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Investing in Future Transportation Excellence

Profile of Wilcox High School’s Transportation CTE Pathway

The future of the electric vehicle industry is in great hands, specifically the hands of Wilcox High School students. With Tesla practically in SCUSD’s backyard, joined with increased manufacturing — and purchasing — of electric and hybrid vehicles, the demand for qualified automotive engineers and service and repair technicians in the Silicon Valley is skyrocketing, and  SCUSD is investing in the excellence of the future workforce in this industry.

The typical “auto shop” was a stronghold in high school vocational education programs of the past and is familiar to most parents and grandparents. With the advent of Career Technical Education (CTE) over the past decade — which requires that career pathways align with workforce demand and industry needs while providing students a variety of learning experiences that enable them to develop and demonstrate 21st Century skills — Wilcox High School is one of only three comprehensive high schools in the Silicon Valley that offers a career pathway in transportation. This pathway exposes students to the mechanics, maintenance and repair, and consumer choices relating to small engines, major automotive engine systems, powertrain systems, chassis (brakes, steering, and suspension) systems, engine performance, and electrical systems. Students have the opportunity to understand different types of engines, learn about the benefits of one system over another, and make informed consumer choices.

The Transportation CTE pathway is one of the longest standing career pathways in SCUSD. Wilcox High School is also looking at ways to integrate the transportation program as a cross-curricular project with physics and as a discussion piece with environmental sciences.

Although students find great appeal and enjoyment in the consistent applied and hands-on learning opportunities of the transportation program, it is the culminating project that brings students the most excitement: building an electric car. However, the road to this project was not the smoothest one for Wilcox High transportation instructor Josef Antolin. “As I was exploring options to incorporating electric vehicles into the program, I found that there are limited resources available to high school programs because companies won’t give an electric vehicle to a high school program,” he explained. However, the solution that Antolin discovered actually provides a much better educational experience for the students. “The company that produces the kit — Switch Lab (based in Sebastopol) — created a platform (open tube chassis) where all of the electrical and technical components are visible and accessible to the students,” he explained. “The students actually received the parts on a pallet and in boxes, and they first needed to assemble the vehicle, and then start assembling the electrical components, drive components, and battery pack.” Further, the vehicle is designed to be assembled and disassembled so that another group of students repeat the experience.

The process of building an electric car incorporates students’ basic understanding of mechanics joined with their knowledge of the principles of physics involved with electric motors and how batteries work. And, not just any batteries can work with an electric vehicle, so students also learn about the best batteries for electric vehicles, how to set up a battery pack, and gain a detailed understanding of the safety protocols involved with working with electric vehicle systems. After all, the students are installing and testing a high voltage system using 103 volts of electricity!

Other skills students gain are understanding and following protocols, and reading and following wiring diagrams. However, some of the key skills students learn are those which are transferable to any career: troubleshooting, problem-solving, working in a group, and communicating. “As each group works on their subsystem, they are teaching and sharing information, problems, and challenges with their classmates,” said Antolin.

The electric car project is not only appreciated by the students in the transportation program, but also by the Wilcox community as a whole. “The vehicle is part of the Charger community—it’s like a mascot. The Chargers are always charged up about something!” said Tracey Gunn, teacher on special assignment supporting CTE teachers and programs.

Building the electric car is an accomplishment in itself, but Wilcox transportation program students are further reaching for excellence through their participation in the Hot Rodders of Tomorrow Engine Challenge. The annual competition involves a team of five students disassembling and reassembling a Chevy V8 engine using hand tools. In order to qualify for this competition, student teams are required to qualify and complete this task in under 34 minutes at the Special Equipment Marketing Association’s (SEMA) show.

These competitions also help students earn scholarships of $5,000 to use at Universal Technical Institute, Ohio Technical College, or School of Automotive Machinists and Technology. Not to be outdone by their peers, Wilcox transportation pathway students have earned over $75,000 in scholarships over the past four years.

For Antolin, student success is not only measured in the completion of building a car, a grade, or scholarships earned. He views social and emotional success as key indicators of students’ success in life. “When a student arrives in my classroom, I look to see where are they socially and emotionally,” he explained. “Then, by the end of the school year, I observe what growth has happened as a result of what they are learning.” Antolin also explained that social and emotional success is very closely tied to employability: the skills that students acquire make them a viable candidate for a job, regardless of what the job may be. Employability includes being on time, being present, being active and responsible as well as their level of knowledge and skills that are specific to the job. Antolin shared success stories about students who went on to work for a high-end medical machine shop, earning their automotive certification while pursuing a bachelor’s degree, and working in the automotive industry and proceeding to pursue a mechanical engineering degree.

“An overarching goal for our staff is to provide as many opportunities for our students to have success and reach excellence in as many ways as possible,” said Antolin. Gunn added: “And providing them career readiness skills in the process. There are other career pathways that students may follow that may not be in automotive technology, but exposure to pathways guides them to other pathways and helps them pursue excellence in their chosen career and in life.”