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Interdisciplinary Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Group of students and professors in a workshop.

When Bryon Spells, senior in the NC State College of Engineering, assembled a team to compete at the American Solar Challenge he knew he wanted to create a unique vehicle, one that may not cross the finish line as a first-place winner, but one that would certainly garner attention for new possibilities in solar power and automobiles. And Spells knew from the start that he wanted to “create a car that is marketable.”

For help promoting the project and getting the sponsorships to fund creation of the vehicle and coverage of expenses incurred during the SolarPack’s July 2018 competition, Spells went to NC State’s Poole College of Management to recruit business talent. Noting that engineering students aren’t always known for business acumen, Spells said “business students are more trained for that.”

For the first phase of the project, SolarPack relied on Poole student Adam Fisher as one its business leaders. But since Fisher stepped down to defend his dissertation this May, SolarPack welcomed its newest member – Samantha (Sam) Brennen-Lisko, a senior accounting major also completing the Business Analytics Honors Program at Poole College. One of Lisko’s Professors, Dr. Al Chen, knew that she had experience helping nonprofits with their auditing and accounting and suggested that SolarPack could use her particular expertise. Chen introduced Lisko to Bryon Spells, and Lisko was hooked.

When asked what she found so compelling about her meeting with Spells, Lisko answered succinctly ––“I like disruptors,” –– people who develop new, game-changing products and processes that are both effective and sustainable. Working with SolarPack and being led by Bryon Spells’ passion for the project was an opportunity to see that disruptive energy in action while working on an interdisciplinary, collaborative effort.

By the time Lisko came on board, the group had already established with the state their nonprofit designation, but needed help finalizing the federal tax forms necessary for 501(c)(3) status. For this particular task, Lisko had both experience and training. For SolarPack’s other needs –– including additional fundraising –– Lisko is working even more closely with her teammates, Sean Cherlinczuk-French, a senior business administration major and Alex Lisko, a junior at Wake STEM Early College High School located on NC State’s Centennial Campus.

And yes, Alex Lisko is related to Sam Lisko. Sam Lisko believed her daughter would benefit from this unusual experience and knew that Alex’s formidable grasp of technology and fierce sense of logic would also benefit the team. As a non-degree seeking student enrolled in a high school program that includes classes on NC State’s campus, Alex was determined an eligible participant. She’s taken on marketing tasks with authority, maturity and energy. Sam reports that Alex has become facile at developing presentations and managing meetings to engage financial support from the high-level corporate leaders who’ve been attracted to the SolarPack project. “She’s grown into a fantastic young woman.”

Now that the tax forms are complete, Sam has turned her attention to managing and promoting SolarPack’s GoFundMe campaign. The $3,000 campaign goal will fund the final phases of vehicle fabrication and expenses related to the team’s travel to the qualifying competition (The Formula Sun Grand Prix in Hastings, Nebraska), and hopefully then to the American Solar Challenge cross-country rally. Sam Lisko is using social media platforms to promote those fundraising efforts, and she’s grateful to her teammates to supplement her understanding of the mechanics and nuances of social media.

Asked if she believed a deep understanding of engineering and technology was needed to contribute to and promote the SolarPack project, Sam Lisko said that this was in fact new territory for her and where the strength of the interdisciplinary team really comes into play. Lisko understands what the project represents and if a supporter needs additional information, she knows just the teammate who can provide it. And, ultimately the bigger purpose is what drives her and many supporters.

“What started as the idea of a single student has blossomed into a community of over 30 N.C. State students. It is our collective dream to design and build compelling, next generation vehicles that improve the environmental condition for our community – humanity.”

The SolarPack team’s vehicle will be on display at the 2018 State Energy Conference of North Carolina, April 17-18 at the McKimmon Center.

This article was written for the NC State Poole College of Management by Fran Wescott.