Peabody-Burns High School sophomore Austin Paquette turned the key to the 1990 Toyota pickup and listened to the engine wheeze and whine, stubborn in its refusal to turn over.
Two adjustments — give it a little more gas and hold the ignition a little longer. This time there was the familiar click before the motor roared to life. Paquette could not hide his jubilation, frantically high fiving as many people as he could find.
This moment was more than three years in the making. He was Dr. Frankenstein restoring to life something that was once dead.
“It’s heart pounding,” Paquette said. “It was a pain at first; I got frustrated a lot. “I can’t wait to drive it.”
Paquette, his dad Tony, and teacher, Matt Schroeder, were part of the team that fixed the truck. They replaced the engine, intake, and clutch. Plugs and wiring were redone. Through all of these major changes, Paquette said a major impediment was a malfunctioning power steering switch. All of that work instilled Paquette with a certain measure of pride.
“I’m not going to do something stupid in it,” he said.
The victorious moment that occurred on Friday was what Schroeder and former USD 398 Superintendent Rex Watson intended at the automotive class inception.
The class was meant as an alternative option for students not accustomed to excellence in normal classroom environments.
“Not everyone learns the same,” Schroeder said.
Among the 10 students in his last hour class, multiple students had complicated projects in various levels of production. Junior John Sutton swapped the V6 motor in one Ford Mustang for a V8 engine in another, replacing the transmission in the process. He was able to drive the newer V8 version to school on Thursday and Friday after finishing the project the week before.
Senior Joe Partridge was about midway through a front suspension swap for a ’66 pickup truck. He was interchanging the stock setup for a Mustang suspension, a popular model for street rod enthusiasts. Partridge plans to attend McPherson College and pursue a career in auto restoration.
Schroeder used Partridge’s project to illustrate the complexity of suspension geometry. It is imperative that students properly secure rods, parallel to each other in most places, and make sure the wheels are juxtaposed with the appropriate amount of width.
“Whenever I can get them to read a tape measure, I do it,” Schroeder said. “If I can tell them why they have to have math here, they can relate it to what’s going on at the other end of the building.”
There are opportunities for lessons in almost any project. Freshman Connor Vancuren is rewiring his dune buggy. Schroeder used this project as an example for electrical work.
Many of those learning opportunities come from school owned vehicles — two ’32 hot rods, a Harley motorcycle, and a ’56 truck.
With the exception of the Harley, students have begun each project from the frame. With frame and bodywork, Schroeder has the opportunity to teach two crucial skills — welding and grinding.
He said a welder is the tool most often in a mechanic’s hands after a wrench. In the front end of the ’56 truck, he pointed out three bumpy veins where pieces had been welded together.
There are also simple jobs that will prepare students for most of the work they would provide as auto mechanics. Schroeder said his classes have performed 10 simple brake jobs since Christmas. They have repaired countless tires in that time.
The most important lessons are those the students learn themselves. Schroeder said his goal is to instruct but then allow students to do all of the work on their own, complete with a variety of mistakes and restarts.
“It’s hard to turn them loose with a grinder because you can really mess things up with a grinder,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder also knows from experience — sometimes you learn by biting off more than you can chew. He is hoping that will not happen with the school truck. He is determined to have it running by the last week of school.