‘Here comes NIU’: Supermileage Team a force to be reckoned with

How much work do members of the NIU Supermileage team put in?

“An excessive amount,” joked team president Josh Helsper, of St. Charles. “It’s a part-time job for me.”

The NIU Supermileage Team won second overall with its best-ever combined score, as well as the Endurance Award for the second year in a row and the fuel mileage prediction award at the SAE Supermileage Competition. Source: Northern Illinois University

A successful one, at that. The team recently earned its highest placement yet at the Society of Automotive Engineers Supermileage Competition in Marshall, Mich.

The competition pits teams of engineering students against one another. The students design, build and drive single-occupant, ultra fuel-efficient vehicles to compete for best design, highest fuel economy and greatest vehicle endurance.

The NIU team won second overall with its best-ever combined score, as well as the Endurance Award for the second year in a row and the fuel mileage prediction award at the June event. The NIU vehicle recorded an astounding 1,888 miles per gallon–a new team record.

Competing in the event since 2010, the team has placed in the top three nearly every year.

This summer’s 39th annual competition drew teams from 19 universities from throughout the world, including Penn State, Harvard, Texas A&M, Michigan Technological University and the University of Massachusetts.

“They’re up against other big-name schools, and here comes NIU,” said Donald Peterson, dean of the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.

NIU Supermileage Team member Lauren Bangert of Dunlap, Ill., tests out the driver’s seat of the vehicle. Source: Northern Illinois University

“Here’s a group of engineering students who are coming from a mid-tier engineering college and consistently come out on top over other top-tier universities. We can’t be prouder of those students. I think they are the epitome of what we graduate. Resourceful, practical, with a get-it-done attitude.”

With about 12 active members, the NIU team has had a solid core since its beginning, said Helsper, who begins his senior year this fall as a mechanical engineering major with an emphasis in sustainability. Helsper joined the team his freshman year to take on a unique challenge.

“It’s not something you see every day. It’s not a race car. It’s not an airplane. It really kind of piqued my curiosity with all of the extreme things that can go into it,” he said. “It’s on the far end of the spectrum of engineering and really taking it to the limit. I like trying to be as creative as I can be and really pushing the envelope a little bit.”

Each year, the team looks to recruit new members to improve on last year’s car.

“It’s like replacing boards on a ship,” Helsper said. “Eventually, it’s not the same ship. But no matter what, it still has the same shape and the same goal.”

What goal? First place, of course.

“I think it’s going to take a lot of grit and a lot of pretty crazy ideas, but I think we can get there,” Helsper said.

Team advisor Dave Schroeder, a professor of technology at NIU, said the team’s victories demonstrate the talent and abilities of NIU’s students.

“It also represents one of the great opportunities for our students to participate in hands-on engineering projects that build the technical and interpersonal skills that will help them in their careers,” he said.

Helsper has no doubt his efforts with the Supermileage Team helped him earn internships at Fermilab in Batavia.

But, he emphasized, it was a team effort.

“Dedication is everything,” he said. “That’s really what has helped us through, the dedication of people working on it, the willingness to forgo smaller pleasures like watching TV during the semester and putting that time into something that could make a difference in your life.”

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