Auto shop

A new teacher has put the PHS car shop back on the road

Petaluma High School’s automotive tech program starts to go smoothly, but new instructor Keith Benson wants more. He would like to see the program turbocharged.

Benson took over the program at the start of the current school year after helping lead a charge to save it two years ago.

Teaching the basics to enthusiastic, but mostly beginner, high schoolers is quite a change for Benson, who has worked on the NASCAR circuit and for Ferrari-Maserati.

He accepted this difficult change because he strongly believes in the benefits of a career in trades in general and automotive technology in particular and wants to give students the same opportunities that trades courses at Petaluma High School gave him. have given.

“There is a great interest in trades at the moment,” he explains. “Trained people are in great demand. An automotive technician in the Bay Area can almost always find employment.

The Automotive Shop program is one of several business programs at Petaluma High where students can complete a metal shop, carpentry shop, small engine repair shop, and agricultural shop.

The automotive technician program, offered at Petaluma High School since 1941, was nearly eliminated before Benson and a strong group of alumni, shop owners and supporters rallied to convince the school board to continue the program. .

Benson returned to teaching the program this year with not just a toolbox of ideas, but the knowledge and dedication to make them work.

“The class needed to be updated and adapted to the modern era,” he says.

When Benson talks about starting his class with the basics, he really means starting with the basics. “We start with very strict safety instructions. We learn how to use a fire extinguisher,” he explains.

Teaching auto mechanics, he says, is more than showing students how a fuel-powered engine works.

“It’s also about showing them the relationship between math, science and even reading and car mechanics,” he explains. “Reading and understanding technical documents is one of the higher forms of reading. Learning how electrical current flows and how a car’s HVAC systems work is part of what they learn.

Through considerable effort, much of it done by Benson during volunteer hours, Petaluma High’s auto shop “classroom” is a nearly spotless garage with projects all carefully placed for efficiency and, of course, , Security.

Four brand-new V-8 engines, courtesy of the American Graffiti group Petaluma, wait in stands for students to be ready to take apart and reassemble.

A Chrysler 300 is ready for a new Hemi engine.

A partially assembled electric car kit awaits completion as students experience the wave of the future.

A car on a hydraulic lift will show students how to change oil and perform repairs that require them to work safely under vehicles.

Perhaps the vehicle the students are most excited about is what’s left of a ramshackle 1989 Volvo station wagon that they plan to get roadworthy to compete in the 24 Hours of Lemons, a parody race for cars costing $500. $ or less which is held annually at Sonoma Circuit.

Benson is looking for even more automotive related items to add to the class collection. “We’ll take whatever we can get our hands on,” he said.

This school year, Benson is teaching two classes, with 29 students in one and 21 in the other. He hopes to expand the program to five or six classes. He thinks it will take “three or four years” to achieve this goal.

Benson says he’s not building the program himself. “The community has been very supportive of me,” he explains. “The director (Justin Mori) and administration were great to work with.”

The teacher says the course is not just about learning how to become a car technician. It’s also about learning the principles of how things work.

“The real goal is to give them (students) the skills to take mechanics to the next level,” he says. “I would like to give them the skills they will need for the future; for them to be the ones building the next generation robots.

Benson says he really enjoys teaching, even though it can be difficult working with willing but beginning students.

“I’m used to working with top professionals from all over the world,” he says. “One of the hardest parts is to tone down what I know to a level they can understand.”

It’s an understanding that Benson hopes to one day take his students as far (or beyond) as his business school education at Petaluma High has taken him.