Members of the Edmonds School District’s Automotive Training Program recently defended their title as the top program in a Puget Sound-area competition for high school students.
The SkillsUSA automotive service technology competition, held virtually this year at the end of January, has two different skills divisions – automotive service and automotive maintenance.
During the competition, students conducted various types of tests and diagnosed problems with both individual auto parts and vehicle systems. Participants perform these independently to demonstrate their understanding and application of automotive knowledge. During this year’s competition, students used an online training platform to complete the various tests and tasks from their own computers.
Students in the district’s program swept the top four places for the automotive service contest – Max Bird took first place, Cameron Skinner finished second, Marcus Coyle placed third and Izaha Bart finished fourth. This was the second consecutive year that participants in the school district’s program took home all four top spots in the region.
Several other district students also placed highly in the automotive maintenance portion of the competition – Jonah Peterson (second), Britain Smith (fourth), Muhenad Al-Haddad (fifth), Corey Hawkins (seventh).
Their instructor, Bryan Robbins, said the automotive service competition is designed for more advanced students who have already completed at least one year in the program. “It’s sort of the difference between like you need an oil change done (maintenance) versus your check engine light comes on (service),” he said.
Robbins noted that students in his automotive program have now taken first place at the regional competition three times in the past five years. He’s proud not only of those individual results but also the program’s overall continued success.
Meadowdale High School senior Marcus Coyle, who is president of the school’s automotive performance club, said the biggest challenge compared to last year’s competition was having to perform tasks within a software simulation. Rather than being able to provide a diagnosis of actual physical components, “it was a lot of the knowledge and the kind of mindset behind everything, not really the hands-on,” he said.
As an example, he said, when it came to using tools in the simulation, participants would move a slider representing a wrench until they heard a click, which was meant to represent that the correct foot-pounds of torque had been applied. Coyle said it paled in comparison to the actual feeling and full experience of how to properly use and handle the tools themselves.
Robbins actually took the same auto shop classes he now teaches, back when he was in high school and first participated in the SkillsUSA competition as a student in 2003. He also has a family connection to the school district program because at that time his father, Dave Robbins, was teaching its automotive technology classes.
“The experience of being a student in this program and then becoming the teacher, far and away that’s why we do so well in SkillsUSA every year,” he said.
The event’s organizers change the specific skill tests involved every year and then keep those secret until the actual day of the competition. “ Typically my students come in just as nervous as everyone else, but I’ve spent so many years both as a competitor and a coach that they end up really well prepared” for what tasks may be thrown at them, Robbins said.
Preparation before the competition this year was quite different from what Robbins was used. Rather than doing hands-on reviews involving vehicles and equipment in the shop, Robbins instead spent time with students online training them how to use the contest’s website and software. His predictions about the specific tests required at each individual station in the competition were also almost entirely wrong under the new format, he said.
Coyle said he felt that getting familiar with the new platform before this year’s contest was still a helpful training experience. He added that throughout his four years in the automotive technology program, Robbins has always put together “an amazing class.”
Robbins, who has been the instructor since 2014, said he typically eschews software programs and is instead heavily dedicated to hands-on performance training in the program’s auto shop facility – which has nine vehicle work stations. In addition to providing pupils with an explanatory foundation of repairs, “it makes a lot more sense for them to physically know how to fix a car,” he said.
Then classes had to suddenly pivot to a virtual format last March due to the pandemic. “I was completely technologically backward before all this,” Robbins said. “I was one of the teachers that fought against actually having all the students being one-on-one with Chromebooks. And — woo — am I ever happy that I got voted down on that one, because those things have saved our lives this year.”
Beginning last April, he started preparing curriculum and content, including 80 textbook chapters, that could be delivered online — an undertaking Robbins soon found to be both large and taxing. “It’s more work than I have ever put into anything else,” he said. “I thought being a mechanic was the hardest that I had ever worked in my life. Then I found out that no you can stare at a computer screen and physically you’re not doing anything but mentally it is taxing.”
Robbins created a YouTube channel to show various shop tools and large equipment and to demonstrate tasks that would normally be done during in-person classes at the shop. To mix things up, he put together various quizzes, slide show-type presentations and lined up guest speakers from college programs and professional auto shops. But he said that it was important to also provide some hands-on experiences for his auto shop classes.
Robbins worried that if students were only given online lessons, they might grasp the vocabulary terms, theories and principles involved with the course material but still lack in practical applications of that knowledge. “You’re going to end up with a kid who knows the names of all the parts, who knows how they work, how they function together, but tightens a bolt to take it off,” he said.
Last fall, students in the program were given special kits, that included a 364-piece set of Kobalt tools, courtesy of the foundry10 educational philanthropy organization. These enabled them to participate in remote auto repair activities from home. Each month, students picked up mechanical projects that focused on a different aspect and would then return those to the auto shop for grading after completion.
Those assignments included working on drum brake assemblies, rebuilding a single-cylinder engine and constructing a wire harness to test its electrical circuits for faults. All students will be allowed to keep their tool sets, in order to help jump start a career in the automotive industry, after completing the course which is certified by the Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) organization.
Coyle said that even though he has participated in the automotive classes all throughout high school, “it was a little scary going into this year” knowing that it would involve remote learning. He missed being around the shop and cars but appreciated having projects to take home and said overall the class went great for him personally. As a senior, “I do have a good understanding of the automobile and how it works, but all the incoming freshmen it was saddening to hear that they weren’t going to get the full experience,” he said.
Mountlake Terrace High School junior Matthew Lentz, who participated in the automotive program for the first time this year, said he found it somewhat frustrating at times attempting to learn and comprehend the material delivered by recorded video rather than through in-person classwork. But he appreciated the instruction and feedback received from Robbins during class meetings on Zoom. He also enjoyed the hands-on aspects provided by take-home projects which were, he said, “fun just taking apart and putting back together a few times.”
Robbins said the online lessons and video tutorials put together for this year will continue to provide supplemental teaching dividends to his classes in the future. But he also looks forward to when students will be allowed back in the auto shop again for instruction. There are currently 50 students in the program’s two classes. Beginning March 29, groups of 10 individuals at a time will be able to go to the facility for in-person learning activities one day per week.
There will be a statewide virtual SkillsUSA competition in April pitting those who advance from the different regional contests against each other. This January’s Puget Sound regional contest was the first one in the nation to be held online after many of last year’s events were cancelled due to the pandemic.
The automotive technology classes are open to all high school students in the Edmonds School District through its Career and Technical Education program. There is an inter-district bus available to bring students who take an auto shop class back and forth to the facilities at Meadowdale High School. Classes in the program last two periods a day for the full school year.
–By Nathan Blackwell