The students from Analy High School’s automotive and electromechanical technologies class trooped from one room into another in Switch Vehicles’ Sebastopol workshop, where a control box for an electrical car was being assembled.
“When you guys see this in here, we are going to build it in class,” their teacher, Sean Fleming, called out. “It’s going to look great on a college application.”
Analy High is one of five Sonoma County schools where students will build electric cars from the chassis up as part of a public-private partnership that hopes to create a flow of sought-after employees and, eventually, to strengthen the local market for alternatively powered vehicles.
Switch Vehicles, an electric vehicle manufacturer that has started the program in 15 high schools and colleges nationally, will train teachers in a curriculum it designed and provide vehicle kits to the schools.
The program brings together Switch with the county’s independent power agency, its office of education and a private local foundation. It is more than a course in assembling parts, said Peter Oliver, co-founder of the company.
“They go a lot more in-depth into the mechanics and components of an electric vehicle. Students write reports, they do homework, they learn Ohm’s Law (a precept governing electricity),” Oliver said.
“A lot of people these days are looking for soft skills, not just how to do something but how to talk about it, how to communicate and think about it. So we tried to do that” in the curriculum, he said.
At Healdsburg Junior High, the only middle school taking part, science teacher Patricia Murphy will be teaching the school’s inaugural robotics class using the car project.
“This is a real-world, hands-on experience for them,” she said. “I can tell them about future careers and possibilities in the tech and robotics world — but when we can build a real car and they can master different parts of the building, that’s something they can translate to their world and their life.”
The other participating schools are Petaluma, Archbishop Hanna and Santa Rosa high schools.
“With the way automotive technology is going right now, we’re going to a larger and larger market share of electric vehicles,” said Mitch Utsey, head of the auto mechanics program at Santa Rosa High. “Having a test mule so we can teach students the basics of handling high voltage electric vehicles is a really good thing.”
From the ground up means literally that, he said. His 25 students will build the wiring harness and the control box that houses the harness; they’ll install all the wiring components, connect the different components and build the battery pack from individual cells.
At Switch Vehicles on Wednesday, the students seemed mostly rapt.
“What happens if you misplace a wire?” one asked Oliver, who answered, “It doesn’t work. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing.”
“Is it street legal?” another student asked. “I just drove to Healdsburg and back,” Oliver said as he stood by a steel chassis that resembled a large three-wheeled dory with a roll bar.
Each vehicle kit costs about $32,000, said Kathy Goodacre, executive director of the Sonoma County-based CTE Foundation, which worked with the county office of education to design the bidding process through which the schools were selected.
The foundation, which focuses on trying to align education with the needs of the economy and workforce, is also managing the $150,000 donation from Sonoma Clean Power that got the project, under discussion for about a year, off the ground.
Foundation officials knew upon meeting with Switch that their goals were in sync, Goodacre said.
“We said, ‘Wow,’” she said. “We recognized that this really fits with what we’re trying to bring into the schools. The hands-on aspect. There’s a connection to industry. And we want to ensure that not only are students exposed to the industry but to potential careers.”
The donation to the project is Sonoma Clean Power’s first foray into the classroom, said the agency’s program manager, Amy Rider.
“We see it as a tremendous opportunity to train up students on the technology of the future, to also support the widespread adoption of electric vehicles in Sonoma County, and from that we get the benefit of reduced emissions.
She said the schools’ efforts to tie the project into core academic subjects will strengthen education in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math.
The program, rooted in a tangible product, also will benefit future students, said Stephen Jackson, director of career technical education support services at the Sonoma County Office of Education, which will provide professional development courses as part of it.
“The students learn how to build it, they can take it apart, they can redo it — and they don’t have to re-buy it every year,” he said.