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Georgian students plugging away on VW Westfalia electric project

Project at Barrie campus will see several programs join forces to retrofit old camper van with vintage theme

Georgian College students are coming together, right now. 

The school's Barrie campus hosted an event Monday to launch an innovative student-led project that will see several programs join forces to retrofit a 1972 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van to become an electric vehicle, along with an interior redesign in a vintage theme.

Faculty at the school are using the project as an innovative, hands-on learning experience for its students, with the project aligning with the college’s commitment to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

“This is why I come to work," Ron Sky, an engineering and environmental technologies professor and professional engineer, told BarrieToday at the event.

“It’s a chance for me to work with students on some stuff that we can’t do in the classroom,” he added. “We do lots of great labs, but it’s isolated from the real world a bit, but this is real-world stuff.”

There are 35 students attached to the project so far, but they are expecting at least 50 to be on board by the end, from different disciplines, but mainly the engineering technology students initially, because they are the ones who are going to get their hands dirty first.

Joining them will be students from other areas, such as computer programming for the vehicle system overhaul, and marketing students for when it’s complete, as the van will be showcased in different shows around the region.

“The electric vehicle system is complex, with mechanical and electrical components, batteries and control systems that have to be programmed, so it’s bringing all those pieces together, and all the expertise required to make it all work,” Sky said.

“The challenge is going to be getting everybody to work together and getting everybody to bring their knowledge and skills so that we can make it all happen," he added.

Getting a jump on electric-vehicle technology will be key for students, as the industry is growing by leaps and bounds.

“It’s already happening,” said Sky. “We’ve got the Volkswagen battery plant in St. Thomas and they’ve already been supportive of this project.”

The nearby Honda plant in Alliston will no doubt be switching over at some point to more electrification of vehicles and with them will come the suppliers that orbit these large automotive corporations.

“We’ve been working in the field of electric vehicles and charging technology for about 10 years now,” Sky said. “We’ve been sponsored by Ford before, and they've given us vehicles to test on.

“This is where the world is moving and we’re trying to stay a little bit ahead of the game to make sure our students have the skills that they need to go out and get the jobs that need to be done," he added.

Parker Johannesson, a first-year student in Georgian's mechanical engineering technology program, says he eager to jump in. 

“Being able to take part in this project is very exciting. I don’t know too much about electric vehicles, so hopefully this gets me experience that I need to hopefully move forward in the automotive industry," he said. 

Joshua Reitzel, another first-year student, said he didn’t know about this project prior to signing up for the engineering technology program, "but this is just one of the great benefits of being here at Georgian. They have all these opportunities.

“I’ve never done a whole lot of electrical (work),” Reitzel added. “I’m excited to challenge myself and get to know how the wiring will all work.”

The school says the electrified van will likely end up with a range of around 100 kilometres when the project is complete.

“We’ll definitely get to drive it,” Reitzel said.

As for a possible celebratory camping trip?

“Maybe we could take it somewhere close...?” he added with a laugh

Sunnidale Park is in the middle of town and is a nice place to visit in the summertime.


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About the Author: Kevin Lamb

Kevin Lamb picked up a camera in 2000 and by 2005 was freelancing for the Barrie Examiner newspaper until its closure in 2017. He is an award-winning photojournalist, with his work having been seen in many news outlets across Canada and internationally
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