RICHLAND -- The go-carts screaming around the Tri-City Raceway on Friday weren't piloted by adrenaline-starved teens -- they marked a first-time collaboration between engineering students at Washington State University Tri-Cities.
The little race cars had been designed and built from the ground up by students who next summer will get their degrees in civil, electrical or mechanical engineering.
Working with budding engineers from several disciplines gave the students a glimpse of what will be expected in real-life research labs.
The man who came up with the project should know. He is a 30-year-veteran of engineering labs.
Rick Cameron, an adjunct instructor and head of the engineering club on the Richland campus, is an engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Clad in cowboy boots and Cougar windbreaker Friday, he barked out a last set of instructions to the group of students.
"We'll have three tests here today," Cameron said. "A drag race, an obstacle course and an endurance race."
He explained that this was the first time WSU offered an integrated design class where students from several engineering sectors came together and went through all phases of development of a product.
"I wanted the students to bring all the tools they've developed during their educational career into a real design," Cameron said.
The students from the three different engineering departments had to band together and from scratch design a cart that would not only be fast, but safe.
The carts feature kill switches that turn off the engine if the driver lets go of a button, i.e. loses control.
Their chassis had to pass structural durability tests. And brakes and controls had to be up to standards set by Cameron.
It was overwhelming to come up with the first preliminary design, said Victor Fuentes, an electrical engineering student. The design phase was "by far the most stressful part," he said.
The two teams of 11 students each had to know every detail of their cars, down to the last bolt, before ever laying hands on a part, Fuentes said.
The first design for the frame on his team's car was shot down by Cameron, Fuentes said. The team had to start all over again. And for the past two months, the Nov. 11 deadline hung over their heads.
Just like working in a real engineering firm, in other words.
As an adjunct instructor who also works in the industry, Cameron likes to bring a lot of real-world scenarios into his courses, he said.
"The students eat it up," Cameron said. "And by fabricating and doing the hands-on work they learn about design constraints."
That means they'll learn to not just draw up wild ideas on a computer screen and let someone else worry about making it a useable product.
And, for some, it meant learning to take a back seat to others on a team.
Lauren Swanson, a civil engineering student, usually takes on the leadership role in projects she's involved in, she said. But even though her general engineering skills came in handy for her team, she had to play second fiddle to the mechanical and electrical specialists, whose knowledge more directly applies to building a go-cart.
"It was nice to see (the work) from a different angle," Swanson said. "It was a great learning experience."
Knowing that this learning experience would be important for his students made Cameron spend some of his own money on the class.
The students used some prefab components. Two months wouldn't be enough to build an engine from scratch, for example.
Cameron paid for those parts out his own pocket -- $1,000 per team. And he asked the Sand & Sage Sports Car Club to foot the bill for the mandatory insurance to use the track.
That allowed the students to test their carts' performance in a real-life setting.
Taking turns behind the wheel, they pushed the loud machines down the straightaway for the drag race, circled around cones and rounded the big oval course for a 45-minute endurance race.
It made the hard work worth it.
"When you're done (designing) and you get in that thing, all the stress just falls away," Fuentes said.
The afternoon ended with a virtual tie in points awarded for the different races -- 65 to 64.