Revving up careers

The Baltimore Sun

Joseph Gibson is installing a new front axle on his brother's Volkswagen, a job that could cost roughly $2,000. But since Gibson is making the repairs at the Howard County school system's automotive technology shop, his brother is only paying for parts. The labor is free.

A senior at Reservoir High School, Gibson is a member of the first graduating class from the Automotive Technology Academy in May. The program is part of the county's career academies, which began in 1996. Automotive technology started in 2006.

Natalie Belcher, Career & Technology Education instructional facilitator for county schools, said her office "got a lot of requests by the automotive businesses. ... There's a real need in this county for technicians."

Business owners "wanted somebody who could read at a college level and that's because of technical documentation," said Rich Weisenhoff, coordinator for Career & Technology Education. "The perception that an auto tech is somebody who doesn't need a lot of education ... doesn't really fly anymore" because of the computer technology in today's cars.

The automotive technology program features a $2.7 million facility at the school system's Application and Research Laboratory (ARL). It has been so popular with students that teachers and administrators are considering an expansion.

Weisenhoff said he expected about 30 students to sign up the first year. "It came as a big surprise to us. ... We had about 90 students [as juniors] apply to the program," he said. Nearly 60 of those students will complete academy classes next month.

In two years, students earn up to 18 credits toward an associates degree in Automotive Technology. To do so, they must pass an Automotive Service Excellence certification exam. Certification is in four areas: brakes, steering and suspension, electrical and electronic systems, and engine performance.

"They can leave here and go to CCBC [Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville] with advanced standing," Weisenhoff said. Howard Community College does not offer automotive technology.

A committee of local automotive business owners advises the program. Many of their businesses participate in the academy's summer internships. Students spend at least 120 paid hours at a local automotive shop between junior and senior year.

"Any career program in the school system works when you have the business connected to it, giving the real life application," said Brian England, president of British American Auto Care in Columbia. He serves on the advisory committee.

Students must complete a declaration of intent by the end of 10th grade as to whether they are interested in studying automotive technology. After they enter the program in their junior year, they are required to maintain a 2.0 grade point average in their academy and math classes.

Each day, students travel from their home schools and spend several hours at ARL. Weisenhoff said that students spend time in the classroom, work on simulations, and practice on donated cars.

"It's a combination. There's got to be classroom instruction before they go into the lab," he said.

Ninth-and 10th-graders interested in automotive technology can sign up for an independent WMDA Preautomotive Academy. British American Auto Care runs about six Saturday classes in the course. It costs $96.

"The idea is to get the students early ... so they can get a good overview of the automotive industry" before joining the career academy, England said. "We show them just what it's like to be working in an auto repair shop."

The next session begins tomorrow.

For juniors and seniors who sign up for the automotive technology program, their lab is a simulated auto mechanic's shop. Students prepare work orders on the cars and have customers sign a waiver.

"These students are required to demonstrate that they have good technical reading and writing skills, that they can communicate," Belcher said. They practice interview techniques and, during the summer, they "practice those skills at the internship site."

Shawn Virtue, a Mount Hebron senior, will study automotive technology at CCBC or Universal Technical Institute in Pennsylvania next year. "The program has prepared me a lot. Definitely a big confidence builder in working on cars," Virtue said. "It's definitely a different atmosphere than sitting in school all day."

The instruction at ARL "grabs my attention. I want to learn more about cars," Virtue said. He added that time spent in the automotive technology classroom prepared him for working on cars.

Juan Wood, automotive technology instructor, likes the hands-on nature of the academy. It "gives us an opportunity to tap into the talents of students that other educators may not necessarily see," Wood said. "It also allows us a tactile learning methodology ... [which is] a lot more important than people understand."

After four days of working on his brother's Volkswagen, Gibson is not sure about continuing in the automotive industry.

Said Weisenhoff: "It is career exploration. They may find that it's not for them, and that's OK."

After a recent visit to the program, England said that more than half of the students plan to study or work in an automotive field after high school. "To me that shows it's a successful program," he said.

For more information on WMDA Preautomotive Academy at British American Auto Care, go to; for information on Howard County Schools Automotive Technology Academy, call 410-313-6629.

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