Molly Zimmerman, mechanical engineering student

Molly Zimmerman reached down to scrub the filthy, old truck engine. Working alongside her teammates, she leaned in to give the job a little more elbow grease. Then, in a dirt-caked nook of the engine, she saw it: a baby scorpion.

“It was fate at that point,” said the senior mechanical engineering student. The name of her senior design project team’s race car would be “The Scorpion” (PDF). Since August 2012, the eight-member team has spent every spare minute designing and building this alternative energy powered, high-performance vehicle.

“The [motorsports] culture at CU Denver has gone crazy,” said Ronald Rorrer, PhD, PE, associate professor of mechanical engineering. Since he took over teaching the Senior Design Course seven years ago, Rorrer has witnessed explosive growth in the popularity of motorsports at the university. In fall 2013, CU Denver’s College of Engineering and Applied Science plans to make available a motorsports master’s track, through which students like Zimmerman can carve out a career path involving race cars, motorcycles and more.

Go crazy for motorsports

“Motorsports is a great vehicle to teach mechanical engineering—pun intended,” Rorrer said. “It’s something tangible that students are interested in.”

The CU Denver motorsports operation has moved from its old 1,500-square-foot facility in the Technology Building into a new, much larger home at the old print shop, known as the “5th Street Hub,” on the Auraria Campus. With a nod to the Lockheed Martin high-tech aircraft design operation “Skunk Works,” the 4,100-square-foot facility will be called “Lynx Works,” after CU Denver’s brand-new university mascot.

“This program is not starting with a blank slate,” Rorrer said of the motorsports courses, which typically draw 25-30 students each semester. “We have been on track to double that number in a three-year period.”

Nine months to build a race car

The Scorpion team (PDF) used an engine from a 1970s Volkswagen Rabbit truck and created their own unique, lightweight exo-frame design, complete with roll cage. At 1,200 pounds, the car weighs much less than a typical car, which allows the engine to propel it at a higher velocity.

For fuel, they chose algae-generated biodiesel, which Zimmerman said is a more realistic alternative energy source than a cultivated crop like corn. “Algae farmers” can grow algae using non-potable water in dry climates and deserts, she said.

So, how do eight undergrads design and build a high-performance race car in a single academic year, while juggling other courses and, for many, full-time jobs?

“The role of teamwork is huge,” Zimmerman said. “Some of us are older, some of us are younger, we have different life experiences—but everyone was on board and invested from the outset.”

Each student contributed their own unique skills to the Scorpion. For instance, team member Jay Nanninga had worked for years as a professional welder—which came in handy when it came time to build the frame.

The coolest part: Once it’s finished, everyone on the team will take a turn behind the wheel, and they plan to race the vehicle in a sanctioned competition.

Choose your own adventure

At many engineering schools, students in a senior design course are either assigned a project or ordered to pick from a list of industry-sponsored projects. CU Denver’s mechanical engineering program is one of only a few in the country that allows students to design their own senior projects.

“We’re more than student-centric; we’re student-generated,” said Rorrer, who serves as the Scorpion team’s faculty advisor. Giving students the power of choice increases their motivation to work hard, he said.

“Every year, [the senior design students] exceed my expectations. They work like dogs, and it’s their choice,” he said. “In the end, they love it, and a student who does well in this course is going to do well at work [in a job].”

CU in the City logo