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TechCHAT: Building EV Vehicles With John Palmerlee of Switch Vehicles

The TechCHAT series invites educators and others from across the country and around the world to share how they’re using technology to enhance instruction and student learning.

Based in Sebastopol, CA, Switch Vehicles, Inc. has brought together project-based learning, STEM, and sustainability together in order to produce a unique curriculum in which students build their very own electric car as a class. 

The EV Chassis Lab program gives teachers and students the chance to explore the building and operation of a street drivable electric car over a semester. It includes a variety of supplemental tools to master the process of building the vehicle. That means lesson plans, tests, and even study guides for students. You also get the parts to build the car, which is 100 percent electric and street-legal. 

Education World recently spoke with Switch Vehicles’ production engineer John Palmerlee to learn more. 


What was the inspiration behind The SWITCH Lab program? How long did it take to launch starting from conception? Explain a bit about how the program was developed. 

In 2007, Peter Oliver, co-founder of Switch Vehicles, Inc., started teaching a class at a California Community College that was designed to instruct students in basic electric vehicle fundamentals. During the class we actually converted internal combustion vehicles (gas cars) to electric vehicles.

It was a very popular class with a wait list every semester. The difficulty was the length of time each conversion required. It was generally two to three semesters to complete a project. This meant that students could only participate in one third to one half of each project.

To provide students with the complete experience we needed to have a vehicle that could be built in one semester. That was the genesis of The SWITCH. The curriculum was adapted to enable students to learn about the EV components, then build and drive the vehicle in one semester. 

Our first educational package was released in 2011.


What results have you most excited about the program’s success so far?

  • Instructor Training: Feedback from everyone involved is overwhelmingly positive. Instructors have told us that our training is among the best training they have experienced. We provide a one week training where instructors actually experience the class with lectures by our staff in the morning and build the vehicle in the afternoon. [They] get training from the actual designers and builders of the vehicle and curriculum.
  • Engaging Students: Students resume or continue their education after completing the project. Our course offers students insights into manufacturing processes, math and science.  It helps them put concepts into practice and adds relevancy.  Some students having gained a measure of confidence have elevated their career goals while others have decided they could operate a lathe, a mill or become welders. The SWITCH Lab has opened doors and kept them open. 
  • Soft Skills Enhanced: Last summer we held a one week class for students and instructors from Venture Academy in California. We wanted to see firsthand how the material worked with high school students. 

One of the concepts we integrate within the program is the concept of working with teams. Soft skills are often overlooked in traditional shop classes but are required in the real world. After a long day where students and instructors were required to work as a team one of the students opened up with how at first he hated working in the team, thought it took them too long, students were slow and holding him back. However, after a while he realized that some of the things they said and some of their ideas opened him up to greater understanding of the project and new ways to do things. That was a big day for us at Switch Vehicles.


On average, what are the three biggest reported benefits of the program, and how have those benefits impacted those respective student bodies and educators? 

Teachers have told us that enrollment is up for the class and attendance is high, students do not want to miss anything. 

The STEM concepts presented have had an impact on students’ overall academic direction. Project based learning is key in this completely hands-on program. Soft skills like learning to work in a team have far reaching benefits.

Once a class is in session, word gets out about the class, and the next class is booked. Some instructors have requested advanced curriculum for following semesters because interest is so high.

The SWITCH is easy to assemble and disassemble. This means that a one semester class can see the vehicle through its complete life cycle, and experience disassembly as a valid procedure with its own benefits. Multiple life cycles mean that the investment has a life of many years. 

Some Schools have suggested they could build The SWITCH, then auction it off in a fundraiser, so value to the whole school could be realized. 


Have any educators or students reported struggles or problems overall with the program? Are cars always completed?  

As far as we know vehicles are always completed. We get very few support calls or requests for help. Occasionally we have had to replace a part that was lost after delivery. 

Support calls typically involve a misunderstood procedure or an incorrectly attached part. Occasionally, the video or instructions are not a perfect match for the version shipped, and simple corrections are made via support call or email.


What plans do you have for The SWITCH Lab program in the future? How can you expand upon the program, or add more efficiency and value? 

We now offer a single semester program. Students build the vehicle, test drive it, and experience the fun of driving an EV. We call it the “EV Grin” as people cannot seem to stop smiling after the experience driving an EV they built or helped build.

We are working on semester two. We want students to make The SWITCH, then learn how to customize it for a particular application, such as modifications for efficiency at various speeds. To accomplish this we are creating some guidelines for testing, driving, and analyzing energy consumption. Students might decide how to make the vehicle more efficient by adding a solid floor or an aerodynamic front cover, then rerun their tests to measure the improvement.

We are developing projects in the form of contests to add computer elements with the Arduino processor. We provide a list of Arduino accessories and see how students would use those accessories to improve the vehicle. The better ideas would receive the necessary parts so they could be implemented. Contests between schools might include a complete build speed test with the winner the first to drive across a finish line.

Additionally we are working with Sonoma State University to develop a two week summer scholarship program to which we would invite students from across the country to come to SSU and build a vehicle and work on an element of electronics for the vehicle. We are also looking to expand the program to a college offering a mechanical engineering summer program. 

We will [also] expand the lab exercises, possibly develop an electric bike program and expand our popular electric go-kart program. These related programs are extensions of the core, translating from and expanding prior experiences.


What Common Core standards does this program align to? 

The following Common Core Standard sections are addressed in the curriculum, but we do not claim our curriculum meets specific requirements set forth in any state’s application of the standards.

  • Math Quantities and Units: Energy, power and electrical units including history and practical use.
  • Mathematical Equations: Using the applicable units to form equations to demonstrate the application of principals and Ohm’s Law applications in electrical circuits.
  • Mathematical Modeling: Using units in equations to determine properly sized components in an EV power system, including battery pack, motor and controller specifications.
  • Modeling with Geometry: Geometric relationships applied to steering and suspension functionality and adjustment.
  • Understanding Ratio Concepts: Force amplification in automotive brake system design, function and maintenance and voltage and current ratios in battery charging systems.


The final product acts as an additional learning reward and students can also drive the car for additional fun. Have any mishaps occurred while vehicles have been in operation? What are some details on the car’s functionality? Could it, for instance, be safely driven on the highway? 

We have seen numerous videos and photos of students driving the vehicle after completion and have not heard of any mishaps.

The SWITCH is licensed as a motorcycle, includes a robust collision enclosure and is highly roll resistant. It is designed to operate at freeway speeds and we have licensed a few to do so. SWITCH 1 (the first model built) has nearly 8,000 miles of highway use.


Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor
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