Not every founding member of a student organization gets to see it through to its first big national competition, but for Laina Colony and senior mechanical engineering major Zachary Voelkel, that dream became a reality — and a second place win.
Colony, president, and Voelkel, vice president, have been with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Snowmobile Club since it was founded in 2017.
“To get up to competition within three years — we’re really excited about that, really proud of that,” said Voelkel. “It’s been incredibly fulfilling and exciting seeing it from the start.”
The official title of the club is the Society of Automotive Engineers Clean Snowmobile Club, and it was created to participate in SAE’s Clean Snowmobile Challenge, an engineering design competition which asks participants to “reengineer an existing snowmobile to reduce emissions and noise,” according to the challenge’s website.
But the road to reengineer a snowmobile begins with, you guessed it, having a snowmobile, a project that would ultimately take two years.
Initially, the club looked into getting a snowmobile sponsored by an engineering company, but since they were a new club and had not participated in any competitions, they were not able to get a sponsorship.
So club members resigned themselves to buying one. But since the price of a snowmobile ranges from $2,000 to $10,000, they knew they would need some help. They submitted a request to the Student Government Association’s Finance Board for the snowmobile and other necessary tools, and upon approval in November of 2018, they were ready to begin.
To meet the goals of the Clean Snowmobile Challenge, a snowmobile must be able to run on 0-85 percent ethanol fuel, reducing its emissions, and it must be quiet. Snowmobiles are tested for these two criteria over the course of a one week competition at the Keweenaw Research Center, a vehicle development center in Houghton, Michigan. Teams are then scored based on how well they complete different tasks and challenges.
Colony sat the team down in August of last year to plan what they needed to buy and what they needed to manufacture to compete in this year’s competition with a spark-ignited, or gasoline-powered, snowmobile. The fall semester was dedicated to making sure they had all of the materials ready to work on the snowmobile come winter break; since the snowmobile was housed off-campus at an autoshop in Frederick, Maryland, the club pushed most of its reengineering work to when members had the most availability and could travel off-campus.
Over winter break, club members worked primarily on weekends to get the snowmobile ready to compete. They converted the fuel system using a catalytic converter from a V8 engine and added noise deadening elements. They “tanked up” the cooling system, according to Voelkel. They even added UMBC logo decals to the sides of the snowmobile.
The team was not able to test if their modified snowmobile would be able to run on ethanol fuel until the weekend before the competition, but with a positive test, they packed it into a trailer towed by Todd Reppert, an industry mentor from Volvo, and began the seventeen hour drive to Houghton.
From there, it was non-stop. Monday: tech inspection. Tuesday: a 100-mile endurance event on 66 percent ethanol-based fuel. (Ethanol, Colony explains, reduces your mileage, so this tested for the snowmobile’s fuel conversion capabilities). Wednesday: Two emissions tests, several different oral presentations and noise-testing events. Thursday: Subjective handling events, where judges and professional riders evaluated agility and maneuverability of the vehicle. Friday: the cold-start event, where snowmobiles are left out overnight and then given 20 seconds to start up again in the morning.
The final two events — objective handling and acceleration testing — were canceled due to adverse weather conditions, and teams were sent home early without knowing final results of the competition as the first of the campus closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak went into effect.
UMBC’s Snowmobile Club did not know that they won second place in the spark-ignited category until March 17, three days after leaving Michigan. They were also awarded ‘Rookie of the Year’ and given a plaque for being one of the teams to successfully complete the 100 mile endurance event.
“It was just an overall humbling experience to understand how much work goes into large-scale projects like this, and I think in our design classes and projects on campus, at max it’s a semester’s worth of work,” Colony said. “This has been three year’s worth of work. Watching it start from just an idea and helping it grow … was super fulfilling.”
Both Colony and Voelkel have taken jobs with the Naval Surface Warfare Center post-graduation, but in different departments, and credit their time with the Snowmobile Club with preparing them for the challenges of being engineers.
Colony and Voelkel said that the club members who participated in the challenge this year, but are not yet graduating, are excited for the opportunity to improve next year. Next year will primarily be spent fine-tuning their current sled, but the club hopes to also get a sponsored sled along the way.
Most of all, the club is looking to engage new membership and hopes to visit engineering classes in the fall to recruit. Though the meat of their pitch to new members will likely focus on the real world engineering applications of the club, practical engineering experience is not the only thing Colony and her fellow founding members have gained over these past three years.
“The few people that really did stick with the club — no one really knew each other at the beginning, but everyone walked out being friends,” Colony said.