Auto shop

How Hot Rods Saved This Washington High School’s Auto Shop Class

Everywhere in the United States, consignment shops have increasingly difficult to find qualified mechanics. The growing inaccessibility of cars only compounds the problem, as children who cannot afford a car are not as keen to learn how to fix them. At Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood, Washington, the school has found a way to bring its automotive program back to the brink. Turns out kids don’t just want to learn how to fix cars, they want to learn how to make them fast. That’s why the school’s radical curriculum now includes building hot rods.

Meadowvale automotive instructor Bryan Robbins told me that after taking over the automotive course from his father in 2013, the program was in a sorry state. At its lowest point, only nine students were enrolled, leaving a small party to bid farewell when the store’s pride and joy—a donated Dodge Viper—was recalled and crashed for mysterious reasons. Fortunately, Robbins was on the mind of fellow automotive teacher Pat McCue at Bothell High School, whose students had built an electric dragster with help from the educational organization Foundry10. McCue drew the group’s attention to Robbins’ program in Meadowdale, where the students met a representative with an emotional tone, recounting the confiscation of the school’s Viper while a student played a sad song on the violin ( Yes really). They had a simple request: help them get Model T kit cars and a mix of engines to power them – V8 and EV conversion kits.

Foundry10 agreed and in doing so set the stage for the school’s automotive renaissance. Today, Robbins says her program has 70 students enrolled (including five girls) across three course levels and a waiting list to get in – even kids from other schools are trying to enroll. Taking the full course involves five semesters of coursework; one technical prerequisite and four practical experience for two periods per day. Students earn a combination of college credits and real-world service certifications, including those for air conditioning systems and entry-level ASE certification, plus bonuses like the discounted Snap-On Tool and from automatic passes to graduation tests.

The icing on the cake, of course, is the final semester that focuses on hot rods. Top-scoring students from the previous semester can take the lead in one of five cars, choosing between a variety of Chevy and Ford V8s or an electric drivetrain provided by Wilderness EV. Students working on combustion engine cars rebuild their engines from the junkyard, stripping them down to the block to take measurements for new seals and bearings. They then set up their engines for testing, with their final score depending on how well their hot rod performed.

“Grading criteria vary depending on transmission,” Robbins told me. “For example, for a 100% grade, a student installing a gas-powered transmission would have to show me a car that I can drive into the parking lot and burn out with enough smoke to make the car completely disappear.”

After the semester, each hot rod has its transmission removed to prepare it for the next class, so that a new group of students can have the experience of building a car themselves. It’s an experience Robbins is grateful to watch – the next generation of car enthusiasts blossoming before his eyes.

“I can’t believe how lucky I am,” Robbins said. “It’s crazy to think they’re paying me to have so much fun.”

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