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West Philadelphia high school dares to build a 100 m.p.g. car

Students from West Philadelphia make a viable 'X PRIZE' run against auto companies from around the globe. The potential prize: $7.5 million for the school and a 100 m.p.g. car for the world.

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"We're operating with a low budget, in a school time frame – it's not like they're in the shop the whole day. They're in there for 45 to 90 minutes until after school," says Maurice Williams, another adult adviser who traveled to MIT with the students. Their rivals are professionals working full time. "We're stopping and going all the time. So for us to get this far [in the competition], it's amazing."

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In the May tests at the Michigan track, the West Philly cars passed standards for 0-to-60 acceleration, 60-to-0 braking, high-speed lane changes, and safety tests, proving that they were road worthy vehicles.

The most efficient car sold by a major manufacturer today is the 2010 Toyota Prius, rated at 50 m.p.g. "To double that is no easy task," Cahill says. "Fuel economy hasn't really changed since the Model T, which got 16 to 22 m.p.g.," he says. The impact of this competition on the auto industry, he says, could be "huge."

West Philly has impressed him. "It's not just the next generation of technology [that's needed], it's the next generation of students and workers," Cahill says. "We need qualified, skilled people who can innovate and be that next generation that will create new jobs and opportunities in this country with higher salaries so that we can continue to be a leading innovator in the world." Any team that has made it this far in the X PRIZE competition, he says, "should really be applauded."

If West Philly wins the prize, the bulk of the money will go toward starting a new automotive-oriented high school in Philadelphia, Hauger says.

Engaging students in projects that they feel passionate about is the key to productive learning, say the adults who work with the West Philly team.

"We're going to produce a car that gets 100 m.p.g. and is safe and affordable on a budget that is ridiculously small compared with any of the car manufacturers," Hauger says. "I think that says a lot on several different levels, but for us the most important [lesson] is that children are really valuable and that they have great ideas, and they need to be engaged so that their creativity and problem solving can be expressed and developed. When you do, this is the type of work that you can expect to come out of it."

In inner-city schools such as West Philly, half of students drop out and as many as 15 percent of those who graduate function at just a 12th-grade level.

"You have to change the approach, and you can change the results," Hauger says. Schools are "increasing testing; they're increasing the old-fashioned ways that don't work. And they don't get any different results."

Members of the West Philly team seem to set no boundaries on their possibilities. "We cannot wait to mass-produce these vehicles and have you drive our cars," Sekou told the MIT audience.

Out in the business world, West Philly has already won one admirer.

At the MIT event, Paul Wilbur, a former Chrysler Corporation executive who is now CEO of Aptera Motors, which is itself competing for the X PRIZE, spoke to the crowd just after the West Philly team.

"I hope Philly wins, just for the record, OK?" Mr. Wilbur said with a wide smile. "My hat's off to you guys. You guys are awesome, seriously."