Teaching auto tech during remote learning

Proviso East's robust automotive program works around COVID

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By Maria Maxham

Even though classes are being held remotely at District 209 schools right now, Proviso East students of Auto Tech I and II will be allowed to come in to the shop in small, socially distanced groups to get their hands dirty and practice the expansive skill set the program provides.

Donald Robinson teaches both Auto Tech I and II at Proviso East, and he said during a normal school year, students would start working on cars within the first few weeks of classes.

"In a typical school year, in the beginning we start off just pretty much in the classroom just to get kids acclimated to the class," Robinson said. "But usually within the first month of school, then we're actually in the shop at least three out of the five days. The further we get into the school year, the more shop dates we actually add, sometimes we were in the shop about five days a week."

This year, though, is anything but typical. But the students, said Robinson, still need to gain the hands-on experience essential to the program.

"We're doing a lot of theory right now," Robinson said. And he's made videos of himself working in the shop, providing opportunities for the students to watch, learn and critique. But that alone won't cut it. So within the next few weeks, students will have the chance to come in by appointment to do real work in the shop, socially distanced, of course.

"Students will have the opportunity to actually come in and do hands on work. We'll limit it three to five students at a time during their time slots. But I'm hoping to have the time slots be hour and a half to two hours just to give them time to actually get some work done in the shop," Robinson said.

In total between Auto Tech I and II there are about 75 students this year, including eight female students, up from last year's four.

The program is robust; theory is important, especially in the beginning. But arguably the most important part is the hands-on components, which are intense and comprehensive.

In fact, students enrolled in the program have the opportunity to earn college credit at Triton, where they can waive a few classes if they go there after graduation, through Proviso East's dual credit partnership program with the college.

Students who take Auto Tech I as a sophomore and II as a junior can participate in a co-op program with Triton during their senior year, actually taking classes at the college in the afternoons; transportation is provided.

That dual-enrollment program, said Robinson, began last year, though Proviso East had been working for a few years to get it up and running. Of course, the first year it began was the year COVID-19 struck, and the school year ended unexpectedly, with remote learning beginning in March.

"But we were still able to get some seniors through that program so that they got their college credit for last year," Robinson said.

The classes teach concrete hands-on skills students need to fix their own cars or, eventually, work in the automotive industry. Auto Tech I, for example, starts with theory, taking a look at automotive careers in general and how automotive shops work. Students learn practical skills, like how to write invoices and research car parts.

Safety is covered as well; in fact, students have to pass a safety test in both classes before they are allowed to work in the shop.

In Auto Tech I, students learn how to take apart and reassemble engines. They learn about tires: how to take them off the rim and put them back on. How to repair a flat. How to balance tires using the shop's balancing machine. They learn general maintenance, like tire rotations and oil changes, the latter which is part of their final exam. They get into brakes and steering suspension.

In Auto II, students move more into diagnostics. The class begins with a review, then takes off from there, moving into charging systems, heating and cooling systems, and fuel pumps. Engine diagnostics is explored later, and with the new Solus Edge scanners acquired by the program, students can learn to diagnose problems and read code.

"They go through the diagnostic process of figuring out what's wrong with the car, and then actually do the repairs," Robinson said.

The auto shop is undergoing renovations as part of the D209 Facilities Master Plan, a plan that has Robinson excited, since it will add a new facet to the automotive program: bodywork. He said the program had taught a little of that previously, but with the improvements and new equipment, painting, bodywork, and replacing panels are things students can focus on too.

This is Robinson's fourth year at Proviso East. He has a degree in physical education and applied to teach that at Proviso East. But his resume revealed his extensive experience in the automotive world, and the school asked him if he'd be willing to teach automotive technology instead.

Robinson said he's worked in mechanics since he was 16 years old. Over the years he worked in different shops, ending up as lead technician at Firestone.

"When they found out that I had over 10 years of experience as a mechanic, they asked me how I would feel teaching automotive technology instead of physical education. It's something I really know. So that's what I interviewed for," Robinson said.

Robinson, who lives in Maywood, said he's really enjoyed his experiences at East over the past few years.

"Working with these students has been very rewarding because I find that these students really love coming to class because they're actually learning how to do something for them." Sometimes students reach out in the evenings or on weekends, asking for advice on their own or their family's cars, and he appreciates that they come to him and likes giving advice.

"This is not a job for me," Robinson said. "I just really love doing what I'm doing right now."

Because Robinson found that students loved hanging around the shop during lunch hours, and in order to try to recruit more students into the program, he started Auto Club, an after-school opportunity for students to come to the shop and work on their own vehicles.

Some students, he said, have come with no knowledge at all, and he's always willing to help.

"I'm here to teach them," said Robinson.

The club ran some community service projects too; for the past two years, the club partnered with AutoZone, which donated materials. Proviso East students gave away 10 free oil changes and five basic brake jobs to people in the community on a first come, first served basis.

Robinson wants students to feel "comfortable and more at home" in his classroom and at school. He has a foosball table, a pool table and a gaming system, which draw students to the shop during lunch time.

"They like to hang out and get away from, you know, the craziness of the lunchroom," said Robinson. "They'll just come in and we'll talk about cars. They're very respectful. They're here every single day."

Robinson also started a collaboration with the driver's ed classes, having the driver's ed students take wheels off cars and put them back on.

"As part of the driver's ed experience, they're learning how to change tires," Robinson said. He has his students facilitate teaching the driver's ed kids how to do the work. Sometimes, he said, students from the driver's ed classes get interested in the automotive classes.

Another important partnership the program has is with State Farm, which donates one or two "totaled" vehicles to the Proviso East program every year for students to work on. These donations are often newer cars, which is important because students need to learn to work on the latest systems and newest technologies. Individuals also donate cars, handing over the title and letting the students go to work.

And sometimes, seniors who have spent a lot of time working on a particular vehicle at Proviso East, getting it into good working condition, are gifted that car when they graduate and move on in the automotive field.

"That would be their senior parting gift from the program," Robinson said.

Some of the programs the Proviso East automotive students participate in may be on hold this year. And there won't be opportunity to hang out in the shop during lunch hours, as COVID-19 has changed so many things about education. But students will soon be returning to the shop to gain and practice the all-important hands-on skills so crucial in the automotive industry.

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King Lee II from Bellwood  

Posted: September 3rd, 2020 12:27 PM

Great article! Kudos to Mr. Robinson and Proviso East!

Jeremy Horn  

Posted: September 2nd, 2020 12:29 PM

This article is awesome! I know the instructor, Mr. Donald Robinson, and he is doing a tremendous job of helping out with the Auto Mechanic class at Proviso East High School. I am looking forward to the finalization of the renovation of Phase 1, where the auto parts and shop will be moved into the Memorial Hall on the First Floor by the high school campus. I would never thought my years living in Forest Park, and as a graduate/alumni that I would witnessed my alma mater be renovated. It is long overdue! Once again, outstanding article, Maria! There is nothing wrong with being an Auto Mechanic.

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