Mentors' Advice Needed for Automotive Teacher Considering FRC

I have a fellow teacher friend at a neighboring high school who is frustrated that his automotive program has no meaningful competitions in the Portland, OR, area. He’s also concerned that if the CTE program doesn’t make sufficient use of the metal shop the school will try to close that down or fail to staff it. When I explained that we make all our metal parts from scratch and buy real engineering equipment off the shelf and that he has the perfect shop set up for an FRC program he became very excited at the prospect of using big robotics as a means of sustaining his auto and metals programs.

The help I need is from mentors is to know just how FRC benefits an automotive program. Do you still participate in traditional repair competitions? Are kids convinced that what we teach in FRC directly benefits them in auto careers? What are the rationale that car manufacturers and dealers give when supporting teams? Are there any drawbacks to housing an FRC program in an auto environment?


I know FRC had a direct impact on keeping our metal shop enrollment up at David Thompson Secondary, in Vancouver, BC. I don’t have stats, but I do have a story… our extracurricular FRC team was comprised of roughly equal numbers of students from the tech studies and business education departments. The tech crew would handle the building, repairs, programming and such, while the communications team would manage the web site, travel, promotions, community involvement, fundraising and awards applications.

One year a few of the girls on the communications team decided that the build team was getting to ‘have all the fun’ at the tournament, because they were the ones down on the floor and in the pit making all the big decisions. (That’s not really the case, of course… much of our team’s recognition came from the work of the comm team, but that was how they felt.)

So to get more ‘hands on’ with the robot three grade 12 girls, who had never been in a shop class since grade eight, signed up for Metal 11. The metal class that year was ‘on the bubble’… if it were not for those three students signing up, our senior metal class would have been cancelled for lack of enrollment. FRC kept the shop open that year, no doubt about it. It worked out well and the three girls each earned a spot on the drive team at various points in the year.

But that is just an anecdote… I’ll encourage you to challenge the auto teacher to look at the bigger picture. What does he love about automotive? Why does it matter that kids learn about mechanics?

Is it because it builds character and confidence? Because it can lead them to jobs? Because your city/country needs technically skilled people? Because it allows him to share a passion with keen young people?

There is the old story about how the development of the refrigerator drove many ice delivery services out of business. They viewed their business as ‘delivering ice’. Others viewed their business as ‘preserving food by keeping it cool’ and pivoted their business model to sell and deliver and repair fridges. Challenge him to ask “What do I do, and why does it matter?” and I’ll be surprised if FRC doesn’t match up pretty well those key goals.

Finally… and this may be the most cogent argument… what do skilled mechanics do? Not oil changes or brake jobs! Those tasks have been commoditized and handed over to low cost, low skill labour. And spark plugs? When was the last time you had to replace plugs? Skilled mechanics diagnose and repair complex electromechanical systems. When I have engine trouble the first thing I do is plug in to the computer and run a diagnostic. As electric cars and advanced safety and control systems continue to advance cars become more and more like robots every day. I have often felt that for a program that was interested in preparing students to become skilled mechanics for tomorrow’s vehicles that robotics is likely to be a far better training ground than traditional wrench-pulling.

I love cars, and love the classic auto shop. I think it is important that people who want to drive cars know a little about how they work… enough so that they can change their tire in an emergency, or not get ripped off by scam artists. But when I look at what skilled mechanics do, it is starting to look more like what robotics teams do than what auto shop students do.

Just a few suggestions… I hate to see shops close and I know our FRC experience helped not just keep our shops open, but grow our numbers and bring kids into the shops who would have never set foot there otherwise. And really… if you value teaching shop skills, you have to get the kids into the shop first.


There is certainly a lot of synergy between an auto shop program and FRC. The modern automobile is far more advanced than any of the robots we build in FIRST yet the use many similar concepts and technology in their operation. As a former professional automotive technician I could draw many parallels in operation of a modern automobile and a FRC robot. As Jason noted a lot of the work of an automotive technician involves diagnosing computer systems which requires extensive knowledge of programming strategy to quickly diagnose a problem successfully. A lot of the mechanical skills and concepts also have similar parallels. He can certainly transfer a lot of skills that he currently teaches. Assembly techniques, wiring, trouble shooting, and ensuring that the robot is designed for quick repairs between matches something very important in the district system.

In our state we have at least one program ran by the auto shop teacher and a number of others that at least use some of the auto shop facilities from using some of the metal working tools or at least the large open space for testing.

Send me an PM with you and your friend’s email and I’ll forward them and your story along to the auto shop teacher in our area that runs an FRC program and see if he is willing to send him an email sharing his experiences.

It is not too late to start a team for this season. If nothing else you certainly should invite him to some of your meetings throughout the season and invite him to a competition. We are working on having more VIP tours at the district events this season with the focus on potential new teams, volunteers and mentors instead of just politicians and large donors.

Our main shop is a former automotive program that went under due to low enrollment. For the 1st 8 years of our program, we shared our program construction area with the metal/autoshop instructor. We now have the shop to ourselves.
Integrating CTE (metals/auto) with Robotics is a great fit, and students in our program can earn CTE credits towards an honors designation diploma now in either Engineering or Design Technology with a Capstone course their senior year.

If automotive is a dying program in your school, FRC is the perfect candidate for the teacher and his facilities.

Honestly, having taught automotive and having coached an FRC team I can tell you they actually don’t line up all that well. Really, robotics has a lot to do with production of cars, not their maintenance. In Michigan, Vocational courses are required to align with a competition component. That can either be SkillsUSA, or MITES (Michigan Industrial Technology Education Association). They don’t even consider an Electric car program to be appropriate. To have it be aligned to content it actually has to align to content. When is the last time you tuned the fuel injection system on your FRC robot? Changed the oil? Adjusted the hydraulic brakes? While I do have dreams of a small block v8 robot, I doubt I’ll see it in competition anytime soon.

I’m not saying he couldn’t do it as a great program for his students, but if he wants it to align to his curriculum I fear he will be left wanting. FIRST is a powerful tool for my students, but I still have to participate in another competition for my Drafting program. It also isn’t accepted for a local machining class. There are a lot of things that can be linked, but it all depends on what the funding requires.

Will it benefit the program, probably. Is it a perfect fit, no. Is it better than a traditional auto repair competition, perhaps. But the most important one to me, will it teach kids more about automotive technology? I’d have to say not without a lot of work on his end.

I would look into some high mileage competitions most states have them basically you build a go kart of sorts and compete for gas mileage against other high schools