Bison Baja Team

Students becoming professional engineers

Dec. 6, 2021 | Department of Engineering and Physics |

Racing a car is a thrill — from the smell of gasoline in the air, to the hum of the whirring engines, to the stomach-flipping speed of the car itself as the tires grind up dust at the drivers trailing behind. Maneuvering a car on a racetrack is one thing, but building a car —that’s different. At Harding University, the Bison Baja team combines the best of both worlds. They build a car from scratch and race in competition.

Every year, the Bison Baja team produces a car built to withstand professional competitions hosted by Society of Automotive and Aerospace Engineering each spring. The team’s goal is to design and construct a single-seat, off-road vehicle to compete against other university teams in several events, such as a business presentation, design presentation, acceleration and speed test, sled-pull test, obstacle course and the thrilling finale —a four-hour endurance race against the competing teams.

“A lot of competitions don’t have these reports and presentations,” said Rich Wells, assistant professor of engineering. “That’s one of the things that makes SAE premier. It’s not just tinkering with a car, it’s acting like a professional engineer.”

In preparing for the many reports and presentations, students must work through the steps of an engineering process to produce the desired result and ensure this professional process is evident in their presentations to the SAE judges. Engineering shop coordinator Kent Miller explains that “the opportunity for [students] at [SAE] competitions is so great because they are putting themselves out there with their designs and presenting them to industry professionals.”

The SAE competition events are highly valued by employers, and participation can put students a step ahead of other applicants.

“Some companies will only hire engineering students who have been in top-tier engineering competitions, [and] SAE competitions are all highly revered,” Wells said.

The current Bison Baja team consists of 16 members, but they compete against university teams with 60 to 70 members each. Despite the size difference, Bison Baja consistently ranks well in the SAE competitions. Last spring, Bison Baja placed fourth overall and first in the endurance race — a huge achievement.

Since most of the members are engineering students, the Baja team and their accomplishments attest to the academic rigor of Harding’s engineering program. The Bison Baja team is well known on campus since the team and the car itself appear frequently at events like the Homecoming parade. While many have seen the car, the team’s preparation, building process and competition events occur behind the scenes.

While the students on the team tackle the bulk of the hands-on work involved in building and presenting the car, the team is greatly aided by supporting faculty members like Rich Wells and Kent Miller. Wells facilitated the establishment of the Bison Baja team in 2013. With years of experience in the automotive industry, his real-world knowledge of mechanical engineering has served as a valuable resource for students.

Wells said his goal for Bison Baja members is “for them to learn how to think and act as engineering professionals. The car is a method or strategy that enables them to learn and experience how to be real-world engineers.”

Miller is the engineering shop coordinator for the Ulrey Engineering Lab on campus, and he has been an advisor to the Bison Baja team since 2017. With a background as a machinist, Miller helps students understand how to use the equipment in the shop, monitors all machines to ensure safety, collaborates with students as they problem-solve and assists with anything else they may need along the way.

Senior mechanical engineering major Alberto Quintero joined the Bison Baja team during his freshman year  and has taken on the role of team captain this year. Alberto has experienced firsthand the challenges and opportunities that Bison Baja has to offer.

How does Bison Baja prepare you for your future career?

“I really want to get into the automotive industry. My dream job involves working for a major manufacturer or for some sort of off-road company. That’s what we do with Baja, especially the off-road aspect. Companies value  participation in Baja and SAE events, so I already know that it provides one step ahead in the field. I’ve also learned about time management — where I have a goal that I need to complete and determine how I am going to complete that goal in [a certain] timeline while also trying not to overstress myself.  Baja provides a safer environment to make mistakes [and] to learn those lessons so that when I get to the workforce, I have that in my memory — which helps me to better plan out things in an actual job. Another big thing [is] having experience and knowledge reported to you by people who are a lot wiser, have years of experience and are helping build your own knowledge so that you don’t have to make the same mistakes.”

How does Bison Baja reflect the quality of the engineering program?

“It provides students a real opportunity to put forth what they’ve learned in a classroom and to practice. Since we have professors with experience in the field, Baja then provides an opportunity to relate what you’re learning. The professors are great and are able to teach complex concepts in an understandable way, and that shows up in the designs that we have. It really shows that, with the research that we have compared to other teams in competition, the core of our engineering work doesn’t suffer as a result of our smaller school size. The smaller class sizes for engineering provide a one-on-one relationship with the professors. We’re underdogs competing against the top schools in the country, and it’s definitely something to take pride in.”

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