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NIU Solar Car team provides technical assistance to recycled refrigerator race

August 18, 2017

A team of NIU engineering students intent on building their own solar-powered car got a little practice over the summer, helping teenage girls build cars out of old refrigerators for the ComEd Icebox Derby Challenge in Chicago.

In the Icebox Derby, now in its fourth year, 30 girls on six teams turn recycled refrigerators into solar-powered go-karts. Each team is mentored by women engineers employed by ComEd, the event’s sponsor. This year, the NIU Solar Car team took on the role of event mechanics.

“It was one of my favorite experiences because I was able to directly use the knowledge I have learned at NIU and apply it to the event,” said team lead Donald Krambeck, a senior majoring in electrical and computer engineering. “Getting to take apart a solar-powered recycled refrigerator [car] and learn its components was exciting, but being asked how to improve it was the real fun.”

Solar Car team advisor John Shelton, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said the experience was a good way for NIU students to learn about outreach and how to talk about solar technology to a non-technical audience.

“It was a task for me to effectively communicate to the younger girls and not sound too nerdy,” Krambeck said. “I would give them hints, and they would take an inch and stretch it to a mile. They were incredible to work with.”

ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore said the goal of the event is to get girls excited about STEM fields. Women are still vastly underrepresented in many STEM fields, and Pramaggiore believes that has to change for Americans to have a competitive future work force.

“To have a strong economy in the future, everyone is going to need to have some technical background, boys and girls,” she said. “We want to send a message to girls this is an important component of their education, and it can also be exciting and fun.”

Pramaggiore said women who work for ComEd “line up” to participate in the event as mentors. Many have stories of their own experiences as a woman in engineering and technology.

“We’re used to going into classes or projects and being the only woman, or one of two women,” said Marina Mondello, manager of capacity planning for ComEd, who oversaw the Icebox Derby mentors. “It’s very intimidating to a lot of women. We’ve been there and seen it and we know how important it is to show them they can do this.”

Shelton said he only regrets that the Solar Car team didn’t have any female members to take along on the project.

“I would love to have had a female participant on our side, but we just don’t have any. There are no females on the Solar Car team,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons the Icebox Derby exists, to get more girls interested in these fields.”

Membership in the Solar Car team is open to students of any major, Shelton said. In addition to building the car, the team needs members who can manage things like finances, scheduling and outreach.

The NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology has more than 20 student organizations, including competition teams, education and humanitarian clubs, and professional organizations. For more information and a club directory, visit