Automotive program is a hot item

Brian Preston, 16, a junior at Howard High School, is among the first batch of students to enroll in the new Automotive Technology Academy at the Applications and Research Laboratory in Ellicott City.

"I've always liked to work on cars with my father - he's a mechanic," said Preston, as he attended a class in the cavernous space, which resembles a high-end mechanic's shop, with 20 bays and 10 lifts. "I'd just like to be able to do it by myself without my dad's help."


He is not sure if he is going to try to get a job as a mechanic when he graduates, but he does know that he is impressed with the new auto lab. "It looks real nice," he said. "A lot nicer than I expected."

The county spent $2.7 million to build the center, which takes the space that was formerly occupied by the Energy, Power and Transportation Academy.


Already, 120 juniors and seniors from high schools around the county have enrolled in the new program, and more are expressing interest, said Mary Day, principal of the laboratory, or ARL, which provides career-specific training for high school students. ARL has about 20 academies, in subjects ranging from finance to culinary arts to nursing.

Natalie Belcher, who runs the programs at ARL, said the center had an automotive program that shut down in the 1980s. Automotive training at ARL since then was rolled into the Energy, Power and Transportation Academy, which covered a broad subject base, including mechanical drawing, electronics and mechanics.

"We still have that program, but now it's more focused on engineering," Belcher said. "It didn't have specific auto training - it was more general."

Starting in April, the space was completely torn out to make way for the state-of-the-art auto center, said Richard Weisenhoff, the county's coordinator for career technology. "All the equipment you see here is all brand new," he said.

Instructors are Juan Wood, who taught auto mechanics in Baltimore County, and Jerry Burns, a master mechanic.

Wood said he made the move to Howard County, where he lives, because he was given the opportunity to design his own program. He said the facility is one of the nicest he has seen, especially for a public school system.

Belcher said local auto dealers and mechanics had expressed interest in seeing an auto technology academy that would train students for jobs with their businesses. An advisory board was convened, which included members of the Community College of Baltimore County.

"We had people in the industry telling us what needed to be here," said Weisenhoff.


Obviously, fixing a car is not what it used to be. These days, computers are involved in every aspect of the repair, from diagnosing a problem to searching databases for solutions.

In the 1970s, said Wood, a mechanic with access to 750,000 pages of technical information was able to handle nearly every problem that came into his garage. Nowadays, he said, there are 5.2 million pages of information available to auto technicians.

The Technology Academy will teach the basics of how cars work, focusing on steering, brakes and, of course, the engine. Students will learn about hybrid vehicles, and they also will get training in the interpersonal skills needed in the business world, Belcher said.

This year, only Automotive I is being offered, but next year, juniors will take Automotive I and seniors will take Automotive II. Students ride a bus from their school for the classes, which run 90 minutes for juniors and slightly more than two hours for seniors.

As with other career academies, students are expected to do a related internship during their junior year.

The program is certified by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation and Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). There are 10 areas of ASE certification, on topics such as brakes, steering and engine performance. Students can expect to graduate with at least four, more than enough to land a job, Wood said.


Not every student in the academy plans to become an auto technician. Brandon Hawkins, 17, a senior at Howard High School, said he likes working on cars and hopes to save money by learning how to fix his 1997 Prelude, but he plans to be an engineer or architect.

And Mary Calven, 17, a senior at Howard and the only girl in Wood's class Thursday, said she is considering a computer-related career. "I might look into it later in life," she said about becoming an auto technician.

Meanwhile, she likes cars and wants to know more about them, she said. She and her father rebuilt the engine of her 1990 Thunderbird SC, she said. "It wasn't working at all. We took it out and rebuilt it."

About the new lab, she said, "It's nice. Really nice."