What do you get when you mix a dozen automotive aftermarket professionals with 300 twelve-year-olds and hundreds of priceless custom cars? We’ll all know the answer in ten years or so, when those same students start making post-graduate school and career choices.

Welcome to the SEMA CuS.T.E.M. Car Experience Tour, where the aftermarket industry and STEM education intersect.

Undercar Digest had the opportunity to volunteer at one of the ten CuS.T.E.M. events held this past winter and spring around the country. This rewarding, one-day interactive learning experience offered a first-hand look at how SEMA is leading the best and brightest of young students from around the country to explore and consider future high-tech careers in the automotive aftermarket industry.

SEMA and several industry sponsors provided a no-cost opportunity for STEM-track 11-to-13-year-old students to participate in a one-day version of the STEM Innovators-in-Training Challenge.

Volunteers and Students

The adult auto aftermarket volunteers met the night before the event to formulate a plan. A good mix of industry veterans and young professionals needed to know how we would not only be able to help and coach students throughout the event; we were to be the know-it-alls for any questions related to the custom cars on display – and to judge the students’ presentations of their ideas and work product. “Wait, what? I have to help them work their computers and spreadsheets, too?” The next morning, the volunteers met early and we practiced our roles. Then the school buses started showing up … so many buses. It started to feel a little like Custer and the Indians. At the end of this event, both the volunteers and the students were ‘wiped-out’.

Busload by busload, bright smiling faces entered the room. Eager to participate and learn, the students engaged in automotive trivia contests as the room began to fill. Listening to the students’ enthusiasm and trivia answers, it was apparent that these were bright kids with good teachers. Not only were they students who excelled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, they were outgoing, witty and having fun. And, they all seemed to have a keen knowledge and appreciation for cars. This group made the future look bright for the automotive aftermarket.

The Process

The middle school students cruised right into the process of DESIGN (breaking down a large project into manageable chunks), which is at the core of STEM and STEM career exploration. Throughout the event, students worked through a series of hands-on and interactive activities reflecting real-world scenarios in the workplace. They needed to be creative while working and interacting as part of a team – and keeping within a defined budget. Whether running a shop, multiple shops, a parts business or a car company, these are skills that are required for success.

Students toured the car show floor to gather ideas. While viewing the cars, students participated in a ‘scavenger hunt,’ identifying items like upgraded tires, lifted suspensions, custom paint jobs, new safety technology installed on an older car and the one vehicle they wished they owned. Volunteers found it difficult keeping up with the students’ pace and questions. “Why do the brakes have so many holes in them? Is that a turbocharger or a supercharger? Are there any JDM cars in the show? What costs more, a new motor or a new paint job?”

Students then came back and worked in teams of four to design their car. Each team was assigned a laptop and a spreadsheet. They were also given a ‘budget’ of $40,000 to create an innovative automotive product and then present it to a panel of automotive aftermarket industry professionals serving as judges for the design competition.

Students were allowed to either customize a less expensive, older vehicle or purchase a new, more expensive vehicle and modify it within their budget. Choosing between a sedan, hatchback, SUV or pickup templates, each team was tasked to develop a car brand and model name to market their design. Defined features and their costs were outlined in the spreadsheets and the teams worked to produce unique vehicles. One team member was responsible for assembling the (cardboard) vehicle while another managed the budget. All team members participated in choosing the design features and creating a marketable vehicle from their “concept.”

What We Learned

Students walked away from this experience having: Engaged in the process of Data Driven DESIGN; Engaged in Entrepreneurship and made data-driven decisions based on marketing research; Learned about the Future of Transportation; Learned about “Behind-the-Scenes” automotive-related STEM careers.

As volunteers, many of us found the judging to be the most fun. Each team of four students presented their vehicle concept and design to a pair of judges. Every team was enthusiastic and wanted to win. Judges awarded points and gold stars for presentation, innovation and template design. Using their spreadsheets, each team accurately described how much money they spent on performance upgrades, safety upgrades and design elements (bling). Almost all teams neglected to allow for worker salaries in their enthusiasm to customize their vehicles. (Sound familiar?)

For what it’s worth… many of the teams opted to add “big-brake kits” to their vehicles. When asked why, nearly all answered that bigger brakes worked as both a performance and a safety upgrade. (Smart kids!) Student design innovations included a three-row SUV with limo-like, sound insulated privacy glass between the front and second rows to isolate parents from children on road trips (I’d buy that option), to a blinged-out, Kardashian Koupé catering to the rich and famous. Pickups were typically designed for workmen travelling over rough terrain and sedans offered the latest in advanced driver assistance systems for safety.

Winning teams won accolades and cheers from their peers, along with big bags of chocolate candies to share on the long bus rides home. Hopefully, the teams’ 3-D carboard template vehicles survived the bus ride and found their way to being displayed back in the schoolroom.

It proved to be an intense, rewarding, very long, one-day interactive learning experience for students, teachers and volunteer automotive aftermarket professionals. Students and adults alike were weary from all the activity and learning -- in a familiar phrase, ‘wiped-out’.

But, think about it. One long day of automotive creativity may just be enough to INSPIRE some of these students to pursue rewarding jobs and careers within the automotive marketplace. Perhaps too many of us only ‘found’ ourselves working here. How much farther would we - and will they – go if inspired to be creative and have fun in our automotive careers?

Kudos to SEMA for investing in children and the future of the automotive aftermarket. If you would like to volunteer and participate in next year’s SEMA CuS.T.E.M. Car Experience Tour, please contact Katie Hurst, SEMA Youth Engagement Programs Manager. katieh@sema.org