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Education Is Shifting Gears

 
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Old 14 May 2007, 06:30 am
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Default Education Is Shifting Gears

HAMPTON -- The roar of an engine revving at top speed filled the cavernous service bay of a brick-faced building. The souped-up sound came from a silver 2007 Chrysler PT Cruiser on a treadmill-like platform, its front wheels a blur. Cables snaked from the platform to a laptop computer on a small desk.

"Awesome," breathed one of the students clustered around the monitor. The computer, part of an engine diagnostic machine that costs more than the car, is one of several education tools used daily by high school students in the New Horizons auto technology program.

The program is light-years from the auto shop classes once taught in high school.

"It's more of a dealership atmosphere," said 18-year-old 12th-grader Kevin Morgan, who grew up working on cars with his father. "We're learning to diagnose computer problems, as well as mechanical troubles."

"This is more in tune with the industry," said instructor Darryl Parker, a master technician who studied auto technology 20 years ago.

Auto technology has been part of the New Horizons offerings for more than 30 years and is a perennially popular program that has evolved with the industry. That's thanks to partnerships with local auto dealerships and national industry organizations such as the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.

These programs are needed, according to Automotive Retailing Today, a national organization of auto dealerships and manufacturers. The industry expects an increase of more than 310,000 jobs in the next 10 years in dealerships alone.

Graduates who earn several industry certifications in the course of their studies can make about $40,000 a year upon leaving the program. If they continue their education at a two- or four-year college and earn more industry certifications, they can make nearly $100,000.

Students from 17 local high schools can apply for admission to the program in their 10th-grade year.

Principal David Creamer said the admissions process was competitive, with emphasis on grades, attendance and teacher recommendations.

Eighty-five percent of the 110 students in the program are male, but Creamer said more girls were expressing interest in auto technology, and their enrollment is growing. Once in the program, students spend the first year learning the basics.

According to first-year program instructor Dennis Young, the basics haven't changed much over the years. Students still use socket wrenches and screwdrivers.

"They're still internal-combustion engines," he said, watching students mop the service bay floor.

"They still have wheels, brakes, drivetrains and transmission. It's how things run that is different."

Computers now are as essential for maintenance and repair work as ratchets. Cars like the PT Cruiser have as many as eight computers talking to one another under the hood.

And future cars will be more complex as automakers refine systems, using fewer wires and smaller, more advanced computers, said Dennis Brousseau, assistant service manager for Pomoco Chrysler of Newport News.

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