Students in four SD districts to build electric vehicles from scratch

EV kits will compliment career and technical education programs

By: - December 9, 2022 2:44 pm
A Switch vehicle. The vehicle can be built and re-built by high school students. (submitted photo)

A Switch vehicle. The vehicle can be built and re-built by high school students. (Submitted photo)

There aren’t many electric vehicles (EVs) on the road in South Dakota just yet, which means there isn’t a huge demand for EV-specific mechanics.

That’s bound to change as more South Dakotans begin buying EVs.

At least four South Dakota school districts are banking on it.

FarmBots to train students in precision agriculture

High school students in Dell Rapids, Aberdeen, Sturgis and Platte-Geddes will soon be building dune buggy-like EVs from scratch, thanks to awards from the Governor’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) Innovative Equipment Grants program. The awards represent four of 17 announced recently, totaling $3 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and passed through the South Dakota Department of Education.

The purchase of Switch vehicle kits is reflective of an overall push in the state’s CTE programs to integrate emerging and future technologies into current programs. Two of the schools on the list of 17 will use the money for “FarmBots,” programmable systems that serve to plant, water, weed and harvest crops in greenhouses.

Sturgis CTE Instructor Cyle Miller hopes to introduce students to the basics of the technologies that seep into new sectors of the economy with each passing year.

“It’s become more and more apparent that interaction with electronics, or what’s commonly called mechatronics or automation, are going to become as commonplace as interaction with automobiles is today,” Miller said. 

Robots, electric vehicles everywhere

The future isn’t far off, Miller said. Robots served thousands of athletes at the winter Olympics in Beijing earlier this year. Precision agriculture drives planting, monitoring and harvest operations across South Dakota. Employers already need technicians for those systems across South Dakota.

Students work on a Switch vehicle. The vehicles can be built and re-built by high school students. (submitted photo)
Students work on a Switch vehicle. The vehicles can be built and re-built by high school students. (submitted photo)

Electric vehicles aren’t far off from the mainstream. Heavy investments in electric vehicle infrastructure by the federal government, meanwhile, as well as electric vehicle manufacturing targets from automakers are likely to translate into a need for more EV-certified mechanics, even in states whose residents latch onto electrification more slowly.

The Switch vehicles will serve as an introduction to electronic transportation systems and double as an introduction to electrical systems, Miller said.

“It basically comes in a box,” he said of the Switch kits. “You’ll start out talking about basic electronics, as basic as ‘this is A/C, this is D/C.’”

The Switch kits should arrive in about 60 days in Aberdeen, along with a company-provided curriculum on how to build, test, then break down the street-legal vehicles. The kits will serve to complement the school’s existing engine coursework, according to CTE Instructor Joshua Jensen.

“It looks like electric is the way vehicles are starting to go,” he said. “We already have a strong program with gas-powered vehicles, but we were missing this piece.”

The innovation grants opened the door to curriculum updates, which are particularly important for CTE programs, according to Aberdeen School District Curriculum Coordinator Camille Kaul. 

Dell Rapids Technical Education Instructor Craig Jorgensen assists senior Makenzy LeBrun (left) and junior Adisen Stadem with the school's 3D printer. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Dell Rapids Technical Education Instructor Craig Jorgensen assists senior Makenzy LeBrun (left) and junior Adisen Stadem with the school’s 3D printer. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Industry change comes at a faster clip than instructional changes to mathematics, reading or writing programs. For those more traditional disciplines, Kaul said, updates might come every six years or so.

“You can’t do that with CTE,” Kaul said. “You have to make changes to it just about every year.”

Dell Rapids Technical Education Instructor Craig Jorgensen is looking forward to the arrival of the two Switch vehicles to that school because they offer training in EVs, but also because they represent another opportunity for his students to build something together.

His students build CO2-powered vehicles and flyable model airplanes already, and they work in teams to design materials for the school’s 3D printer.

“All of my classes will connect to this, because really it’s just another tool” Jorgensen said. “I look at all our classes as opportunities to teach problem-solving.”

EV mechanics in demand soon

Graham Ferguson of Sioux Falls could use an EV-certified mechanic right now. He won’t see one this year. 

Ferguson’s Tesla Model 3 was struck on the driver’s side in a Wichita, Kansas, parking lot in October. February was the earliest opening for a Tesla-certified mechanic at ABRA North in Sioux Falls, which is the only shop Ferguson is aware of to offer complete EV service.

“I can definitely see how it would be valuable to have more people able to work on electric vehicles,” Ferguson said. 

His story points to the importance of the integration that Miller and Jensen called out as important aspects of the upcoming EV curricula. The Model 3 has a 360-degree camera system for security, which allowed the responding officer to download a video of the crash to attach to the accident report. 

High-tech tie-ins with links to software programming and networking are becoming more common in vehicles of all kinds, but are especially common in Teslas and other high-end electric vehicles. 

A Tesla being charged on Nov. 2, 2022 near Al's Oasis in Oacoma, SD.
A Tesla being charged on Nov. 2, 2022, near Al’s Oasis in Oacoma. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Sioux Falls resident Clement Smith hasn’t needed EV-specific services just yet, but the question of what might happen if and when he does looms large. Smith drives a 2012 Nissan Leaf for in-town trips to pick up his kids from school. So far, he’s only needed tire rotations, which a standard shop can handle. 

But Smith would like to swap out his vehicle’s battery at some point to replace any range lost to degradation and to extend its original 73-mile range to something closer to that of a newer-model Leaf or a more expensive Tesla.

Businesses are popping up to handle jobs like that in states like California that have a larger share of EV drivers, but Smith hasn’t heard about any such third-party servicing companies in South Dakota.

“It would be nice if there were someplace locally that could replace the battery pack for a newer one that hasn’t lost its capacity,” Smith said. “One of these kids in these pilot programs might be the one to introduce something like that to our area.”

Innovation and career inspiration are goals for Daniel Daum, a CTE and science teacher in Platte-Geddes. As Daum awaits the arrival of that school’s Switch vehicle, Daum is working through the possibilities for integration of electrical training for his students.

Daum wants to guide the Platte-Geddes youngsters through the construction of a home next year. Wiring a house and wiring a vehicle may be different jobs, but they each give students a sense of the value of a solid foundation in the trades.

Students who learn the trades can apply their skills to a host of modern problems, opening doors to a wider range of careers. 

“There are so many opportunities for students beyond the typical career path,” Daum said. “We just want to expose those students to as many of those possibilities as we can. That way they can pursue them if they’d like to.”



Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.