Wood fuels car, education - and expectations
by Patrick McCreless
Apr 30, 2013 | 6617 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With Christian Blakeney at the wheel, fellow Oxford High student Mo Haque checks the engine of a wood-burning 1954 Plymouth Savoy at the Ayers Campus of Gadsden State Community College Tuesday. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
With Christian Blakeney at the wheel, fellow Oxford High student Mo Haque checks the engine of a wood-burning 1954 Plymouth Savoy at the Ayers Campus of Gadsden State Community College Tuesday. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
It took a little elbow grease for Christian Blakeney to force the 1954 Plymouth into second gear, but once the 17-year-old Oxford High School student did so, the bright blue car eased out of the parking lot of Gadsden State Community College and headed down the road.

The old Savoy sedan handled fairly well on a Tuesday afternoon drive, despite carrying a 55-gallon steel drum contraption in the trunk that bellowed white smoke from its top — a collection of various pipes, metal containers and a lawnmower blade.

"I like the looks you get driving," Blakeney said, referring to the passing motorists.

Blakeney was one of seven Oxford High students who recently retrofitted the old vehicle with a wood-fueled generator at the Gadsden State Ayers Campus in Anniston. The project was for the students’ dual enrollment class — a type of partnership some high schools, community colleges and universities engage in. The courses aim to better prepare students for higher education and the workforce, some education experts say.

Dual enrollment classes are college-level courses taken by high school students that usually provide college credits. Some of the courses can be taken at the high school while others are only available at universities or community colleges.

Melinda Mechur Karp, senior research associate for the Community College Research Center at Columbia University in New York, said dual enrollment courses can be very beneficial for students.

"Research findings have shown that students who participate in dual enrollment compared to similar students that didn't participate tend to progress through college at a more rapid rate," Karp said. "One of the predictors of being successful in college is accruing college credits early."

Karp said dual enrollment courses also help students meet workforce requirements more quickly and help colleges with their completion goals.

"Colleges with dual enrollment tend to have higher retention rates and also grow their pool of well-qualified graduates," she said.

Cheryl Cephus-Vickers, associate dean for student services and director of counseling and advising at Gadsden State, said the community college offers 43 dual enrollment courses among its technical programs, such as welding. It also offers 30 dual enrollment courses for academic classes like math and history.

Like Karp, Cephus-Vickers said dual enrollment students gain advantages over classmates who do not take such courses.

"If they can take those classes early on, they'll be more advanced than their peers and can move a little quicker into the workforce and meet the demands of the workforce," Cephus-Vickers said. "And it serves as a recruiting tool for the college."

The Oxford students undertook the four-month-long car-conversion project through Gadsden State's electronics engineering technology program, said Audrey Webb, electronics engineering technology instructor. Webb said the students were asked to find an alternate fuel source and use it to power a vehicle, eventually choosing wood gasification.

"What they did teaches team-building, which is important in manufacturing," Webb said. "And they had to do research and use critical-thinking skills and develop a business proposal."

The students had about $450 to complete the project and used scrap parts from the Anniston Army Depot and from scrapyards to build the fuel generator. The generator burns wood logs in a sealed, low-oxygen, pressurized environment. The burned material is then cooled and cleaned before being converted into usable fuel.

The car uses 50 percent wood fuel and 50 percent gasoline and can reach speeds of up to 55 mph, said Megan Chesnut, 18, the class' project leader. Chesnut said another class of dual enrollment students will work on the car to convert it to a 100 percent wood-powered vehicle next semester.

Chesnut said the old car belonged to her father, who had once tried to restore it.

"It worked out better than I thought it would be," Chesnut said of the generator. "We had to change the lid on the top of it a couple of times."

Chesnut said she has taken eight dual enrollment courses, including ones for pre-engineering, hoping to one day study building science.

"I'm taking classes to get background knowledge and get a head start," she said. "If nothing else, this project has taught me management skills, team-working and I learned a lot about welding, mechanics and car restoration."

Blakeney said the group researched several generator designs online before finally combining several versions and modifying them to fit the Plymouth.

"There was not a whole lot of room for stuff ... most people we found online use trucks," Blakeney said.

Like Chesnut, Blakeney is taking eight dual enrollment courses. Blakeney said he hopes to get into mechanical engineering after high school.

"I'm very good with mechanics and this has helped to be more hands-on," Blakeney said of the project and other dual enrollment courses. "It's extra work but it helps get scholarships and an easier start in college."

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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