The Ultimate Working Interview

By Sarah Williams and Cyndi Perkins | Published

Gusty winds, icy tracks, and untested technology. About the only thing Clean Snowmobile Challenge contenders can count on is outstanding support from alumni and friends. 

Weather and breakdowns are a matter of when rather than if. For 18 years, SAE International has invited undergraduate teams to compete in the Clean Snowmobile Challenge, and Keweenaw Research Center at Michigan Tech has been the center of the action for 15 years. Sponsorship support continues to grow. And it's never taken for granted. 

The cost to put on the challenge is about $200,000. Of that, about 80 percent comes from industry partners, 10 percent from local partners and another 10 percent from snowmobile manufacturers, clubs and associations. People also chip in big time, providing sophisticated test equipment, can't-do-without basics (think meals, tools and trailers), and everything else needed for the University to host teams, judges, volunteers and technicians from North America and beyond during the week-long competition, pitting quieter, more efficient sleds against each other with hopes of taking ideas to market.

Helping to decrease engine emissions and improve fuel economy to make better snowmobiles is the focus for Sean Egmon and his team at AVL Test Systems Inc. The Austrian-based company sends nine full-time employees to build an improvised lab that puts engine emissions to the test.

Egmon says he's proud to support Michigan Tech, acknowledging it’s also a place to recruit future employees.

“These students have practical experience, they are hardworking, have good work ethics and a lot of common sense,” he says. “That’s hard to find.”

Pay It Forward

The event combines learning in a teamwork environment and that’s good for employers (who are also sponsors) to see how students perform.

“On most job interviews, it’s not possible to test and observe people in their work environment,” says Jim Christensen ’87. “Here we have an excellent opportunity to see students do the work that we do every day.”

Christensen volunteers with zero emission sleds, judges events and determines rules, and gives informal advice to teams. He brings 30 years of field experience in powertrain engineering and testing services.

Christensen says he and wife Kim support the program to pay it forward to the next generation. “Michigan Tech gave me an excellent education,” he says. “My degree has served me well. I have the means to give back, and I want to.”

He says with state funding decreasing and universities relying more on alumni and friends for support, “it’s an opportunity to make up for that in a tiny way.”

High Winds

Keweenaw's wild weather kept organizers busy. And they're used to adapting.

"On Monday, Houghton was hit with warm temps, thunder, lightning and sleet," explains Jay Meldrum, Keweenaw Research Center executive director and Clean Snowmobile Challenge lead organizer. "Tuesday morning, we had high hopes of running the endurance event to Copper Harbor. But on the practical side we knew it was doubtful due to water on the track and trails."

Meldrum and his team chose the safe path, 60 miles on the center's private test course. Ten of the 13 internal combustion sleds who qualified were ready to start when winds gusted to nearly 70 miles per hour. There were cheers for the pelting snow, followed by bad news from three highly skilled volunteer riders: sleds overheated because the track was a sheet of ice, with no loose snow to facilitate cooling.

Poor conditions is real life—and students have to weigh their modifications against not only ice and wind in the moment but what the industry also needs in the long haul.

Students compete in three categories: internal combustion—the traditional, gasoline-powered trail sled class; diesel utility class—meant for agricultural or industrial use and pulling heavy loads such as in trail grooming; zero emissions—an electric class, meant for polar scientific missions where hydrocarbon emissions skew research results and range is not a concern (less than 20 miles per charge). Meldrum notes electric snowmobiles may also have a place in remote communities or at ski resorts where short rides are frequent and charging stations are available.

Make a Fresh Start

Some recent graduates returned to the Clean Snowmobile Challenge, or came for the first time, to represent their companies.

Luke Roberts ’15 works for MacLean-Fogg, one of the event’s main sponsors. While not involved with the snowmobile challenge as a student, he now recruits students at Career Fair and this event.

“I may be biased, but Michigan Tech produces great engineers,” Roberts says. “It’s nice to be on the other side, giving the students the tools they need to be successful.”

Clean Snowmobile Challenge supporter Mark Rakoski ’95 also recruits and hires Michigan Tech students at Career Fair, and helped bring the display scoreboard to the MacInnes Student Ice Arena.

“The clean snowmobile program is great to see the engineering at work, teamwork presentation skills, and the ultimate 'did you win or lose?',” says Rakoski, who works for Mitsubishi Electric Automotive America Inc. “This is a good way to see the top talent in action."

In other words, the Clean Snowmobile Challenge is the perfect working interview.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.