Opportunity. That’s what the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE meant to the West Philly Hybrid X Team. An opportunity to show what inner city high school kids could do in a contest everyone said wasn’t meant for us. The X PRIZE challenge was to build a 100 MPG car that people wanted to buy. It was 2007, we’d been building electric and hybrid cars for more than 10 years and nobody was going to tell us what we couldn’t do. That’s how our incredible 3 year adventure began. We could not have begun to imagine the journey we would take in pursuit of the X PRIZE. Our wild ride took us to New York, the Michigan International Speedway and culminated with a trip to the White House.Our expedition was filled with new opportunities that we were offered, we stumbled upon or, in most cases, we actively pursued. All of them were directly linked to our audacious plan to win the big pot of cash being dangled in front of the contestants in the X PRIZE and most involved experiences outside the confines of the classroom.
We realized early on that if we wanted to be competitive, we’d need money and attention. We set a schedule of weekly planning meetings, tapped our networks and brought PR professionals, web designers, electric car gurus and environmental communicators to our school. Our first off-site event was a brainstorming session about what the students wanted from our entry in the X PRIZE. They were clear. They wanted to break the stereotypes people had of inner city students. They wanted to take on the air pollution that plagues our cities and contributes to the extremely high rates of asthma experienced by students in Philadelphia public schools. And, they wanted to build cars that young people wanted to drive.
We went back to school, polished the pitch and prepared the PowerPoint. We took our story everywhere. We launched a website. We went to union meetings. We told our story at community meetings and in college classrooms. We went to Harrisburg and met with the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. We were at the Philadelphia Auto Show. We visited the regional EPA offices in the middle of a snow storm. We took AMTRAK to Washington to meet with Senator Casey. These were all opportunities for students to travel, to learn and to talk about their plan to win the X PRIZE, as improbable as it was.
Finally, our cars arrived and work in the shop went into high gear. Kids and adults were in school 6 days a week assembling the GT kit car and building and rebuilding the hybrid drive for the Focus. Our car building brought us even more attention. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Senator Casey, Congressman Fattah, and State Representative Roebuck visited us in the shop. So did UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and NASA’s Chief Technologist Dr. Bobby Braun. Students became adept at riveting body panels and speech writing. Public speaking was coupled with sanding the GT. The art of the thank you letter became as important as understanding hybrid technology.
The hard work paid off. We got the opportunity to take our cars to the Michigan International Speedway for the Shakedown Stage of the X PRIZE in April. We survived the Shakedown and returned with 2 cars, 14 kids and 9 adults for the Knockouts in June. We worked side by side with engineers and car designers who are revolutionizing the auto industry. We made friends with competitors and X PRIZE staff that we know will last a lifetime. But, the Knockouts were also where our dream of winning the X PRIZE came to a grinding halt when our cars failed to reach competition mileage requirements.
While our quest to win the millions ended, our opportunities did not. We spent the summer working with a core group of team members while another group was out working for the Philadelphia Airport, the Office of Fleet Management, SEPTA and the Parking Authority. We improved the fuel economy of the Focus, designed a Green Technology High School and entered another competition, the GE Ecomagination Challenge.
The fall brought more opportunities. The X PRIZE invited us to bring the students and the cars to Washington for the Awards Ceremony. What an experience! Our students were speakers at a Washington, DC technical high school at an event hosted by the Department of Energy and the X PRIZE Foundation. Oliver Kuttner, founder of Edison2, the X PRIZE winner announced that he had commissioned a Very Light Car chassis for our team. We saw NASA’s Dr. Braun and he invited us to bring the students to Florida for the launch of the Space Shuttle.
And, at the end of two incredible X PRIZE days, we were in the White House listening to President Obama tell an assemblage of business leaders and educators that there could be no better example of the potential of young people than the students of the West Philly Hybrid X Team. We were over the moon when we returned to school where yet another opportunity awaited.
It is an opportunity granted to educators every fall – a new group of students to work with. Because of our X PRIZE success, we found an extra-amazing group of 10th graders eager to learn the science behind hybrids. We had a whole classroom full of folks who can’t wait to get their hands on that Edison2 chassis and build the baddest electric car in America. And we found kids who want to give speeches, learn about marketing green cars and work like hell to establish our own school where we can transform our after-school program into a full time educational program.
In our X PRIZE journey we learned a lot about opportunity. The enduring lesson that will power us through another year is that each and every opportunity – like our students – is filled with potential that must be pursued and nurtured. Keep your eye on us. We know you won’t be disappointed.