“I have found that the best way to teach the kids how to use the tools, and the value of using tools properly, is to have them use the tools! You have to show a student the power of an air tool and how that power needs to be respected. When that power is not respected, they get to learn how to use more tools when replacing a wheel stud, and they get a bonus review lesson on the torque wrench.”
For fifteen years, Jim VanBladel has taught automotive technology at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Growing up with a mother who was an elementary teacher and vice principal, the idea of going into education was always top of mind. He was further inspired by his high school drafting teacher and studied Architecture and Mechanical Drafting courses at Illinois State University. While in college, he developed an interest in the local car scene, buying his own race car and learning how to fix it. By his junior year, he was working at a shop doing general maintenance and helping friends build race cars for local competitions.
When he first took over the automotive program at JHHS in 2006, there were only two sections of Automotive Technology, and most of his day was spent teaching CAD and Architecture. Within five years of taking over the program, he was a full-time Automotive Technology instructor, an Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) Certified Technician, and had achieved ASE Education Foundation Accreditation for the program. There are now two automotive instructors and a waiting list to enroll in the program. VanBladel earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology and the certificate to be an Educational Technology Specialist. He recently became a member of the American Welding Society, and enrolled in welding courses at Harper College with the goal of becoming an AWS-certified welder.
For the last 15 years, VanBladel has poured his heart into making his automotive lab a top-of-the-line space for learning. Going from a dark room with outdated equipment to a now 3,000 square foot classroom of well-lit white floors and walls, the classroom is modeled after the briefing rooms at the Autobahn Country Club racetrack. With a curriculum aligned with the standards of the ASE Education Foundation, VanBladel finds one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is when a student connects content learned in another course and applies it in a practical way on their own. He connects geometry and physics in his courses, and students find that they do better in their other subjects because “how ‘easy’ it was compared to what they have to do in auto.” Every lesson in his shop has a hands-on component and students are constantly moving between the classroom and lab. Students in his automotive courses can earn multiple industry certifications, including ASE. In the past, they have built off-road jeeps, a 24 Hours of Lemons endurance car, and a vehicle for the Specialty Equipment Market Association education program.
VanBladel’s skill expertise expands outside classroom hours in a variety of ways. He has created a YouTube channel for his own demonstrations and integrated the videos into EdPuzzles for students to review before completing the activity in class on one of the shop vehicles. He supervises the after school automotive club, where students can work on their own vehicles in the shop. Additionally, VanBladel serves as the school’s robotics coach and works with teachers from various subjects including math and computer science. He teaches a middle school outreach program called “Next Generation Engineer” where students design, fabricate, and program a drone that must complete an obstacle course and show their families on a tour of the auto shop.
VanBladel holds five ASE Certifications and maintains ASE Education Foundation Accreditation for his program. As a part of that accreditation, he attends 20+ hours of industry level education through community college educator seminars, the Illinois Collegiate Automotive Instructors Association (ICAIA) Conferences, and industry partners like Hunter and NAPA. He partners extensively with industry, including Atturo Tires, ABT Electronics/AlpineUSA, Schwartz Performance, along with taking several field trips per year to local automotive dealerships and training centers. His district offers micro-internships for students so they can spend two to three weeks at a dealership or independent repair facility during the traditional school day. Two of VanBladel’s former students are now automotive teachers in the same district and one shares the same automotive classroom as him, which is one of the rewarding things he has experienced as a teacher.
“I hope that the lasting impact I have on my students is work ethic and that they all know I genuinely cared about their well-being. I know that most of my students are not going to go into the automotive industry, but the skills they learned like using appropriate reference materials, using the proper tools to do the job correctly the first time will follow them into whichever career path is best for them.”