Auto shop students’ passion for learning inspires a $55K grant

Hot Rod High School” sounds like a retro movie title, but at Meadowdale High it’s the name of an advanced automotive class. With a $55,000 grant to buy and complete six Model T Deluxe Roadster kit cars, it’s been called “the greatest auto class of all time.”

At least that’s how students in automotive instructor Bryan Robbins’ class described the new course in their winning grant presentation. Last week the auto program at the Lynnwood school was given the $55,000 by Foundry10, a Seattle-based educational research organization focused on nontraditional learning.

“Our slogan is ‘We’re changing the way people think about learning,’” said Colin Katagiri, technology program developer at Foundry10. The nonprofit, founded and headed by a former teacher, fosters projects inspired by the passions of kids.

Gabe Newell, a former Microsoft software developer and PC game billionaire, is a Foundry10 funding partner, Robbins said.

Katagiri visited Robbins’ classroom Friday to see the auto shop where students will create two kinds of cars from the Model T hot rods. Their creations will represent both classic cars and the technology of today and tomorrow. Robbins found a way to use the Model Ts to teach both.

“The first semester will be high voltage and the second semester will be high horsepower,” Robbins said. Students will install electric motors in the cars to learn that technology. They’ll spend the second half of the year removing the electric motors and installing powerful V8 engines.

The kit cars, fiberglass reproductions of 1923 Fords, haven’t arrived yet, but Robbins expects them by early November. Those V8 engines, acquired from old trucks, are already in the shop.

“Everyone loves a V8,” said Robbins, whose classroom is partly desks and computers. On Friday morning, Basic Auto students were taking a test on tool identification.

The larger area of the class looks like a car repair shop. Donated vehicles are up on lifts. And wow — off to one side is a showy red sports car that’s breaking hearts in the automotive class.

In 2004, Meadowdale was given one of dozens of prototype Dodge Vipers that Chrysler was donating to schools nationwide for use in auto education programs. The current instructor’s father, David Robbins, was then teaching Meadowdale’s auto classes.

“I was in this class in 2004, it was my senior year,” said Bryan Robbins, who graduated from Mountlake Terrace High School but attended his dad’s automotive program at Meadowdale.

Last year, the Chrysler Group announced it was in the process of destroying all the first-generation Vipers. The issue came to light when The Olympian newspaper covered the impending destruction of a Viper used in automotive programs at South Puget Sound Community College.

According to a 2014 article by The Olympian’s Andy Hobbs, “Chrysler has announced that the pre-production Vipers must be destroyed because they no longer serve educational purposes.”

Robbins said Friday he has removed parts from Meadowdale’s Viper so students “can’t start it.” So far, Chrysler has not acted to remove or destroy the low-slung beauty. “I held out and Dodge stopped calling,” he said.

For years, Robbins said, he has used the privilege of working on the Viper as a reward for kids with the highest grades in his classes. And in their PowerPoint pitch for the Foundry10 grant, students used the potential loss of the Viper to their advantage.

One part of the kids’ presentation, titled “Sob Story,” tells how the “sentimentally challenged” Chrysler corporation was ordering the destruction of Vipers. “Mr. Robbins has been fighting to keep the Viper, but it is an uphill battle,” students wrote in the PowerPoint presentation. “We need something to replace the Viper and teach us about Electric Vehicle Technology.”

Robbins said Friday that one student even played his violin in the successful bid for the grant.

So they’re replacing a racy red Viper with a half-dozen Model Ts. But those vintage-looking cars will have electric motors — before they get big V8s.

It sounds like a movie, something along the lines of “Back to the Future.”

“And we’ll never really be done with it,” Robbins said. “Next year’s class is going to repeat the project.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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