Auto mechanics class for girls only proves popular

When Wesley Chapel High School decided to launch an auto mechanics class just for girls, instructor Jeff Corliss thought that maybe 10 to 20 girls would sign up.

Instead, so many females expressed an interest that the school set up two sections of the class.

Students in the auto I at Wesley Chapel High School say that enjoy learning about the basic maintenance of cars because they want to be better equipped when they shop for cars or have one repaired. Some taking part in the class are, from left, Bridget Robinson, Rayah Reitnauer, Caitlyn Gaffney, Brittany Buchanan, Savannah Sweet and Clarissa Hagen. (B.C. Manion/Staff Photo)

Students in the auto I at Wesley Chapel High School say that enjoy learning about the basic maintenance of cars because they want to be better equipped when they shop for cars or have one repaired. Some taking part in the class are, from left, Bridget Robinson, Rayah Reitnauer, Caitlyn Gaffney, Brittany Buchanan, Savannah Sweet and Clarissa Hagen. (B.C. Manion/Staff Photo)

“It kind of spread like wildfire through word of mouth,” said Corliss, who leads the school’s Academy of Automotive Technology. He and Brad Odell, the school’s other automotive instructor, teach the two all-female auto mechanics classes.

“I’m teaching the same things as I would teach the boys in auto I, but I put a different spin on it,” Corliss said.

The emphasis of the class, also known as the Lady Wildcat Pit Crew, is on how to handle roadside emergencies, how to maintain a car at home, and how to choose a new or used car, he said.

The girls recently learned how to do an oil change. On Nov. 5, they practiced what they had learned by doing an oil change on a car that belongs to Corliss’ wife.

As the students prepared to do the oil change, the girls did the routine checks that are done at a garage when a car comes in for an oil change. They checked the fluid levels, the belts, the tire pressure and tread.

As they went along, Corliss stopped them occasionally to share some tips. When filling a coolant reservoir, for instance, Corliss recommends turning the coolant bottle sideways, instead of tilting it forward, to prevent unwanted spills.

He also offered reminders about signs of wear on belts and tire tread.

The girls appeared to be taking everything in. They weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, either.

Corliss hopes the class will give the girls information they can use for life. He wants them to know what to do if they wind up stranded by the side of the road.

He also wants to equip them with knowledge to help them when they’re having their car repaired, or they’re purchasing a new or used car.

“I was young the first time I went to a car dealership, and I probably got taken advantage of just as much as anybody else,” Corliss said.

To help counter that, he plans to invite a used car manager and a new car manager to come to the school to present lessons on the ins and outs of buying a car.

“What should you be looking at? What kind of repairs will this car need? Is it worth the asking price?” Corliss said. “When I go looking at a used car, I already know what it’s going to cost to fix it. I’ve got that as a bargaining chip. I want to give that to the kids, too.”

At a repair shop, he said, it’s easy to be intimidated by a lack of knowledge. He offers this advice: “I would ask to see the part and have them explain to you why you need to spend that money. Don’t just take their word for it.”

“Have them explain in detail,” Corliss added. Be wary of people who use vague terms and who can’t explain why a part no longer works.

In some cases, it’s worth getting a second opinion, even if that requires paying for another diagnostic test. “Have them explain in detail, what does that actually mean?” he said.

The girls usually are in class three days a week, and are in the shop two days a week. If something especially interesting is going on in the shop, Corliss said he has the flexibility to rearrange his class schedule so the girls can take a look.

For many of the girls, the class may be their only exposure to the world of auto mechanics. But for others, it could be the start of a new career path.

“If they want to use this as jumping-off point they can,” Corliss said. “They can move on through the rest of the academy.”

Rebecca Jarke, the assistant principal who oversees the academy, said she’s happy that the school has launched this class.

“On so many levels, it’s just empowering for girls,” Jarke said.

After taking the class, the girls will be better equipped to go to a repair garage or a car dealership and “talk the talk,” Jarke said, because they’ve had a chance to develop knowledge.

“It’s a safe learning environment,” she said. “It levels the playing field for them to be able to ask questions, and learn the skills necessary to be able to talk about cars and have those conversations without feeling intimidated.”

The class also may enable some students to discover a career path they may not have otherwise considered, Jarke said.

Students give the class good marks. Caitlyn Gaffney, 16, said she wanted to take the class to learn basic car knowledge skills.

“I figured I could come here and learn the skills I needed, in case I were to break down on the side of the road,” she said.

She feels confident she’ll learn that in her class.

“Mr. Corliss, he’s a pretty good teacher,” Gaffney said.

Brianna Proctor, 16, said she’s learned quite a bit in the class, and is gaining confidence in her knowledge.

“I didn’t know about cars before,” she said.

People always think boys know more about cars than girls, Proctor said. With what she is learning, however, she thinks she may be able to work on her own car one day.

Freshman Abigail Monticco said her grandfather used to work for Ford, so she had a natural interest in the class. The class was appealing, she said, because she wants to know the basics. She also likes the idea of being able to know whether someone is trying to rip her off.

Beyond all that, the 14-year-old said she enjoys the other students in the class and the feeling of family they share.

“It’s fun,” Monticco said. “We all love Corliss.”

Published November 12, 2014

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