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High School Auto Class Gains Experience

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Jan. 28, 2019—The garage inside Elk River High School’s east wing, home to the auto mechanics classes and a group of students ready to start the day, looked a bit more like a used car lot on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 17, than a repair shop.

“It’s a pretty big day,” said Paul Nelson, teacher at Elk River High. “It’s not every day we get three vehicles to work on. The kids are pretty excited.”

Often in auto mechanics classes, Nelson added, kids are working on their own projects—within the parameters of Nelson and his team’s curriculum. Trucks, cars and even snowmobiles owned by the students or families are in the bays at the school.

Today, however, ERHS graduate Connor Mickelson, head of service at Cornerstone Auto in Elk River, had two used cars on which the students could now work their magic. A third vehicle—donated by Elk River High School Assistant Principal Julie Odegard’s brother, Mike Keller—also was given to the class.

“The minivan [a Dodge Caravan] is probably one of the more technologically advanced cars you’re going to have a chance to work on,” Mickelson, who was excited to be back in his old garage, told the students. “This is such a great opportunity for [students]. We’re glad we could team up with Ford and Cornerstone to make this happen for you.”

Ford dealerships across the country are donating vehicles to high school and technical school auto mechanics programs, said Christopher Seebeck, regional technical talent and placement specialist from Ford. Seebeck made his way to Elk River to see the donations first hand and talk with Elk River Area School District 728 career and technical education coordinator Amy Lord about his role with the Detroit-based giant.

High school students are the key to future service departments, Seebeck said. With a new emphasis on STEM in education, auto service and repair isn’t a field that should be overlooked. Service stations are far beyond oil changes and tire rotations.

“Our goal is to create a path for these kids—some of whom are already taking the knowledge they’ve gained in their classes here and are working jobs in the auto service industry—and show them the career path they can have. There are great opportunities, good wages and, really, a true need for kids with knowledge and that are excited to work on these cars because they love it. And if you’re doing this at 16 or 17, chances are it’s because it’s something you love to do.”

Mickelson, who was reconnected with his former teacher, Nelson, said his work in the ERHS garage—which was a “bit smaller” back in his day—got him on the path to being a service manager.

“There are a lot of opportunities out there. The auto groups in town are all talking about the future, and the type of people they’ll need to work on these cars. They have so much technology in them now, and some of it is just second nature to these guys,” he said.

The cars will offer plenty of hands-on opportunity in the second semester, Nelson said, as the work and lesson plans get more advanced. There will be some auto body repair, engine repair and getting into the deeper parts of the vehicle, such as the transmission and electrical systems.

Ford is doing more around the country to foster its relationship between the motor company and schools. Tools, auto parts and even new engines have been donated regionally to programs like the auto mechanics program at ERHS.

“Through these relationships we can close that [auto technician] gap, and really create a workforce that has hand-on experience; when they first enter into the service area they’re ahead of the curve,” he said. “More than ever, we’re changing the paradigm—the technicians we need aren’t just working elbow deep in grease. Autonomous vehicles, navigation systems, entertainment systems and all of that technology are changing the game.”

Nelson said he was grateful for the partnership with a local dealer like Cornerstone, and for Ford’s participation in the donations.

“It creates another level of learning for these students,” he said.

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