‘We’re trying to start this as a legacy’: DSU students launch fundraiser to build unique off-road vehicle

ST. GEORGEAs part of their senior project, four engineering students at Dixie State University are trying to raise money to create a unique off-road vehicle known as a “Baja buggy.”

L-R: Members of the DSU Baja SAE team Ryan Thompson, Colton Davis and Kimball Hooper study design concepts for the buggy, St. George, Utah, Sept. 1, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Designing, building and testing the vehicle will take place over the course of the academic year, and if successful, the finished buggy will be entered into international Baja SAE competition. 

Each member of the team – Ryan Thompson, Kimball Hooper, Colton Davis and Braden Jensen – is on track to graduate as part of DSU’s inaugural class of mechanical engineering students. To qualify for their degrees, the team needs to complete a project that demonstrates the depth of their engineering expertise.

“We kind of just shot for the moon on this Baja project,” Thompson said. “We’ll be competing against Stanford and Caltech and others, and I think that will bring people to Dixie State and bring customers to our sponsors. Our school’s name will be up there with high-level engineering and technical colleges.”

Baja SAE is a collegiate competition coordinated by SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers. The competition centers on building the best performing vehicle within certain design parameters, including the use of identical engines across all teams.

For illustrative purposes, a 2004 Baja vehicle competes in the Midwest competition | Photo courtesy of Chris Chow via Wikimedia Commons, St. George News

In order to secure parts for the vehicle and tools for the build process, the DSU team is seeking $18,000 in donations and sponsorships from local citizens and businesses.

Many of the universities involved have been participating for years, and they often reuse the frame or other viable parts to keep costs low. Part of the reason for the high price of DSU’s fundraiser is that the team is trying to build the car from scratch and create a club to carry on the Baja program after their graduation.

“We would build the initial Baja car and do our novel idea, but students in later years can actually take over the project and then do a different aspect of the design and optimize that,” Davis said. “Most other schools do the same thing, so we’re trying to start this as a legacy within the engineering program, not just for us.”

The SAE Baja club at Dixie State would be open to students from all programs, including those outside of STEM fields. Each year’s team would have to make substantial improvements to the base buggy, but these modifications would serve as an excellent proving ground for students’ projects.

“As part of our senior project we need to come up with certain aspects of the design,” Thompson said. “We use math and simulation to figure out how to best optimize a component or part on a vehicle or whatever we’re building. It can’t just be putting parts together to make a working vehicle. We have to have components that we develop on our own.”

L-R: Members of the DSU Baja SAE team Colton Davis, Ryan Thompson and Kimball Hooper study design concepts for the buggy, St. George, Utah, Sept. 1, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

The plan for this team’s project is to prototype self adjusting/dampening shocks and auto camber adjustments. These improvements would make the buggy more durable and grant better traction for the tests it would face in competition.

What’s more, these design projects might allow students to improve the technology used in off-road recreation, said assistant professor Scott Skeen of the Dixie State engineering department.

“There’s the potential that, with their ideas and skill set, they could come up with new ideas that may influence the development of future side by sides, Baja cars and so forth,” Skeen said. “So there’s always the potential that something really big could come out of this, but at a minimum it’s training engineers for the future.”

In fact, Skeen said the team actually came up with the idea to participate in the Baja competition instead of pursuing the project routes recommended by the faculty. 

Braden Jensen, member of the DSU Baja SAE senior project, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Braden Jensen, St. George News

After some deliberation and refining of ideas, the engineering faculty decided to grant preliminary approval to the Baja project with the understanding that it would benefit not only the graduating seniors but also upcoming students in later academic years.

Thompson, Hooper, Davis and Jensen are hoping to secure at least $10,000 in funding within these first weeks of the semester. If they reach that point, they can receive final approval from the engineering department and move forward with obtaining the supplies to start assembly. Skeen said he has faith in the team’s abilities.

“Knowing these students and their skill level – and having seen their fabrication abilities, design abilities and theoretical abilities – I know that this team could be a success,” he said. “It’s really just a matter of finding the funding.”

Sponsors for the project will be featured on the completed vehicle and receive thanks when the buggy is displayed at Dixie Design Day.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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