Aaron "A-Rob" Robinson wrapped his oil stained hands around a wheel on a engine.
But not just any engine. The hodgepodge of metal, nuts and bolts is the hub that makes his Mazda RX7 work.Except the Mazda sits idle. Has to, because its engine doesn't work."I'm rebuilding the engine because I blew it showing off," said Robinson, a junior at Fort Mill High School who expects to rebuild his engine within a month.The 17-year-old isn't an automotive technician yet. But he's laying the foundation as an auto technology student at Nation Ford High School. The new class is demanding attention as the haven some students use to gain skills that make them more marketable in the workforce."This is a recession proof industry," instructor Gary Perkins said of the auto industry. "Everybody always has to have their car fixed."And that's good news for Fort Mill auto tech students, he said."There's a lot of opportunity in the automotive industry," Perkins said. "Whether you work in maintenance or autobody, there's a demand for the knowledge that our students are gaining in this program."High school students in the 10th grade or higher in the Fort Mill School District learn automotive dynamics germane to engines, electronics, brakes and suspension."Our goal is to attract those students who do want to pursue an automotive career," Nation Ford High Principal Beverley Bowman said. "The students will benefit from it."The class is funded through Perkins federal money as well as district and state funds, Bowman said. It's held at Nation ford, which opened with the new shop two years ago, but the course is available to students at both of the district's high schools."The payout is the students are learning something that they have an interest in," she said."The program for some of our students will be a source of income."In its second year, the program has doubled in enrollment from 50 students in 2007 to more than 100 students this school year, said Mark Adams, also an auto tech instructor.The emphasis is all about gaining life skills for workplace survival, he said."There's always been a need for this program," Adams said. "Students can learn life skills. They can leave here with enough skills to get an apprentice job in the automotive field."During the two-year program, students first learn about environmental safety as well as fire, shop and personal safety that includes wearing safety goggles to protect students' eyes."Some people don't know a screwdriver from a hammer," Adams said. "We start out with real basic, general knowledge."Next, students learn about tires, including how to change and mount them to rims, basic automotive electronics, steering and suspension. They also learn their way around brakes.On cue, more than 10 students in Perkins' adjacent class observe how car brakes work on a mock model. For the only female students, Caitlin Becker and Daisy Gomez, the class is a mandate."Just so I don't break down on Interstate 77 and look like a damsel in distress because I don't know what to do with my car," said Becker, 17, a Nation Ford High junior who is working on her first automotive semester.Taking the class continues a family tradition for 15-year-old Gomez."I'm taking the class because my dad is a mechanic," Gomez, a Fort Mill High sophomore, said. "I want to show him that girls can do it too."Future plans for Gomez include helping out at her dad's shop and the automotive class paves the way, she said."I'm learning things I didn't know," she said.
Hands-on vs. textbook
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Across the classroom, in what resembles a garage, students clustered around a sport utility vehicle. They tried to loosen a stubborn bolt that refused to comply.
"We get a lot of hands-on experience," Fort Mill High senior Justin Gomez said. "It makes it easier to learn instead of reading out of the textbook."
Nearby, Michael Whitesides, 17, and Roy Epps, 16, outfitted a tire with a rim.
And it has to be done right.
"So the tire won't come off," explained Emiliano Munoz, a 17-year-old junior at Nation Ford High.
Mere steps away, Aaron Robinson turned two sockets in his hands made dirty by oil from his engine that sat atop a garage table.
"Three thousand dollars just to rebuild the engine," he said as he studied his next move.
So Robinson, who hopes to enter an internship at a Charlotte automotive shop, is rebuilding the engine himself and learning along the way.
"It's nice to have a class like this," he said. "I get the opportunity to work on my car."
It's a big feat for a teen to rebuild a rotary engine, but Robinson is determined.
"I have to," he said. "I need my car back."
But first he needs to gauge the problem, born from his showing off just before Christmas in North Carolina. He revved his engine at high throttle. Doing so wrought consequences.
"I got home fine," he said. "Driving the next day, it stopped running."
But last Friday, Robinson celebrated a small victory when he removed a stubborn fly wheel from the back of his engine.
"I got it Mr. Adams," an enthused Robinson said. "You don't know how long I've been working on that."
Adams added, "The rest will come apart pretty easy now. That [fly wheel] was difficult to remove."
The hands-on work comes after students have completed one semester. In the next semester, they have the option to work on their car or their parents' car, Adams said.
"I want them to leave with enough knowledge to make them where they can acquire a job and be successful," he said. "It's really important that people develop a skills set for an economic situation like we're experiencing now."
But the auto tech class isn't all cars.
"We do a lot of math," Adams said. "We do science when we do environmental safety, and we do public speaking when we communicate with potential customers. We cover it all."
Students Niko Flint and Matt Lang, both 18, of Nation Ford High, favor the class.
"We do lots of really cool stuff," Flint said. "Alignment. Brakes. Electrical. It's all about the mechanical knowledge."
Lang added, "I get to work on my car. We're tuning it up."
Across the way, Robinson's accomplished mission is short lived. Next, he needs to get to the bolts behind the fly wheel. Unscrewing all 18 of them will lead Robinson to the problem. Fixing the problem, plus cleaning and painting the engine, should take about four weeks, Robinson said.
"Once I get it fixed, you'll definitely see the RX7 around Fort Mill," he said.
"I'll be drifting around the streets."
Then he wrapped his oil stained fingers around the engine to start the repair process.Again.