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Solar-Powered IceBox Derby Teaches STEM To Young Women

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In 2014, ComEd launched the IceBox Derby to help girls have a team-oriented STEM learning experience with adult mentors, while having some fun. Recycled refrigerators are used to make the derby cars, and they have some solar power. LED headlights, a car horn, and a helmet with two-way communication are powered by two 30-watt solar panels. Icebox Derby lead mentor and Capacity Planning Manager Marina Mondello answered some questions for CleanTechnica.


1. How many young women participate in the Icebox Derby? 

Thirty girls, aged 13-18, have been selected from the Chicagoland area to form six racing teams. ComEd is supported in this effort by the following community partners: Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, Girls4Science, the Chicago Urban League, ASPIRA, and Operation PUSH. A group of ComEd mentors, who themselves have pursued careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) were selected to guide the girls through this journey.

2. Why was solar selected as an energy source?

As a local energy company, ComEd recognizes the value of solar energy as a power source. After two years of building and racing Icebox Derby cars out of recycled refrigerators, we’re ready to renew and expand the community’s interest in STEM by exploring it through the scope of a renewable energy.

3. Do the participants compete as individuals, or as team members?

The 30 girls have been evenly split up into six teams: Cosmic Panthers, Violet Velocity, Radiant Flames, Naturally Driven, Stem Queens and Sparkle Effect. While the experience is definitely a team effort, it’s also fun to watch as each girl discovers new strengths and talents that she can individually contribute to the project.

4. How do the young women who participate respond to the challenges they face as they build a car and compete?

I’m continually impressed by the energy and smarts these girls bring to the table each year. For some, they have never held a power tool or worked on anything so mechanical. Throughout the project, ComEd mentors focus on helping them not only learn engineering tips and mechanical builds, they also focus on things like team building — skills that we hope will last them a lifetime. As a professional engineer, working with these young innovators gives me a great sense of pride and hope.

5. Do they build an entire car by themselves or mostly by themselves?

The participants are supported by their ComEd mentors in building their fridge race car, but work through the build on their own. The young women collaborate as a team to do everything from installing the solar panels, to wiring the headlamps, to attaching the fender.

6. How do the young women apply to the program and how are they chosen?

ComEd currently recruits applicants through six community partners: Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, Girls4Science, the Chicago Urban League, ASPIRA, and Operation PUSH. 

7. How long does the car-building process last?

During four build sessions over two weeks, teams are required to develop a new part of their electric, solar-powered vehicle while mastering the various STEM concepts needed to effectively design those elements of the fridge car.

8. Are there prizes for the derby?

In addition to a wonderful program experience, every girl who participates gets a $2,000 scholarship. The winning team will receive an additional $1,000 scholarship and MacBook Air for each girl.

9. What skills and lessons do the participants learn?

The participants learn about engineering, technology and the mechanics that are involved in building a working race car. This year, they are also learning about solar energy and how it works. To help enhance this year’s fridge car model with a solar component, ComEd consulted with Dr. Rabiah Mayas and Dan Meyer from Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. And, we hope that the girls learn some new things about teamwork and friendship throughout the process, too.

10. Are the mentors older, professional women employed in STEM fields, or by technology companies?

All of the mentors are ComEd women employees from various departments in the company who volunteer their time to be a part of the program. The one thing they all have in common: their passion for STEM and inspiring young women — our future workforce.

11. How does participating in the derby build skills and/or resumes to help the young women find employment in STEM fields?

An important part of our commitment to diversity is recruiting bright young talent and empowering young women to unleash their inner talents and realize their full potential. The Icebox Derby allows us to go beyond simply talking about the importance of promoting women in STEM by actually creating an opportunity for young girls to gain real world, hands-on experience in these important fields. We want these girls to come back and work for us when they graduate college!

Image Credit: ComEd

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