Letter from UMNSVP Alumna Karen Steele:

July 2018:

Dear Solar Vehicle Project Team,

Firstly, let me congratulate you all on a phenomenal race and First Place honors!!!  Ski-U-Mah!!!

Secondly, I was looking through your “archives” and I thought I’d share with you a little bit more of the history of the humble beginnings of this project, which you have continued to make great!

In 1990, I was Karen Schlangen, a Mechanical Engineering student and IT Student Body President (back when it was called the Institute of Technology).  A very good friend of mine, Kim Harris, had gone to Indiana for the summer to do astrophysics research.  In the fall, when she was back at the U, she told me about the GM SunRayce USA that went through Indianapolis and it sounded really cool.  Kim told me that Michigan had a car in the race and they took first place.  Then, pouring salt in the wound, she told me that they were sponsored by 3M.  To make matters worse, she told me that Mankato had a car in the race.  This is the point when the Solar Vehicle Project was born.  How dare the University of Minnesota NOT have a car when Mankato did?

We knew that this was going to be a multi-discipline project.  We knew we needed mechanical, aerospace, electrical, civil, chemical, and computer science engineers and of course physicists.  Up to this point, there had never been a project that included so many different disciplines and different departments at the University of Minnesota. 

As IT Student Body President, I was very familiar with the all the heads of engineering departments, the deans and the President of the University.  They all thought the U of M starting an SVP was a great idea, but no one would give us lab space or money.  Quite honestly, no major project had ever been started by students, and they didn’t think we could succeed.  I was driven, and I was relentless.  I don’t remember how many times I visited each of those department heads and deans, but it was a lot.  I was a squeaky wheel and the grease was forthcoming!  I finally got Professor Richard Goldstein, Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department, to give us lab space.  I don’t know what it’s like at the U these days, but back then, lab space was a premium, professors were always scrambling for more, and so this was a huge coup!!  Once we had lab space, I was able to get start-up funding from both President Nils Hasselmo and IT Dean, James Infante.

We advertised the Solar Vehicle Project and set up meetings.  Students of all disciplines came and were so enthusiastic!  Once we got the beginnings set up, Kim led this illustrious group forward and I was her sounding board.  Dr. Kim Harris Kuhlman would be a wonderful resource for you to learn more of the beginnings of this project.  She will also be able to tell you when Professor Patrick Starr joined the team as the faculty advisor.  Usually, projects like this come from “on high”, but we broke all the rules, and you all continue to make history!!!

By the way, I loved the 1991 archive article that talked about the “happy hour for engineers”!!  That was something else I started as ITSB president!  Dean Infante wanted us to build a community within the IT student body.  He was concerned that there were so many commuters who leave campus after their classes, that we as a group didn’t have cohesion.  When I set up happy hours at Stub & Herb’s, he would join us, have a beer and chat, leave a $20 bill on the table and say “enjoy!”  Back then, twenty dollars covered a couple of pitchers!  On so many fronts, he was good guy!

Keep up the great work!!