Of all the high school auto technology instructors in the U.S., there are few if any who know more about the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition than Merle Saunders and Dennis Ishii.
Mr. Saunders, instructor of auto technology at Vale High School in Vale, Ore., has taken a student team to the national competition each of the last 18 years except 1989 and 1996. Mr. Ishii, auto technology instructor at Maui High School on the island of Maui in Hawaii, has led his students to state victory and a berth in the nationals every year since 1992, except for 1994 and 2004.
Sitting down for an interview together at the recent 2005 Student Auto Skills finals in Washington, Mr. Saunders and Mr. Ishii-both friendly, unpretentious men-obviously would have preferred watching how their teams are doing than sitting in a tent talking. But their passion for teaching and for cars came through loud and clear.
Success in the Student Auto Skills contest has played a large part both in attracting Maui High School students to auto technology and influencing the school to support that field of study, according to Mr. Ishii.
``I can't compare our program with that of any other school, but our teams advancing to the nationals are an incentive to support our program,'' he said. ``Maybe it's been that they think of what the teams have done in the past, and they want to keep up that standard.''
Mr. Saunders said his program's success in the Student Auto Skills contest has protected it against budget cuts. ``The school district's been good to me,'' he said. ``My school is closing its music program, but it's keeping auto technology.''
A lot of high-school auto training programs have closed down in Oregon, Mr. Saunders noted. ``But some of them probably needed to be closed,'' he added, because they either lacked up-to-date equipment or skimped on teaching the basics.
Both Mr. Saunders and Mr. Ishii stress the basics-math, science, computer training and hands-on repair work-and have the wherewithal from their schools to afford state-of-the-art repair and diagnostic equipment. To them, there is no substitute for study and for students being able to demonstrate what they know both in the shop and on the examination page. It goes without saying that the Student Auto Skills contest stresses both, grading contestants 60 percent on hands-on skills and 40 percent on a 100-question exam. (Mr. Ishii said of Mr. Saunders: ``His written scores are phenomenal!'')
Mr. Saunders said his students get math and science credit for their classes with him, an advantage Mr. Ishii doesn't have. ``We used to have those credits, but they took it away, and I have no idea why,'' Mr. Ishii said.
When asked how to get students interested in auto technology as a profession, Mr. Ishii said, ``If we knew the answer to that, it wouldn't be a problem. The big factor today is that students just lack the skills they had when I first started teaching.''
``They're the `MTV Generation' now, and it's very difficult to hold their interest,'' Mr. Saunders added. ``Twenty-five years ago, most of my kids came straight off the farm, and they learned auto repair standing beside their fathers, fixing the family truck or tractor. Now that's just drying up, particularly with new cars being so complex.''
``The cost of living is so high that parents have to work two jobs,'' Mr. Ishii said. ``They have no time to spend with their kids or to teach them anything. Most of my students' parents come to parent-teacher conferences, but that's about it.''
Whatever problems Mr. Saunders' or Mr. Ishii's students are facing today weren't evident when this year's Student Auto Skills national winners were announced.
Second prize went to Schuyler Toyama and Kameron Welsh, Maui High School, Maui, Hawaii.
First prize went to Matthew Whitaker and Oliver Dalman, Vale High School, Vale, Ore.
The young men knelt beside their trophies for publicity photos, proud and happy. Merle Saunders and Dennis Ishii stood beaming with their students, just as proud and happy for these students as for the ones they led to victory in the past-and those they'll lead to victory in the future.
[See related photos on page 15.]