The off-road industry is made possible by people from all different backgrounds and spanning all areas of expertise, from engineers to product testers to marketers. At the forefront of these professions, though, are automotive techs. No matter how you look at it, nothing we do would be possible without people who understand the inner workings of your vehicle.
If we want the industry to continue growing, we need to make sure that these technical skills aren’t lost moving forward. Today’s students are the future of the industry, so it’s important to make sure students have access to learning these trades.
That’s where teachers like Steven Gonzalez come into play. Gonzalez, who lives in El Paso, TX, recognizes the importance of knowing a trade. He is using his Automotive Technology course to teach invaluable skills to his students while also introducing them to riding in a unique way.
Gonzalez says it best: “In today’s world, knowing a trade is invaluable.”
He’s seen firsthand how crucial technical skills can be. Gonzalez left his job at Chrysler in April 2016 to explore the education field. He started off as a substitute, which cut his pay by more than a third.
“I needed some sort of supplemental income just to survive,” Gonzalez said. “And guess what? Having a trade gave me just that.”
His ability to perform automotive work on the side helped Gonzalez stay afloat until he landed his job as a full-time teacher. And he’s not the only one who has been saved by knowing a trade. Because qualified automotive techs are always needed in today’s job market, trade work is what supported many families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He knows how important trade work is, so Gonzalez works hard to promote those skills when working with his students. In addition to teaching these skills, he’s making sure students know that trade-focused courses can be accessible to everyone.
“Many people believe that picking up a trade like automotive or welding is for individuals that have no other choice because they just can’t cut it when it comes to academics,” Gonzalez said. “This couldn’t be more inaccurate.”
It’s true that some students who struggle with traditional courses tend to excel in trade-focused classes. That’s not because they’re incapable of understanding what’s being taught in their core classes. In a lot of cases, those students just get bored. By giving those students content they can relate to, Gonzalez is able to quench that boredom and, as a result, his Automotive Technology students excel.
“Courses that teach something and allow [them] to put it to use immediately give students a sense of accomplishment on a daily basis. This motivates them and encourages them to want to learn more.”
So what exactly is Gonzalez doing with his students that has them so hooked?
Gonzalez teaches at the Center for Career and Technology Education (CCTE) in El Paso, Texas. CCTE is the only high school campus in the district to offer Automotive Technology. Students are bussed in from 11 different campuses to take the course. It even attracts students from other districts.
When they sign up for Automotive Technology, students aren’t just fulfilling a high school diploma requirement. They’re gaining valuable skills, getting real-world job training, and earning college credit in the process.
“We are a dual-credit program, which means our students get college credit for our automotive classes,” Gonzalez explained. Students at the technical school gain hands-on experience with topics like brakes, steering suspension, engine repair, and electrical work.
This year, Gonzalez’ students are adding a new and unique topic to that list: the world of side-by-sides.
Gonzalez grew up around off-road vehicles—quads, dirt bikes, and VW beach cruisers—and recently got into desert racing, so integrating those interests in his classroom was a natural step.
“I decided to draw my students into [the off-road] world once I saw their interest,” Gonzalez said. “The week of my first race, I was conducting class virtually and the students saw my machine in the background while I was teaching from my garage. When I told them about the race that weekend, they expressed their desire to work on [my machine] once we got back to face-to-face instruction.”
Like any good teacher would, Gonzalez tuned into what his students wanted and turned it into a learning opportunity.
His first race left his 2020 Polaris RZR XP 4 Turbo S needing a few repairs. A bent control arm and a “no bueno” roll cage had his machine back in the shop as soon as school was back in session. Gonzalez purchased a new set of A-arms from SuperATV and let his students get to work on their most authentic and fun school project yet.
As you can imagine, installing new control arms on a post-race RZR didn’t come naturally for many students.
“Most of my students came into this program with absolutely no automotive background at all,” said Gonzalez. “They had never changed a tire, performed an oil change, or even opened the hood on a car—ever!”
Knowing this, it’s no surprise that many of his students were a little intimidated when they first walked into the shop. But thanks to their problem-solving nature and the culture Gonzalez has created in his class, it wasn’t long before they were figuring it out.
“My students are rarely told how to perform a task,” he said. “They figure it out. They’re guided by questions. They are not afraid to answer or make mistakes anymore. They know that experience is what makes them top-notch technicians, and working on this side-by-side gives them just that: experience.”
And isn’t natural problem solving the mark of a good technician?
Installing new SuperATV A-arms on his RZR was the first hands-on project Gonzalez’ students tackled this year. That, coupled with the fact that a lot of these students weren’t used to working with their hands, proved to be a challenge.
“There is a significant learning curve when you’re not accustomed to using your hands,” Gonzalez said. “Students would fumble with nuts and bolts, and you could see how awkward they [felt] turning a wrench.”
The struggle didn’t end after installing the A-arms. Because SuperATV A-arms are adjustable, his students also had to learn how to properly adjust the pivot blocks to attain the right camber.
As with any new project, making adjustments to the control arms involved a lot of trial and error. The students spent several class periods playing around with alignment angles.
“They must have removed the lower control arms at least twelve times to reset caster and camber,” Gonzalez said. “After several days, they finally had a complete understanding of what each angle does to [ride style].”
So was all that trial and error worth it? The answer is absolutely. According to Gonzalez, his students are now pros at installing A-arms and setting the alignment.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they would beat me if I were to challenge them to tear down that suspension and build it back up!”
The possibilities are endless when teaching a class like Automotive Tech, but unfortunately, COVID-19 has put a damper on many of those plans.
For example, there’s a small area near Gonzalez’ school where they take vehicles out to ride when they want to diagnose any suspension issues. It would be the perfect place for students to take the RZR for a spin after making adjustments. Unfortunately, traveling to a track together isn’t an option during a pandemic.
Gonzalez and his students are hopeful, though, and they’re all looking forward to the day when they can put their skills to use in the real world.
“Pretty soon the students will be joining me on the track as my pit crew,” Gonzalez said. “We’re just waiting for things to calm down a bit.”
Tackling such a practical, fun, and hands-on project doesn’t just have his students excited about the near future. They also have something to look forward to in the long run.
Whether students want to go straight into the workforce or continue their education in a traditional college setting, courses like Automotive Tech prepare students for post-grad life.
“We have several presentations throughout the year in which trade schools such as Lincoln Tech, UTI (Universal Technical Institute), and WyoTech come out to promote their programs,” Gonzalez said. “We even visit schools like Western Tech, Southwest University, and EPCC (El Paso Community College) locally for a tour of their facilities.”
In addition to connecting students with local colleges and trade schools, Gonzalez is in the process of developing relationships with local dealerships. He hopes to work with them to provide valuable internship opportunities for students.
As a result of the technical courses offered at CCTE, many of their students already have jobs when they graduate high school.
What started as students installing a set of A-arms in Steven Gonzalez’ Automotive Technology class has led to so much more. His students didn’t just learn how to rebuild a machine’s suspension—they also gained valuable work experience and transferable skills that will help them in countless other trades.
Projects like the one Gonzalez led with his students can lead to more experts entering the auto industry, more innovation in the off-road field, and more fun for riders like us.
And speaking of fun, that’s something else Gonzalez’ students got out of this semester.
“All of my students are into it now!” the teacher said. “We’re in the Southwest and there are so many places to trail and hone your driving skills out here. I know one day I’ll be racing alongside some of these students, and that’s pretty exciting.”