FSAE Car Clutch Automation System; The Necessity of Experiential Learning in a Mechanical Engineering Curriculum

Garrett, Blake, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Ma, Lin, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia

Learning how to solve engineering challenges often involves experiential learning and hands on attempts to solve engineering problems. My technical project was creating a semi-automatic clutch system for the University of Virginia’s Formula SAE car. Formula SAE is an intercollegiate competition that encourages students to design, build, and race single seat race cars that teaches engineering through a hands-on process meant to mimic a professional engineering atmosphere. This approach to learning enforces the principles learned in the classroom, but more importantly it teaches students the entire process of engineering and the required skills. Students must go through the entire design process on every aspect of the car throughout the year before the final competition that follows in the summer. Incorporating real-world challenges into the undergraduate engineering curriculum is essential to producing effective engineers. For four years I have been involved in the UVA Motorsports Club, of which the Formula SAE club is part of. In that time, I have learned more from hand-on projects in my spare time than I did in most of my classes. So, in my STS topic I wanted to explore Virginia’s Mechanical Engineering curriculum to see if it could be improved to better emphasize experiential learning.
Technical Summary
In the Formula SAE competition, one of four dynamic events is an acceleration test. A start and finish line are set up in a straight line, and each car is scored on how fast it can traverse the course from a standing start. This test is important to overall results of the competition, so optimizing the car’s launch can drastically increase a team’s overall score. One solution to maximize this launch is optimizing the release of the clutch from a stop. In any car, the clutch transfers the power the engine to the wheels. In its simplest iteration, the clutch is controlled by a hand lever or foot pedal. However, operating this system effectively in a competition environment requires an elevated level of driver skill and practice. Those are two things Formula SAE teams generally do not have a large amount of either. It can sometimes be a stroke of luck whether a team has a fast driver or not. Furthermore, the cars are often finished just in time for competition, which leaves extraordinarily little time for testing. A solution to this problem is to automate certain components of the launch process. Much of the driver skill comes from correctly finding the “bite point” of the clutch and releasing the clutch at the appropriate speed. By automating the clutch actuation, the reliance on driver skill is decreased, improving the acceleration times.
The technical problem that needed to be solved was how to actuate the clutch system without driver skill. Other teams, for example the University of Michigan’s team, solved this issue by mounting an electric motor directly to the actuator, and using wheel speed sensors to detect wheel slip and engage or disengage the clutch to regulate power to the wheels. However, this was not a viable option for our group because it was too expensive and would take longer than the one semester we were allotted to complete out capstone project. Our solution was to use a linear actuator to activate hydraulics connected to the actuator. This system used driver activated paddles to turn on switches to move the clutch. The first switch engages the clutch to the “bite point” to initiate car movement, and then fully engages when the second switch is activated.
STS Summary
The value of experiential learning clubs often goes underestimated, and they are not actively encouraged by the administration at the University of Virginia. In my thesis I explored the benefits of experiential learning according to other professionals and students, to better understand if the perspectives and experiences of others matched my own. I also explored the possibility for UVA to enhance the presence of experiential learning in the student’s college experience. In my research I discovered that experiential learning is essential to teaching not only technical skills, but teamwork and leadership skills that are difficult to teach in a classroom setting. Furthermore, I found multiple ways the University of Virginia could improve their support for various experiential learning programs. The University could easily incorporate the work of the experiential learning clubs into the University’s advertising and marketing efforts, which would both help increase the prestige of the University as well as help the clubs recruit more student members. Furthermore, the University could also try to incorporate these projects into the Engineering curriculum. A class dedicated to awarding students’ academic credit for significant involvement in these clubs would both reward students for pursuing a better education as well as encouraging more students to participate in the clubs.
Exploring the impact of projects like Formula SAE while building parts for the car allowed me to examine the way students learn more effectively, and how the University chooses to instruct their students. It made me more aware of the skills I was learning. Unquestionably, I was shocked by how much I have learned about being a member of a team and how to be an effective leader. The improvement in my technical knowledge was something I expected, but I do not consider technical skills the most important that I have learned in the last four years. This project helped me to realize that the more important reason that colleges should emphasize experiential learning is that the teamwork and leadership skills the students learn complement the technical curriculum exceptionally well.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Formula SAE, Experiential Learning, FSAE

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Michael Momot
STS Advisor: Richard Jacques
Capstone Team Members: James Easter, Arthur Browne, Ethan Caldas

All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: