When Dr. G. Marshall Molen, P.E., Ergon distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering at Mississippi State University, first got involved in supervising MSU student teams to compete in the Challenge X Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions (AVTCs) sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, he could have little dreamed the outcome.
When they first started, Molen and his colleagues—engineering Dean Dr. Wayne Bennett and Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems Director Dr. Don Trotter–were looking for a way to enhance the visibility of CAVS that was initiated at the time Nissan brought its manufacturing plant to Canton.
“We had this marvelous center that no one had ever heard of,” Molen said. “We thought getting involved in some of these nationwide student competitions might be a way to become better known. We saw it as an opportunity to enhance the image of the state and the university in the automotive field. We always had a great reputation in engineering at MSU, but not necessarily in automotive engineering.”
Someone from one of the other competing teams told students, ‘Call us if you feel you are hopelessly lost.’ Molen said that made it just that much more rich when his students succeeded at the level they did. “I think our students were shocked to see that, with some hard work, they could compete with anyone in the nation,” he said.
In ten years that Molen supervised the teams for Challenge X and then EcoCar and EcoCAR2 AVTCs, they were ranked first place for four years. The other years they were also typically close to the top. “Our students made the highest scores of any team in the 26-year history of these competitions,” said Molen, who turned over supervision of the EcoCAR3 team to colleague Dr. Randy Follett about a year and a half ago. “Our students produced the car with the highest fuel economy of any car built in these competitions. I considered myself to be kind of the cheerleader. We were very lucky to have some outstanding student leaders. To see them succeed as they did brought me a tremendous amount of satisfaction. Providing support to the students was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my career.” A lot of resources and effort went in trying to do well in the extremely competitive AVTCs.
“We have some of the finest young men and women as our students,” Molen said. “Sometimes they don’t really realize their potential. One of the things that was so exciting for me was to provide them with the resources they needed. To give you an idea, in each one of the competitions, the kind of money donated to the team was in the order of $80 million in equipment, computer software and other resources. This was not a small effort.”
Not only was the reputation of MSU in automotive engineering greatly enhanced, but students associated with the competitions are highly recruited.
“Initially, our students weren’t really highly sought after in automotive engineering,” Molen said. “Today, any students who participate in these competitions have no trouble getting a job and they usually get a job significantly before they graduate.”
The teams included more than just engineering students. Students from the College of Business and other majors were involved. A business group managed it, and a public relations student actively promoted the program.
The competitions are multi-faceted. “We had to try to duplicate the whole process that takes place in the industry all the way from trying to determine what the consumer wants from a car to coming up with technical specifications, then designing it, acquiring the parts, building it and then promoting it,” Molen said.
One of the exciting things about the competition was the amount of interest shown by the students.“If you can find something that excites them, then it kind of goes from there,” he said. “It was never difficult to get them to spend enough time with it. I would stay up late working with them when they wanted to. It was more a problem to tell them to go home and study. They had spent enough time on that car.”
He also appreciated that in addition to students with 4.0 grade average on the team, there were also students with average grades who were contributing and who ended up getting jobs.
While the engineering students were heavy on the number of men, Molen said they also had a lot of women involved, including some in engineering, but also in the business and promotional aspects.
“These women were just outstanding,” he said.
Molen grew up in Greenville, Texas, which is near Dallas. He spent 11 years at Texas Tech University where he received his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He moved to Starkville in 1992 to become the head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, a post he held for about 10 years. Right now his primary field of research involves electric power components.