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MathWorks hosts EcoCAR2 student competitors in Natick

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  October 2, 2012 11:30 AM

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Courtesy of MathWorks

College students use engineering software donated by MathWorks last week in Natick to make green modifications on 2013 Chevrolet Malibu cars.

If you're looking for the newest generation of eco-friendly car builders, search no further than Natick.

Locally-based MathWorks, a company that develops engineering software, has lent a helping hand to the best and brightest college and graduate-level students seeking to learn how to develop and improve upon eco-friendly cars in the EcoCAR2 competition.

The company hosted teams of students from 15 American and Canadian universities in Natick this past weekend, donating software, time and employees to help students compete in the three-year-long contest challenging them to reduce the environmental impact of a Chevrolet Malibu.

Starting last Thursday, a handful of MathWorks employees served as mentors to the teams, instructing the students on how to use the company's software and critiquing their EcoCAR project designs.

The competition, which is heavily sponsored by General Motors and overseen by the US Department of Energy, not only seeks to provide students with hands-on educational tools, but also benefits the private companies looking to hire young talent with fresh innovation ideas.

James Kolhoff, a global chief engineer with General Motors, said the company has hired about 100 employees from college car technology competitions over the past 10 years.

"We're looking for innovative engineers to bring into the company," he said. "It's a real benefit to GM."

Jesse Alley, a competition organizer from Argonne National Laboratory, said he found his current job after competing in the first EcoCAR competition when he was a master's student at Virginia Tech.

He said the competition, which also emphasizes business models, marketing strategies and community outreach, helped him receive a well-rounded, hands-on education of the automobile and green energy industries.

"This was way more valuable than my education," Alley said. "It gives you a genuine real world experience."

Although there are no Massachusetts schools participating this year, competition organizers say the application process is highly selective: over 100 schools applied to a request for proposals for the competitions, which organizers whittled down to 15.

"Very few make the cut," Alley said, noting that Argonne runs the selection process. "It's difficult to make the decision."

The competition also emphasizes a STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, focus: organizers require competitors to visit middle schools across America, outlining their projects and setting up hands-on stations for young students to experience.

"The goal there is to inspire and teach kids about sustainable advanced vehicle technology," Alley said, adding that he went to his hometown in Tennessee to reach out to sixth-graders there. "I got to tell them that I love my job. We want to inspire them and motivate a STEM education."

The competition is about halfway through its three-year mark, and teams are starting to design improvements to their cars in Natick. Schools will have 2013 Chevrolet Malibus delivered to their campuses, where they will spend the next year installing modifications.

At the end of the competition, students are flown out to GM's testing facilities in Arizona to show judges their work, and receive individual category prizes and corresponding prize money that is funneled back into the program.

Overall, event organizers and leaders say the competition is a cycle of education and professional opportunity that benefits consumers worldwide.

"This is a field requiring more and more capability of engineering and science," Kolhoff said. "Anything we can do to encourage these young people to get involved has a great outcome."

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Follow us on Twitter: @yourtownnatick, @jaclynreiss

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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