Philadelphia High School Students Design Car Of The Future

A group of students in the West Philadelphia High School Academy for Automotive and Mechanical Engineering are trying to create the car of the future. Their team, the West Philly Hybrid X, is competing in an adult-level car design contest with professional auto-manufacturing teams from around the world. The top prize: 10 million dollars. X Team captain Azeem Hill and faculty director Simon Hauger talk about the contest and what it could mean for the winners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, to a very different type of competition. West Philadelphia High School has spent years developing a program to build awesome cars in their Academy for Automotive and Mechanical Engineering. And now they are competing against the best of the best and trying to win some loot at the same time. The West Philly Hybrid X team has made the final group in a $10 million competition against adult car building teams from around the world. They are the high school team left in the competition, which started with 111 teams and 136 vehicles.

With me from Philadelphia to talk more are Azeem Hill, a senior co-captain -rather, a rising senior on the West Philly Hybrid X team - and Simon Hauger -sorry, Simon Hauger - the director of the X team. He's also former director of the West Philadelphia High School Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us. Congratulations.

Mr. AZEEM HILL (Co-Captain, West Philly Hybrid X Team): Thanks for having us.

Mr. SIMON HAUGER (Director, West Philly Hybrid X Team): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: All right, thank you. So, Simon, first, could you just give us a little background on how this academy got started?

Mr. HAUGER: Well, I started this after-school program about 12 years ago as looking for ways to engage kids. I happen to be teaching math and science in the Automotive Academy, which is the vocational wing of the school. And the short version is is that I very soon realized that all students don't learn the same way, and intelligence is not exhibited in the same way. Some of the smartest people that I've ever worked with were automotive technicians.

And so we developed this after-school program to bring the hands-on learning and math and science and technology together, and we're just looking for ways to engage and interest kids. And now we find ourselves in this huge competition.

MARTIN: Yeah. I was going to say, how did you find yourselves in this huge competition?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAUGER: Well, we entered a competition in 2000 called the Tour de Seoul. It was the first time a team of color had entered that competition. It was a national competition. And we went back in 2002 and won. We beat MIT that year. And the 2002 team left feeling like we could do anything.

And the team came up with this concept to develop a hybrid sports car. Nobody had done that. The students thought that the hybrid - normal hybrid vehicles are kind of bland, and to get that technology out there, they needed something that was cool and fun. We got quite a bit of publicity for the team. We won two more national competitions with that vehicle and developed quite a history of learning around hybrid vehicles that positioned us as the only high school being able to compete in this International Automotive X Prize.

MARTIN: Azeem, tell me about why you decided to get involved in this to begin with.

Mr. HILL: My ninth grade year, when I first joined the school, I asked Mr. Hauger, what is it I can do after school? Because I knew going into high school I'd have to have some extracurricular activity. So, yeah, Hauger told me about the EVX team. And I actually joined when we were having a conversation about the X Prize saying, you know, should we join this? Or shouldn't we join this? And if we join this, you know, what would happen? So, you know, now we're here, and we're one of the 22 teams left. And I'm glad to have been a part of that conversation.

MARTIN: What's fun about it?

Mr. HILL: I think what's fun about it is something that I feel as though I need to do, like, as far as being a good citizen goes, like, putting hybrid vehicles into the mainstream. Hybrid vehicles that get over 100 miles per gallon in the mainstream is something that I feel as though I'm obligated to help.

And another thing is just the people that we meet and the places that I go and the experiences that I gain are just - I can't get it anywhere else. So, that's why I do it.

MARTIN: Can you even drive yet?

Mr. HILL: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HILL: Actually, my mom hasn't even taught me how to drive yet, 'cause she's been, like, extra busy. But, yeah.

MARTIN: So, what are you hoping for here? What's the goal? A car that gets 100 miles per gallon, but is what? Just super cool?

Mr. HILL: Well, I hope we get the car together and everything, but honestly, now my concern has mostly been what happens to us next if we win, if we lose, you know. I believe we're going to win, but, you know, what happens next? You know, is our story, like, forgotten? Are we going to be, like - you know, are we going to be icons after this? Like, that's what I'm really thinking about right now.

'Cause it's not just what we're doing, technically, that's amazing, but it's just like our story and what it does for urban youth and education in this country as a whole that I want to see preserved.

MARTIN: Mr. Hauger, what about that? Tell me a little bit more about the kids who are competing, and, also, the fact that it must be tough, 'cause kids do graduate, you know, from high school. So just on its face, it must be harder to put a competitive group together with a school than it is for a group of people who could - professionals who could be together for years, you know, who are working with a car manufacturer or something like that.

Mr. HAUGER: Yeah. The local newspaper came out a couple months ago when we made the first cut to 43 teams and did a big story on us. And the reporter that showed up came right after school. And I only had less than half the team there that day. And I was really - I felt really embarrassed. She's, like, well, where are all the students? And I said, most of them have detention today. And she thought it was hysterical because her first comment was: Well, I bet you MIT didn't have any students in detention.

And a struck me, the number of things - the challenges that we face that a lot of teams don't face. And one of them is that we do have turnover. And how do we preserve the legacy of what's been learned? Kind of the institutional memory, how's the preserved and passed on. And so we do face a number of challenges. But really, at the end of the day, we're educators. So hybrid vehicles are very important, and the X Prize is very important. But even more important than that is this idea of engaging urban youth.

MARTIN: You know, that does seem a little incongruous, though. And I'm not trying to be snarky about it.

Mr. HAUGER: Right.

MARTIN: But it does incongruous that kids who can compete on this level are still in detention. What is going there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAUGER: Well, I mean, he's right. There's - students run the gamut from academic achievement, from what you would consider behaviorally appropriate. A lot of kids come from challenging backgrounds and don't have the support to deal with some of the social things they're going through at home or outside the school.

And so our students sometimes have bad days. And I would love to, you know, be able to profess that this program works miracles and turns kids around overnight, and it's not. It's really an outlet for them. And it's definitely something positive for them to do, but it doesn't fix all the issues that they face on a daily basis.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Azeem Hill of the West Philly High School Hybrid X team and Simon Hauger, the adviser of the team. We're talking about this $10 million competition that this high school team is trying to win. They are the only school team remaining in the competition.

So, Mr. Hauger, why do you think this team is an successful as it is? What do you think is behind it?

Mr. HAUGER: I think there's a couple ingredients. One is that the adults have this institutional memory. We've learned a lot about hybrid technology over the last 12 years. The way I run the team is I put the students at the center. And so that the kids are empowered to make big decisions and think creatively. And teenagers, we've found, always think outside the box. They always approach problems differently than adults do.

And so having this balance between a group of adults that have a lot of knowledge around hybrid vehicles and kids that approach problems very creatively, we come up with these unique solutions together. And then we empower the kids, and adults are empowered, too, to make these decisions, to take something from the blackboard and see it all the way to completion.

And that's an incredible experience when you - like Azeem said, in his ninth grade year, we started even debating, should we get involved in this competition? And then daydreaming about what it might look like, to designing a vehicle, to turning the key and hearing the engine run. It's hugely satisfying for everyone that's been involved.

MARTIN: Azeem, has this, well, you know how it's always the case in high school, like those kids who are on top and the kids who are not, you know. And there's always this conversation in our community, where is it that the kids who play sports get all the love and the kids who do other things are sort of, like, you know, okay, well, you know, whatever. So do you feel that your team gets a lot of respect from the other students?

Mr. HILL: It's really cool that you brought that up, because that reminds me of one of the guys at MIT who was talking about that, is what this country needs right now is, you know, leading scientists and leading mathematicians and things like that. And we just don't have that.

And I think part of that has to do with the incentive for young people. In high school, a lot of schools have incentive for being a star basketball player. You know, you get all the love. All the ladies like you. But the students who are involved in the project, we feel like we're stars, you know. We feel like we understand the magnitude of this competition.

MARTIN: But you know what, Azeem? I was eavesdropping on you before we started our conversation. And I heard you say you wanted to go into entertainment. You want to be a music producer. I didn't hear anything about science, technology, math, engineering. And I'm just curious about that. Here you already are. You've achieved so much. But I don't hear you saying that that's what you want for yourself. I'm just curious about that.

Mr. HILL: Yeah. It's just one of those things. I really want to go into the music ministry. But I also feel like it's something very true about how I'm involved with the EVX team and we're on this global stage and we're showing, you know, the world what our urban high school can do. And I think I want to be a part of the music, the global music and cultural society and kind of carry that message over.

Mr. HAUGER: This assignment, I would like to kind of pay you back on that. I think it's one of the strengths of the program this time around. Previously, when we had this afterschool program, we only attracted kids that wanted to work with their hands in the shop. And when we sat down to think about the X Prize, we were thinking about all the different types of skills that we needed and could develop.

And so we've attracted students to this X Prize team that aren't necessarily that mechanically inclined. And so, in some ways, I feel like this is a great success to have students like Azeem who we probably wouldn't have attracted in this past to participate. And I think he's learned a lot.

MARTIN: You know, I can tell you that you've also attracted some kids with some real energy and who are proactive, because you know how I found out about this? Do you know? I don't know if you were behind this, Mr. Hauger.

Mr. HAUGER: No.

MARTIN: But I found out about this because one of your students on your team wrote me a letter, a perfect-pitch letter saying: I think you should tell your listeners about our team. I mean, it's the kind of letter that I would've expected from a very high-priced public relations consultant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: It's perfectly written. And so, there you go. So, clearly, somebody is on their hustle. So, I respect that.

Mr. HAUGER: That's great.

MARTIN: And so here we are. So, Mr. Hauger, so, what, assess your chances for me. You've made it a number of rounds so far.

Mr. HAUGER: Sure. That's a tricky question. You know, this - I'm going to give you the corny answer, and, in fact, I believe it. I feel like we've won already. I felt about a year ago when Popular Mechanics magazine rated us in the Top 10 Most Likely to Win, I felt at that point we had won. We were being taken seriously. Our students had been put on a national stage.

When you zoom out and look at urban education in this country, it's horrific, you know. Most of us that are involved in urban education can't stand it. We know the potential our children have, and we know there's wonderful ways to tap into it. The trickier question is: What happens if we win the $10 million, and what's our chance for that?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. HAUGER: And, you know, we're up against teams of engineers with $100 million budgets. And if we make it into the finals and are standing next to them, I don't think anybody could expect anything more. To actually cross the finish line first, well, you know, I'm a praying person, and miracles are possible. So we have to wait and see what happens.

MARTIN: Simon Hauger is the director of the West Philly High School Hybrid X team, the adult director. He's the former director of the school's Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering. We were also joined by Azeem Hill. He is a co-captain of the team and a rising senior at West Philly High School.

They both joined us from member station WRTI in Philadelphia. Gentlemen, thank you both so much and good luck to you.

Mr. HILL: Thank you.

Mr. HAUGER: Thank you, and goodbye.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michele Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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