By Mike Marsee
They can’t all fit in the car at the same time, but a burgeoning program at the Warren County Area Technology Center is taking students and teachers on quite a ride.
Dozens of students at the school have had a hand in completely rebuilding two sports cars as part of the On Track motorsports education initiative, a program intended to address the growing need for skilled workers in the automotive sector in the Bowling Green area. The students’ instructors and the school’s principal have discovered how valuable the program can be both for students who are interested in automotive-related career fields and those whose careers might take them elsewhere.
“It’s a tremendous program,” automotive instructor Michael Emberton said.
The On Track program was created by the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce as a means of filling automotive jobs and of sparking interest in motorsports in Bowling Green. Warren County ATC is one of several partners in the program, and students in at least four of the school’s programs have reaped the benefits.
The students have rebuilt a car in each of the past two school years for a local sports car competition – which are sold later – and they have achieved national recognition for their efforts. Advance CTE, a national nonprofit career and technical education organization, presented the school with its Excellence in Action award in May.
“It validates what we’re doing and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Warren County ATC Principal Eric Keeling said. “We’ve been able to incorporate project-based learning into what we’re doing and to see all the academics fall into place.”
The program began in fall 2015 when the local chamber of commerce purchased two 1981 Chevrolet Camaros from Holley Performance Products and donated one to the Warren County ATC and one to South Central Kentucky Community and Technical College (SKyTech).
During that school year, students at both schools rebuilt their cars from the ground up, operating on a budget with funds provided by the chamber. In the second year of the program, the work expanded well beyond the automotive program at Warren County ATC. Automotive students spent about two days a week on the project, and students in the welding program also were heavily involved. Students in the machine tool program that was launched this year participated as well, and carpentry students even helped out on occasion.
“The teamwork is just like the teamwork in between departments at a workplace,” welding instructor Rex Cundiff said.
Students are divided into teams – automotive students are broken into engine, electrical, suspension and brake teams that work separately before eventually coming together – and each team has its own project-based learning component.
They use multiple educational disciplines, including STEM principles and business and marketing skills. In addition to working on the car itself, for example, automotive students also work on PowerPoint presentations that explain the work they plan to do.
“There’s a lot of transferrable skills there,” said David Horseman, director of the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Division of Technical Schools and Federal Programs.
The Warren County ATC students also had help from the five high schools in the Warren County and Bowling Green Independent districts, which provided science, physics, mathematics, and business and marketing teams that collaborated with the tech center students.
The cars from Warren County ATC and SKyTech were pitted against each other in a competition dubbed the Dominator Challenge at the Holley LS Fest, an annual competition held in Bowling Green for vehicles powered by the General Motors LS engine. The students were judged in six areas:
- Business plan – Students detailed how they would develop as much race car as they could within their allotted budget.
- Marketing plan – Students partnered with marketing and graphic design students at Western Kentucky University, who helped create a design for the car, as well as a marketing video and a social media presence.
- Education – This includes the incorporation of the students’ use of STEM principles.
- Design and engineering
- Show and shine
- Races – An impartial driver tested both cars in autocross, 3S (speed, stop and steering), quarter-mile and dyno challenges.
“We took first place last year, and this year the SKyTech students are really wanting to win,” Keeling said.
Soon after the 2016 LS Fest, students at both schools began work on their next project, this time with the help of a new partner, Detroit-based Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT), a public-private partnership focused on developing advanced lightweight metal manufacturing technologies and implementing education and training initiatives.
LIFT provided a $70,000 grant that helped finance engine performance and vehicle weight aspects for the cars built during the 2016-17 school year. The Warren County ATC students rebuilt a 1980 Corvette donated by the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green in 2016-17, and they’re competing against SKyTech students who were working on a 1994 Camaro. As in the first year, the cars will be unveiled in August and will compete in the 2017 LS Fest in September.
The two 1981 Camaros from the program’s first year were sold last month in Indianapolis by Mecum Auctions.
“It’s going to hurt a little bit. It’s going to be a piece of me going away. I put a lot of work into it,” Jacob Whitson, a senior in the automotive program, said a few days before the auction.
The Warren County ATC car sold for $24,000, and the SKyTech car sold for $50,000, with proceeds going back into the program to allow students to purchase parts and equipment for their rebuilds in future years and to support the expansion of the program to other schools.
“The idea is to try to spread this out a little bit, first out in the state, then hopefully to go national in three to five years,” Keeling said.
The principal said his school has seen tangible results of the program’s success in its students.
“Our discipline rate has dropped, our graduation rate is up, our completion rate is up, industry certifications have gone up,” Keeling said. “For our building, for our students and for educational purposes, this has been phenomenal.”
Emberton, who has been teaching for 20 years, said On Track has excited his students in a way he hasn’t seen before.
“The group of students we had the first year was the best group of students I’d had in 19 years, and I attribute it to that car,” he said. “They took ownership of it and it motivated them. They had something that they claimed as their own, so they showed up and did the work, and it’s been the same with this year’s group.
“I don’t expect all of them to go into the automotive field, but if they get a feeling that they completed something, it really helps them succeed in any field. And employers look at that, too.”
Employers have been working with this program from the beginning, as several area industries have offered representatives to serve as mentors.
“The backbone of getting the work-based learning experience is getting people in industry engaged with the educational process,” Horseman said.
A 2013 study on manufacturing in southcentral Kentucky concluded that the region will have 9,000 job openings in manufacturing by 2020, and On Track is helping to develop skilled workers to fill those jobs.
“It’s way more fun than sitting in a classroom. It gives you hands-on experience and you’re going to get a job,” Whitson said.
Cundiff, the welding instructor, said his students are sold on the program as well.
“It’s given them a real sense of purpose, an end game,” he said. “Dr. Keeling and I have said many times that with a motivated young person, if you can show them purpose and benefit to what we’re doing – and it’s not always monetary – then they’ll do it.”
Horseman said the data shows that students who are motivated to move deeper into a particular program almost always graduate.
“If you look at our overall data for career and technical education in general, the graduation rate as we get them to the third and fourth credit in their program moves to almost 100 percent, and that comes from doing things you enjoy and are relevant to you,” he said.
Cundiff, who just finished his 19th year in teaching, said the program has motived the teachers as well.
“Any time there’s something new and challenging, especially when you get to do some things that from a funding level wouldn’t normally be available, it’s always good,” he said.
Emberton said the instructors also learned a great deal, such as when he and Cundiff traveled to a racing shop in Bardstown for a demonstration on cylinder heads that they passed on to their students.
“I’ve actually been a student. I’ve learned a lot from it,” Emberton said.
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