Fast, furious, and soon to be electric

Early on Saturday mornings, before the rest of campus stirs awake, Jacqueline Sly ’14 grabs coffee and heads down Massachusetts Ave. to building N51. Winding through familiar walkways, past boxes of scrap metal and old pipes, she arrives at a large, airy room dominated by two nearly finished frames of certified Formula One cars. To Sly and the rest of the MIT Formula SAE team, this is home.

Seated unassumingly next to the MIT Museum, N51 houses multiple student teams working under the auspices of the Edgerton Center, including the Formula SAE team, the Marine Robotics Team, and the Solar Electric Vehicle Team.

The students and alumni involved in these teams are intense, passionate, and motivated. For the Formula SAE team, building a car means more than the annual summer collegiate competition. It means family and fun — a home for mechanical and electrical engineers exploring their love for design and engineering in a very exciting way.

As team members examine a still-functioning car built for the 2011 competition, for instance, sophomore Connor McMahan remarks on the finesse of engineering the seat and firewall to "keep the driver from burning up.”

“Safety really is a big deal,” he adds, “It’s not something we can treat lightly or gloss over.”

Working on these safety features, McMahan spends almost all day Saturdays in the N51 lab, and, during crunch time, sometimes from sunrise to sunset. Indeed, good amounts of energy and stress (and a lot of hot pizza) can fuel hours of work from the entire team — usually sprawled out in different nooks throughout the crowded lab — all day and night on Saturdays.

This year, the seniors of Formula SAE have started a new mentorship program for underclassmen. Freshman José Zuniga, who joined last fall, is guided through the research and implementation of a new dashboard user interface. He is one of many participants in a new pairing project between upperclassmen and new members, which Sly says is effective in building a strong community of members who stay and perform well as years go by.

Seniors like Sly and others shape the Formula SAE team into a family of dedicated and driven engineers. This year, Sly and others organized their participation in another race at the University of Toronto for fun — and for her teammates to learn and bond. Sly has been strongly involved with Edgerton clubs since freshman year, but to her, Formula SAE is about her love both of cars and of “the idea of a highly collaborative project that requires the combined effort of an entire group of students.”

At an upcoming competition in Lincoln, Neb. in June, the team will debut a new electric car that has required more careful designing, building, and maintenance. Because the driver — who is always a teammate and MIT student — could be hurt if the car fails, this group, unlike most other student groups on campus, has a keen sense of potential danger and the importance of skilled engineering. And creativity: Although the word is too often “only tied to the traditional arts — painting, drawing, performance arts, visual arts, music, and writing,” Sly says, “creativity is an important force in engineering.” And there is no better example of the intersection of creativity and engineering than the endearingly messy lab space at N51.