The mechanics of high tech
Arden McNally dwells in paradise on Lake Byllesby, a 1,400-acre reservoir of the Cannon River located about 40 miles south of the Twin Cities. Retired after 37 years as an instructor in the Automotive Technician program, originally called the Automotive Mechanics program, at Dakota County Technical College, McNally now spends his days walleye fishing, deer hunting and taking in the great outdoors.
A former service advisor at Sears, McNally taught in the college shop from the outset, going back to 1971 when the program was housed at the one-time site of Southview Chevrolet in South St. Paul, Minn., a property leased for $1 a year until the brand-new 185,000-square-foot college building could be built on 100 newly purchased acres in Rosemount. In those days, DCTC was called the Dakota County Area Vocational-Technical Institute and tuition was free.
“We ran three shifts because the program was so popular. We taught from the front bumper to the back bumper all the way through.”—Arden McNally
McNally, just 27 at the time, still remembers his first cohort of 19 students, most from the tough neighborhoods surrounding his mini-campus. With little money and rough-and-tumble attitudes, they brought a wealth of wildness and automotive talent to McNally’s classroom.
“They were happy guys without a worry in the world,” McNally said. “They all loved to fight and were always talking about going to jail or doing this or that, yet they were a really fun group.”
One student stands out in McNally’s memory even though he stood only 5-foot-5. Raised by a single mother, the kid distinguished himself as a gifted mechanic, one with long hair, an engaging personality and one bizarre ability.
“We called him the Fly-Eater,” McNally related, “because he liked to eat flies. One day he asked me if I wanted to see him eat a fly. I said sure, why not? So, he grabbed one out of the air, killed it and put it in his mouth. I told him that he didn’t really eat the fly, so he grabbed another one and this time chewed it up and showed it to me.”
Another student liked to pick up wild animals along the road and bring them to school. One day he showed up with a huge snapping turtle in the trunk of his car. He proceeded to terrorize his fellow students with the unhappy snapper, which urban legend insists can sever a broom handle with one bite from its razor-sharp jaws, until McNally finally told him the troublesome turtle had to go.
Delivering coursework in three shifts, the early program was already focused on making its graduates well-rounded and fully employable. “We ran three shifts because the program was so popular,” McNally said. “We taught from the front bumper to the back bumper all the way through.”
In 1973, the program moved to the main campus in Rosemount, where it still flourishes today with a far broader student demographic that includes women and older, nontraditional students seeking to reinvent their professional careers. Eighty percent of the students in the Automotive Technician program are between 18 and 23 years old and eager to find their place in one of the most fast-paced and technologically advanced industries in the world. Like students of yore, they love cars and trucks, but they are also naturally computer-savvy and well-acquainted with the image of the modern automotive technician as a high-tech detective troubleshooting and problem solving in a sophisticated, eco-friendly shop either at a dealership or independent.
Jeff Copeland exemplifies the above image. An automotive technician instructor, Copeland began teaching full-time at DCTC in 2003, having worked in the industry as an Automotive Service Excellence Certified Master Automobile Technician for 15 years. As the senior technician at his workplace, he routinely served as a mentor for other technicians with less experience.
“When our students leave the program, they are going to understand professionalism and have the ability to think for themselves.”—Jeff Copeland
A 1988 graduate of Des Moines Area Community College with an A.A.S. degree in automotive technology, he is currently finishing up his bachelor’s degree in automotive technology education at Iowa State University and Metropolitan State University. His credentials include status as a Chrysler Master Technician along with his long standing as an ASE Master Technician.
“We are making revisions to our curriculum for fall semester 2010,” Copeland reported, “reducing credits for engine overhaul and transmissions while adding credits in electrical and electronics diagnostics.”
Copeland also pointed out that the Automotive Technician program is updating its instructional technology with LJ Create learning software, which promotes online reading and studying, and interactive PowerPoints, which encourage instant feedback from students equipped with remotes.
“The term mechanic is becoming obsolete,” Copeland said, “and the major difference between the mechanic and the modern technician comes down to interfacing with electronics and system-based diagnostics. As we move away from paper-based delivery of course materials, the laptop will become an essential tool in our classrooms and labs. Eventually, every technician in the industry will be using a laptop on the job.”
Because the Automotive Technician program features four full-time instructors, each with a singular scope of experience, students gain tremendously from that combined knowledge pool. Another advantage is that each instructor teaches his own area, which creates a four-semester system, allowing students to start the program in the fall or spring in the area of their choice.
“When our students leave the program, they are going to understand professionalism and have the ability to think for themselves,” Copeland said. “Because there’s so much information out there and its constantly changing, it doesn’t matter how much information we give them while they’re here. They need the skills to find the information they need at the time they need it. Since computers came along in this industry, the learning curve has dramatically increased.”
As a former DCTC Outstanding Instructor of the Year, Arden McNally could not agree more. “Years ago, if a high school student didn’t know what they wanted to do after graduation, the counselor would say, ‘Why don’t you become an auto mechanic?’” he said with a smile. “But not nowadays with all the complicated electronics and diagnostics. Students need to be pretty smart to figure out the computer systems in today’s vehicles and succeed in the program.”
DCTC Automotive Technician Program Instructors
Jeff Copeland | Teaching Area
- Body Electronics Systems
Bob Engberg | Teaching Area
- Fuel Systems
- Ignitions Systems
- Emissions Systems
Mark Brantner | Teaching Area
Roger “Sam” Olson | Teaching Area