How auto shop accelerates high school CTE

CTE programs rev up the technology to keep pace with electric and self-driving vehicles
By: | Issue: October, 2019
September 13, 2019
Demand for the automotive program at Sussex Technical School District in Delaware is surging. Advanced technology means these future mechanics also have to become IT troubleshooting specialists.Demand for the automotive program at Sussex Technical School District in Delaware is surging. Advanced technology means these future mechanics also have to become IT troubleshooting specialists.

Consider the speedometer in your new self-driving electric vehicle. The cable-operated dial in the gas-guzzling clunker you just traded in has been replaced by a digital display.

Easier to read for you, perhaps, but a harder fix for students in today’s high school auto shops.

“Anybody who thinks that an auto technician doesn’t have to be as academically prepared as a student bound for college is sadly mistaken,” says Stephen H. Guthrie, superintendent of the Sussex Technical School District in Delaware. “Cars are complex computers.”

Repairs that require software updates and wrenches compel career and technical education administrators to buy more expensive tools and technology. And in the coming years, the spread of those electric and self-driving cars will only put more pressure on educators to keep the curriculum and equipment current.

But districts aren’t going it alone. Leaders who align their programs with local industry enable students to earn more certifications while in high school, saving them money and better preparing them for the workforce. Business partners also make investments in those future employees with financial assistance and on-the-job training opportunities.

“Our industry partners have done a fantastic job of supporting our program and the technology,” says Jon Winter, career and technology coordinator at Wausau School District in Wisconsin. “When our students go out into industry, they’re ready to go. There’s not a lot of additional training that our industry partners have to do.”

Becoming high-voltage IT specialists

If you own a hybrid, the dealer probably warned you about jump-starting the car or replacing the batteries, which are more complicated to work with than traditional car batteries.


Watch DATV video: How high school rev up automotive programs


But Adam Arndt, the automotive teacher at Bonneville High School in Utah’s Weber School District, knows what to do. Installing a new battery in a Toyota Prius hybrid is not yet a routine procedure as it requires replacing high-voltage cells rather than the whole battery. Instructors from nearby Weber State University help with the high-tech training.

“High schools across the country can end up about 10 years behind on the technology, though we don’t like to be,” Arndt says. “I’m beginning to talk to students about the computer controls and how to properly align cars with automated lane correction.”

Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Massachusetts received a Skills Capital Grant from the state to equip students with the latest diagnostic scan tools. The devices, which communicate with all of a vehicle’s computers to identify problems, have transformed the next generation of mechanics into IT specialists, says Jim Hachey, the school’s director of vocational programs.

“Back in the day, you’d take out the carburetor and clean it,” Hachey says. “Now, it’s all about troubleshooting systems. It’s no longer just turning some wrenches.”

Students must develop the corresponding math and science skills to decipher the diagnostic codes and make the appropriate repairs.

Automotive students in Wisconsin’s Wausau School District (below) benefit from a close relationship with local industry that allows them to participate in apprenticeships.

Automotive students in Wisconsin’s Wausau School District (below) benefit from a close relationship with local industry that allows them to participate in apprenticeships.

Learning this technology—which includes computerized alignment racks, laser-guided hoists, scanners that detect tire defects, and other devices—helps them earn more advanced certifications than they would have in the past.

Just the process of learning how to use more advanced tools is important, adds Sheila M. Harrity, Montachusett Tech’s superintendent-director.

“Industry expects people to be lifelong learners because technology is constantly changing,” Harrity says.

Of course, it’s not all about what’s under the hood. Auto-body repair technology has also evolved. In the past few years, Montachusett Tech has purchased plastic and aluminum welders and laser measuring systems, Hachey says.

“There’s a lot more focus on safety in auto body,” he says. “All paints are water-based rather than chemical. And the curriculum covers wearing masks and how often to change filters in the masks.”

Postsecondary promise

Wausau School District partners with a nearby technical college so automotive students can earn college credits while still in high school. Students also participate in apprenticeships so they can begin building relationships with potential employers while earning certifications and paychecks.


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“We’ve created a workforce that is more quickly accessible for our community partners than in years past,” says Andrea Sheridan, Wausau’s director of teaching, learning and leadership integration. “That came out of an outcry from industry. They didn’t have enough young people prepared to work for them, and they needed them yesterday.”

In the Weber School District, high achievers are eligible for weeklong internships at local car dealerships. Less successful students participate by shadowing high performers, Arndt says.

In exchange for students signing a five-year employment contract, dealerships will help Arndt’s graduates buy tools and pay postsecondary training costs.

At Montachusett Tech, administrators regularly review their curriculum with their 25-30 industry partners to ensure instruction covers the latest technological advances. Students can begin job shadowing at dealerships and garages as early as their sophomore year, Superintendent-Director Harrity says.

Funding: Solutions and concerns

Mesquite ISD, near Dallas, will open a new CTE-focused high school of choice in 2021 using funds from a 2018 voter-approved bond package.

In its current automotive program, housed at Mesquite High School, students raise additional funds by building and painting and then auctioning Cobra kit cars to community members. The work can take a year to 18 months to complete, says Leigh Farley, Mesquite ISD’s coordinator of career and technical education.

Students at Mesquite High School near Dallas raise additional funds for their automotive program by building and auctioning off Cobra kit cars to community members.

Students at Mesquite High School near Dallas raise additional funds for their automotive program by building and auctioning off Cobra kit cars to community members.

Students can also repair teachers’ and staff members’ cars. “Any money brought in from oil changes and other services goes back into the program,” Farley says. “It offsets costs and helps them purchase materials to build their projects.”

But the rapidly advancing automotive technology has some administrators worried about their CTE funding keeping pace. For one thing, the cost per pupil at a technical school is higher than at a mainstream high school, says Guthrie, of the Sussex Technical School District. His school, which operates 12 hours per day, serves about 1,250 students in 17 CTE programs as well as adults in continuing education courses.

Many CTE programs and schools have to rely on short-term grants.


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“We’re going to be moving in the direction of fully electric cars, with batteries that take higher charges, and toward higher emissions standards,” Guthrie says. “That’s not going to happen without money to support it. Generally, our funding doesn’t increase each year to adapt.”

Demand for CTE programs is surging. Sussex Tech has a 500-student waiting list. Guthrie says investments in CTE programs pay off. CTE graduates, instead of incurring tens of thousands of dollars of debt in college, can immediately begin earning up to $20 per hour and progress from there, he says.

“There’s always going to be a need for auto mechanics,” Guthrie says.

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.


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