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Monday, Oct. 20, 10:41 a.m.
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Students engineering Formula SAE car

Courtesy photo

Walking into the Crosby Labs at the University of Maine is as intimidating as walking onto a stage, in front of thousands of people, wearing only your underwear.

Each room of the building is cluttered with an assortment of computers, machines and whiteboards that are littered with deadlines and calculations. To most, the level of technical understanding required to attempt these projects may seem inconceivable. Even so, a certain few aren’t fazed by the complexity of these undertakings. Michael St. Pierre is one of those people.

St. Pierre is the president of the Society of Automotive Engineers, a group that focuses on automotive engineering and design. The group is involved in a number of projects, each pushing the boundaries of what a group of students can achieve. One such project is the Formula SAE car.

Formula SAE is a nationwide program: SAE clubs, from various university and college campuses around the country, design and build an open-wheel car to be compared to cars from other schools. Once a year, each team brings their creation to Michigan, where executives and engineers from Ford, Chrysler and GM test and rate them. The cars are built according to a very strict set of rules that dictate the dimensions, construction methods and materials teams can use for their designs.

The purpose of this is to give engineering students a real-world experience and insight as to the demands from actual automotive manufacturers. Every year, the teams must also redesign their cars and improve them, presenting the new cars to the judges and explaining how the changes improve the performance of the car. In the end, the goal is to make a car that can theoretically be sold to the public.

The project was given the green light during the 2009-10 school year, and Michael has been a part of it since the beginning. According to him, the most difficult hurdles to overcome were recruiting team members and acquiring financial support. The University has since decided to back Formula SAE as a capstone project for mechanical engineers.

Diane Maguire, the head of capstone projects for mechanical engineers, has a very high opinion of the program and the team.

“Michael [St. Pierre] does an awesome job,” Maguire said. “We review everything and prioritize things that need to be done. He does a good job keeping everyone in line.”

Maguire is a former chassis development engineer for General Motors offers her advice when necessary, but she insists that other than the design review sessions, she lets the members of the team have free roam of the project.

Like any student team, Formula SAE has gained from the involvement of a number of people within and outside of the engineering department. The Formula SAE program has attracted interest from other majors within the University. A group of students studying business accompanied the team to the last event to help the team with their proposals to the judges, as well as get advice from executives at the event. New media students are also in the process of recording a documentary of the team’s progress. This unifying aspect of the program is something that Maguire and the team are very proud of.

“It’s hard to find something to bring majors together,” Maguire said. “It gives a business scenario to the students.”

This is also one of the few occasions where the mechanical engineering technology students and mechanical engineering students work together. While mechanical engineering students are more design and concept oriented, mechanical engineering and technology students are generally the ones with more fabrication and actual hands-on mechanical experience. Maguire sees this cooperation every day and enjoys watching the two programs work together.

“It rounds out the skill set of everyone involved,” Maguire said. “Everyone improves in areas they weren’t strong in before.”

It is this mutual goal to create an automobile from scratch that gives students the experience needed for a career in the future.

“The point is in the process,” chassis design lead Dan Rogers said.

According to Maguire, many of the judges also give advice to the teams about what they are looking for, both from the car design and for future employment.

“Many students bring resumes, and a lot of times it leads to a job,” Maguire said.

In the event that a student isn’t get hired by a major car manufacturer, the experience is still valuable when searching for other engineering jobs. St. Pierre has said that he wishes to continue to pursue a career in automotive engineering after graduation, but he fears that it may require him to move out of state. With the experience under his belt, though, success is sure to follow.

Although Formula SAE is still a very young program, it presents a great opportunity for future engineers.

“It’s been a great recruitment tool,” St. Pierre said.

According to Maguire, many students from schools from around the state have shown increased interest in UMaine because of the program. Formula SAE will only become more successful, thanks to the resources and depth of engineering knowledge at UMaine. It is only one program that works to cement the university’s  reputation as a great engineering school.