William Monroe High School football coach Bruce VanDyke has been working on vehicles since he was in high school himself and has spent years working for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) on equipment maintenance. This fall, he takes over the position of Automotive Technology instructor at the Greene County Technical Education Center (GCTEC), where his first priority is to help students catch up on hands-on education that was difficult to achieve in last year’s hybrid education model.
“These kids, the last couple years, have just been so ripped off by COVID-19,” VanDyke said. “It’s out of everyone’s control. I think my threes (third-years) this year, last year they were in school for two days a week (so) I’m starting over with basics. Right now I’m letting my threes just take the quiz and … when I see the quizzes and I see that they’re not there, well OK—there’s a lesson we need to go (back) to.”
While the online programs for auto tech are fantastically innovative and provide a good facsimile of working on real equipment, GCTEC offers something that few students get access to—real hands-on experience with donated cars and equipment to prepare them for working on their own vehicles in the future.
“I think hands-on gives them a little bit better perspective on what to do,” VanDyke said. “You can sit on a computer all day long and you and I both could probably look like we have a PhD on a computer, until you come out here and do something on a vehicle and that’s when it’s going to be uncomfortable.”
As for how he got into teaching, VanDyke says in his work with VDOT he participated in a program called “train the trainer” where he helped educate new employees on company equipment.
“I’ve coached for a good while and there’s not a whole lot of difference in coaching and teaching,” he said. “It’s always been in the back of my mind to work at the school. Once I started studying into the vo-tech part of it, I realized it was something reachable. I redid some certifications and here I am.”
In addition to preparing students for possible careers in the automotive service industry, auto tech courses can prepare students to be more conscientious vehicle owners and drivers, according to VanDyke.
“My son, when he got his vehicle, he didn’t pay anybody to change his oil,” he said. “He’s not going to pay anybody to change the tires on it, he’s just going to jack it up and do it. … Boy or girl, it doesn’t matter—eventually you’re going to be on the side of the road. A friend of mine, his daughter was down in the Virginia Beach area and she had a flat … and he drove three hours to go down and change her tire, and that just kind of scared me a little bit.”
VanDyke believes any responsible vehicle owner should know how to perform basic vehicle maintenance, even if it’s as simple as understanding the warning lights on the dashboard.
“Changing your own oil—I know it takes time, but it does save you a little bit of money,” he said. “You should be able to know what to do; if I see my coolant gauge dinging in the red, what do I do? Keep driving? Pull over? Even getting a speeding ticket—do you really just sit there and freak out? I remember my first speeding ticket and I really didn’t know what to do.”
With his first-year students, the beginning of the year is taken up with training on tools and safety certifications.
“We’re going through tools and all this stuff before we get into it,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure they’re safe and that’s a lot of trust, so they have to prove to me that we’re going to be safe before we get out here and start jacking things up and get someone hurt.”
In addition to safety certifications, students in automotive technology can earn certifications in job skills to prepare for future employment in the field. The standard credential for entry-level automotive service technicians is certification from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)—a credential that proves the individual has the knowledge and skills to diagnose, service and repair cars, light trucks and SUVs. According to ASE.com, in addition to passing an ASE certification test, “automotive technicians must have two years of on-the-job training or one year of on-the-job training and a two-year degree in automotive repair to qualify for certification.”
“If you want to do this for a living, I’ll get you there,” VanDyke said. “We’re an ASE certified shop, so we can get certification … but I want to make sure we cover the basics. I want them to know how to change a tire, what to do when this light goes off, what is a coolant gauge. Just stuff like that when they’re driving they could call their dad or whoever and go, hey my coolant gauge is pegged over like it’s hot—and they’re pulled over and they’re not driving for another 30 minutes and end up blowing the engine up.”
One of the benefits of having equipment donated to the tech center is that students get to learn how each new tool operates before they ever need to use it.
“There’s things that they’re seeing—like the tire machine, where you put a tire on a wheel and balance it—they might have heard of those, but they’ve never seen how it works,” VanDyke said. “These tools—like a multimeter, a micrometer, a Vernier caliper—it’s probably intimidating when you look at them because you don’t know what they are, you don’t know exactly what everything means. But once (they) start realizing what things mean is when you see them get comfortable automatically; once they understand, they see it and they just pick it up, go about their business and do what they’re supposed to do.”
Auto tech classes are set up for double-blocks, meaning they have two class periods in a row to work at the tech center.
“I try to give a period on the computer going over what we’re supposed to do, and then try to do some hands-on that second period,” VanDyke said. “I just couldn’t imagine sitting here the whole class doing (online work). But to say that, the program that we use is really cool, how in-depth it is. You can take the leads and move it just like it’s a real multimeter; you can switch the dial—it’s very cool. For an engine, you can click on a coil and it’ll bring the coil up and show you where the coil goes. It’s not hands-on where you’re putting it in, but I was really impressed by it and it’s stuff that they can do outside of class.”
For interested students—or anyone looking to bone up on vehicle knowledge, VanDyke says there’s absolutely nothing wrong with turning to our old pal, Google.
“You’ve got the most powerful tool in the world in your hand,” he said. “A lot of mechanics might be proud and not want to use the G-word, but if you’re on the road, I mean that’s a pretty powerful tool to look up (a warning light, etc.) to get you in the general area. Then if you have a little knowledge about it, you’re well on your way. We have another good tool here too called All Data, and you can look up any vehicle, from looking up technical service bulletins (TSBs) on it to how to do something on it.”
While VanDyke said it would take a lot more equipment training before he’d be ready to have students working on any hybrid or electric vehicles, for now he is focused on doing outreach to more students—especially to some underrepresented populations. He says there are typically four to six female students across the three levels of auto tech at GCTEC.
“One, she’s a senior this year but she’s already looking into the NASCAR Institute down in Charlotte,” he said. “Another young lady, her dad has a shop and I think she’s back there quite a bit with him. … He’s doing the same thing we talked about—he’s going to make sure that she’s not stuck somewhere, that she knows what to do.”
VanDyke said he plans to work with GCTEC Principal Jess Peregoy to brainstorm ways to recruit more girls and other underrepresented populations into his courses moving forward.
“This is my first year, so I haven’t had the opportunity, but that was one of the things I told Ms. Peregoy and Ms. Brunelle (in my interview) is just getting the word out there,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to be in a bad situation; it’s just uncomfortable not knowing what to do. If you know what to do, you can somewhat control the situation; and that’s something that Ms. Peregoy and I will work with is trying to get more girls in the class.”
Peregoy said VanDyke has already proven to be an asset to the program.
“He’s also one of our football coaches and has a really good outlook on what he hopes to accomplish for students taking auto,” she said. “It’s not just about creating future mechanics—it’s also about giving students life skills that they can use forever like changing a flat tire, checking their oil and other light maintenance skills that will hold their value.”