas is leading the electrical team for the “Titan Solar Car Club,” one of 22 high school teams competing in a solar powered car race from Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth to Minneapolis.

The Dallas Morning News

On Sunday, students from 22 high schools across the nation packed their bags, adjusted their solar panels, and prepared to race cross country in homemade machines for the 2016 Solar Car Challenge.

Founded in 1993 by Dr. Lehman Marks, the Solar Car Challenge Foundation aims to get students interested in science by giving them an opportunity to design, construct and race solar powered cars. This year, the students are racing from Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth to Minneapolis.

While encouraging kids to get involved in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) from a young age, the Solar Car Challenge also making an effort to bring young girls into the field. In the STEM sector of the job market, women are vastly underrepresented, with only 13 percent in engineering and 25 percent in computer and mathematical sciences.

“I think a lot of women feel like it’s a guy’s thing,” rising junior from Plano Academy High School Margaret Seastrand said.

“A lot of guys will see a girl and think she’s not capable of doing anything. That’s what happened to me at the beginning of this project and I fought my way through to prove my spot.”

Thanks to a generous donation from Honda, Seastrand’s team was able to put their car together within three weeks. It was a rushed endeavor considering most teams spend a full school year working on their cars. They are the first Plano team to have competed in the challenge.

Seastrand, who leads the electrical team for the Titan Solar Car Club, says she has been fascinated by engineering since she was six years old.

“My dad was an architect so I have been interested in [engineering] for a long time,” she said. “I didn’t meet the team until this year and we had a lot of new people join which is how we were able to get it done. To see our car moving was the best thing ever. Every person on this team is dedicated to this car and has a skillset that helps the team out.”

She says she is most looking forward to watching the car break and figuring out how to fix it.

However, despite her knowledge and passion, she says her rise to prominence on the team was not an easy one.

“A lot of the guys were like, ‘Oh, she’ll just do the admin stuff.,'” Seastrand said. “I said, ‘nope, I’m on the electrical team. I’m going to build, I’m going to do this.’ For a while I kind of had to prove myself and sit behind my computer. When we started building, they saw what I could help with and they had a little more respect.”

Even though she still occasionally sees disrespect, Seastrand said the team environment has gotten much better.
“I was taught never to let a guy affect me,” she said.

Like many other girls participating in the challenge, Seastrand overcame many of her obstacles and found community in other participants. In fact, 48 percent of the high school students participating in the challenge are female, a much more even ratio of females and males.

“We are encouraging young ladies to get into engineering and science,” Marks said. “We offer statistics that say that if you complete this program, you’ve got the right stuff to make it in the industry.”

Marks started the challenge after being inspired by a group of his college students. Their first race, in 1995, took participants across Dallas County. This year, the 22 teams that entered the competition have the opportunity to race a 786-mile route from Texas to Minnesota.

They started racing Sunday. Along the way, the teams have seven rest stops in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Minnesota cities before the challenge ends in Minnesota on Saturday.

“The kids are doing wonderful stuff,” Marks said. “Everybody sort of bonds themselves as a family and by the time we reach the end, it’s not New York and Colorado and Mississippi and California, it’s one group of people. Seeing that light in their eyes is just wonderful.”

The girls at the competition hope that this generation will bring changes to the demographic in STEM fields. Seastrand said biomedical engineering is her passion and that’s what she plans to do in college and beyond.

“This is my passion and my joy and I deserve to be here,” Seastrand said. “It’s up to us women to help little girls who are going to be in the next generation. If I see a little girl that looks interested in [STEM], I make sure to tell her, ‘you can do this if you want’. When men say I can’t, it makes me push harder. I’m a very stubborn person and I will not get told no.”

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