Catonsville college moves auto mechanics into a new world of computer toolboxes

Two-year program offers theories of repair, degree leading to dealership jobs

March 26, 2000|By Ron Snyder | Ron Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A group of students at the Catonsville campus of Community College of Baltimore County huddled around a computer, intent on the problem before them. But their concentration had nothing to do with designing a Web site, or rooting out a computer virus.

They were trying to figure out what was wrong with a Chevrolet Camaro.

At a time when automobiles are ever-more dependent on computers, auto mechanics no longer get by with a knowledge of what's in their toolboxes -- and colleges are stepping up to help provide the latest in technical education.

"Most cars today have at least six computer components to them," said R. Terry Wolfe, associate professor of automotive technology. "Everything from the engine and transmission to the seats and radio use a computer to run."

To help train students for that market, the Catonsville campus offers two-year degree programs in automotive repairs.

A comprehensive degree involves basic theories and general automotive repair, and an industry-specific degree focuses on General Motors, Ford or Toyota automobiles.

The college has arrangements with GM, Ford and Toyota to provide automobiles. Also, the college and local dealerships also have an arrangement under which students spend eight weeks in a classroom and another eight weeks working in a dealership.

"We help the students find a job at the dealership while they are taking their general education classes and before they start in the program," Wolfe said.

No matter at which dealership the students work, computer knowledge is a prerequisite to auto repair. Even service manuals have gone high-tech. Instead of big, bulky binders, most automotive manufacturers have placed their service manuals on CD-ROMs.

"A good example of how high-tech the field has become can be seen with Ford," Wolfe said. "Ford came out with a 233 Pentium laptop with a touch-screen. The WDS, or World Diagnostic System, can get hooked up to the car and then connect with Ford's network to help diagnose the problem."

Wolfe said most of the students he teaches are ages 18 to 30. Some have been through a high school automotive program, while others have been in the field for a while or are looking for a change.

"Some had a job before they came here, while others felt they needed to catch up on all of the computer technology needed today," Wolfe said. "Some of the high school programs are really good, but students get into the field and realize they just need more time to train than they were given there."

For those who want to learn about a specific area of automotive repair, or catch up on the latest technology, the college offers for-credit and noncredit certificate courses in areas such as electronics repair and brakes.

"We get a lot of people who come here to freshen up on or upgrade their skills," Wolfe said. "Many times this is customized for the employers who send their employees for continuing education."

To help give students the tools they need, the Catonsville campus opened a $250,000, 13,000-square-foot electronics laboratory in the fall. The lab includes equipment for engine performance diagnosis, and heating and air-conditioning repair.

"The old lab didn't give us enough time to work on the computer-related aspects of auto repair because it was in the same area with the heavy-duty repair," Wolfe said. "So we decided to split up the thinking-intensive part of auto repair with the muscle work part."

Bill Amoss, service and parts director at Bob Davidson Ford on Joppa Road, said he has had at least eight employees who graduated from Catonsville.

"There is hardly any component on a car today that is not connected to a computer," Amoss said. "There is so much training needed today just to teach people how to diagnose a problem with a car. The electronics of an engine are just amazing."

John Cocherhan travels 90 minutes every day from Charles County to take part in Catonsville's program. He earned a scholarship to the college by winning a competition sponsored by AAA and Ford. The competition involved identifying and repairing problems in a car that Ford provided.

Despite his knowledge and experience with automobiles, Cocherhan wasn't completely prepared for the amount of computer knowledge he would need to work on today's high-tech automobiles.

"I've been around cars all my life, and I've seen dependence on computers coming, but I didn't realize how in-depth it would be," said Cocherhan, 19, who works at Hunt Ford/Lincoln Mercury in La Plata. "I would like to get away from technology, but there is just no escape from it today."

Matt Quane, 20, of Catonsville gained most of his early automotive experience working on his truck. He decided to turn that experience into a career. Today, computers are a way of life, he said.

"I wasn't really surprised by all of the computers you need to work on cars," said Quane, who works at Apple Ford in Columbia. "Computers are everywhere."

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