Undergraduate Programs

What It’s Like to Be on a SPEED Team at Clarkson (And Why It’s Better Here)

I can definitely say that after being at Clarkson University for 3.5 years now, I credit most of my true engineering experience to the Clarkson SPEED (Student Projects for Engineering Experience and Design) program. Of course, you learn all of the necessary engineering concepts and methods through your classes while at Clarkson; however, you can never get the true practical engineering experience unless you become involved in a design project.

There are many ways you can accomplish this — one being research, and another being your senior design project. However, the overarching option is to join a SPEED team so you don’t have to wait until senior year to get involved. Also, rather than working with a faculty member or in a small group, as you most likely would during research, you participate in collaborative design in the SPEED program, which is the experience that employers want to see.

There are 14 SPEED teams at Clarkson, such as Formula SAE, Timber Bridge, Concrete Canoe, Human-Powered Vehicle, SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge and FIRST Robotics. I have been a member of the Clarkson Baja SAE SPEED team since the first weekend of my first year. Most students wait a few weeks to begin showing up, just so they can figure out what club or team they want to join; however, I knew exactly which team I wanted to be on after the Accepted Students Day that I attended during high school.

A green and black car with dust coming up behind it driving by green trees
Every team member gets to drive the Baja car at Clarkson.

One of my favorite aspects of the Clarkson SPEED teams is that you don’t need any prior experience to be a valuable asset to the team. The knowledge of the upperclass students on the team is passed down to you, whether it’s about engineering design, machining or welding or just fabrication in general. These are all things that I have learned at Clarkson University solely through the Baja team.

I could talk forever about all of the specific things I’ve learned through the Baja team, but I think it’s very necessary to talk about all of the fun stuff that I have done with the team. Most high school students that get tours of our Baja shop ask if all members of the team get to drive the car; the answer is, absolutely!

The first time that I showed up to the Baja shop during my first semester at Clarkson, some of the team members were getting ready to head to the back of campus to do some driving. While I was thinking that I would just be watching the whole time, they told me I could hop in and take it for a rip, which is exactly what I did — and then proceeded to flip the car over within the first two minutes. I haven’t lived that one down, but I certainly have flipped the car many more times (which sounds dangerous, but with the required safety features we have, is actually very safe).

Also, every year during the first or second weekend of September, we have a “Freshman Drive Day,” when we gather all of the interested new first-years and load up both of the Baja cars that we have in the shop and take them to some local land that Clarkson University owns. We also have an awesome Baja grill, constructed from an old Baja car frame, that we bring, and we just have a day of grilling food and having fun as all of the new first-year recruits drive the cars around.

A metal grill with big tires
Our grill was made out of spare Baja parts!

At the end of the school year, the Baja team attends two competitions that are set up and run by the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers). Polaris and Honda engineers attend the competitions in order to judge and evaluate the team designs. While we always try to take everyone who is interested to the competitions, we typically judge who attends based on how much work each member puts in during both semesters. The first competition sometimes falls in April, so the members who attend have to take a few days off from school, while some years, both of the competitions occur during the summer. I have attended five competitions now, and it is without a doubt a very valuable experience, especially after all of the work that we put into building the car. The members who drive during the competitions are typically the designers, who are sophomores, and the two team captains, who are juniors.

When comparing Clarkson’s SPEED program to those of other schools, I’d say there are quite a few advantages to what Clarkson has to offer.

Smaller Teams = More Experience
My first argument refers to the size of the team. While most engineering schools’ design project teams have very large numbers of students involved, I see this as more of a disadvantage than an advantage, mostly in terms of gaining experience and learning. Clarkson’s teams are comparatively small, and this is an advantage because it allows you to be well-known within the program, whether it’s with the other teams or the management of the teams in general. Clarkson’s SPEED program allows you to become extremely involved right off the bat. For example, as only a sophomore on the Baja team, you can easily be designing any of the components of the car that you express interest in designing.

A dirt track with two cars racing and people in orange shirts cheering
At our annual Baja SAE competition.

Creating Career Connections
Another huge advantage that Clarkson University has is the network that it brings you into, thus allowing you to build extremely valuable connections that, in the long run, will make it much easier to find employment. Building connections is probably the most important advantage that the SPEED program has provided me. At every single career fair I have been to at Clarkson, I have met employers who are Clarkson Baja alumni and are sometimes looking solely for students with SPEED team experience. They understand the true value of these programs and know that this experience helps to make students well-rounded and will greatly benefit students in the workplace.

A line of people and cars
A shot of the Baja lineup at competition.

I recently gained employment that will begin after this summer, and it just so happened that one of the employers who interviewed me for the position was a Clarkson alum who was heavily involved in one of the SPEED teams. Prior to the interview, he had apparently spoken with a different employee within the organization, whom I had worked with through my co-op, in order to get a reference. The employee that gave me this reference was also a Clarkson alum who was part of the Clarkson Baja team. Not only had the employer who interviewed me spoken with this employee about me, but he also contacted the Clarkson faculty member who manages all of the SPEED teams and obtained another reference (I worked very closely with the SPEED program manager as captain of the Baja team my junior year). It’s connections like these that the Clarkson SPEED program — as well as Clarkson University in general — will provide you.

A group photo with students around two cars and people in the drivers seats
Our team with President Tony Collins!

One last aspect that I cannot leave out is that I have not only gained engineering experience, job references and resume-enhancing involvement through the SPEED program, but have also made all of the friends that I have at Clarkson through the SPEED team. Whether it’s the other members on the Baja team, members from other SPEED teams or people I have met through other SPEED friends, my friend group has grown exponentially since leaving high school. A lot of the members of the SPEED teams are involved in many different clubs and sports teams, which has allowed me to meet their friends from these other clubs and sports. This has given me a very treasured friend network at school and a much more enjoyable Clarkson experience.

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