When you're building a race car, there are no answers in the back of the book that will solve complex engineering challenges. Sometimes, there's no answer at all.
"You get really good at looking at [potential solutions] and understanding quickly whether or not it's reasonable," says Matt Brandes, Engr '18, former president of Hopkins Baja, the student group that builds race cars from scratch to participate in SAE International's Collegiate Design Series competitions. "That's not something you learn in class. In class, you're told, 'Here's a problem, now go solve it because we told you there is going to be a solution.' This is a lot closer to what happens in the real world."
It's this kind of hands-on, let's-see-what-happens environment that made Brandes want to build a custom brake system to install on last year's race car. Sure, they could buy a ready-made kit, but where's the fun in that? So Brandes and the Baja team applied to the Alumni Association's Student Grants program, which gives funding of up to $1,500 for student-led projects ranging from the TEDxJHU speaker series to the JHU Dance Marathon. Though Baja gets other support, the $1,125 cash gift to design, test, and build a brake system was significant. "The thing that's really neat about the Alumni Association is that it's money," Brandes explains. "A lot of companies give us stuff for free, so if there's a company that manufactures bearings, they might give us bearings at a discount, but the Alumni Association sort of allows us to do what we want with the money, which is fantastic."
For the 2017–18 school year, the association awarded 71 grants for a total of $67,500 in funding. Applications get awarded more points if they nurture the relationship between Johns Hopkins and the local community, involve alumni, and span multiple divisions at the university. "We welcome applications from all nine campuses," says Amy Schulman Nagler, A&S '89, chair of the Student Grants Committee. "They all have vastly different projects, ranging from community service projects on their own campuses all the way to projects that take place overseas."
William Archer, assistant director of Regional, Student, and Young Alumni Programs, says the grants resonate with alumni, who remember trying to scrape together money for student projects. "As an organization, we're always trying to find ways to connect with current students and let them know that there are alumni out there who really care about what they're doing and the amazing progress they're making," he says.
For the Baja team, those strong alumni connections have paid off. The group runs an event each fall where alumni can come to socialize and drive the old cars. Students have networked with those alums for internships at companies including SpaceX, Tesla, and Apple. And if there's ever a design challenge that seems insurmountable? "Everybody's got everybody's phone number, just in case," Brandes says.