He’s one of many enthusiastic graduates of the UNM Mechanical Engineering Department’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers or FSAE, a program previously known as the Society of Automotive Engineers. Former student Eric Flores says the most helpful part of the program was working in teams that were required to design and test systems for a racecar, and knowing that the system his team built had to work precisely with systems designed by other student teams.
“I work in the Missile Systems department at Sandia National Laboratories and it is basically like FSAE, but with missiles,” Flores said.
“The students learn that no matter how perfect their system is, it’s useless if it doesn’t work with the other components of the car,” said UNM Professor of Mechanical Engineering John Russell, who teaches the courses. “That’s sometimes a hard lesson for the teams.”
Flores agrees. In his work for SNL, his team designs, tests and builds components for missiles, and Sandia supported Flores through graduate school at Stanford University. Two other students from his UNM FSAE team also joined SNL.
Russell came to UNM after he retired as director of Space Technologies at the U.S. Air Force Research Lab. He was hired as the director of research for the School of Engineering and began teaching the courses that encompass the FSAE program. His enthusiasm for the program, and ability to attract interested students, has built it into a nationally competitive force.
The UNM FSAE team currently ranks seventh in the U.S. and 32nd internationally in competition against much better funded teams from larger universities. Many of the teams UNM competes against have large corporate sponsors. That’s one reason Russell is so proud of his program. His teams are strong competitors on a modest budget, but his intense focus is on the students.
“For the first time, there were no answers in the back of the book,” former team manager Kirby Ann Witte said. “There weren’t even questions to start from. We had to develop our own questions, find our answers and trust in our own abilities to know we were right. FSAE was my first engineering experience in which there were no right answers, only faster ones. My experience gained from FSAE led directly to my current position as team-lead for another engineering project, the development of an ankle-foot exoskeleton at Carnegie Mellon University.”
Russell’s students are vocal about the strength of the program.
“After graduate school I was hired at Pi Research (now Cotsworth Electronics) in North Carolina as a NASCAR support engineer,” Cletus Kuhn said. “The UNM FSAE program accelerated my personal and professional career by presenting a challenge where success demanded a real world application of engineering knowledge learned in the classroom, perseverance in completing large scale projects and development of interpersonal relationships in a diverse team environment.”
John Byrne, a student from the 2011 FSAE Lobo Motorsports team, said, “When I walked into the interview for my current position, one of the first comments from the new manager was, ‘I looked at your resume and saw that you did FSAE and thought to myself, yeah, this would be a good guy to hire.’ It turns out he was a member of the 2007 team at UNM. Not the only reason I got the job, but it definitely helped.”
A new class this fall has begun the design for the 2014 FSAE racecar.
“Right now we’re looking at the computer that controls the engine,” Russell said. “You can buy one for $500 or you can buy the premier Cadillac of engine control units for $5,500. Which one do you use?”
Russell won’t be making that decision. His team will have to decide – and to live with the results of that decision when they race the car next summer. It’s a special learning experience that is taking UNM students farther and faster to places they never imagined when they were wrestling with decisions about engine components.