The story of a teacher revitalizing a neglected, underappreciated or unloved high school class is always fodder for a feel-good movie. Stand and Deliver and Dead Poet’s Society come to mind. Heck, even School of Rock, with struggling musician Dewey Finn (played by Jack Black) turning preppy private elementary school students into a classic rock band, fits the genre.
Perhaps there’s a movie in a young, engaging, Bradley Cooper-ish teacher at an urban high school turning “non-college-bound” students into electric vehicle builders, reshaping a floundering auto shop program in the process. In 2009, the kids who enrolled in Ron Grosinger’s class at Memorial High School in the oddly named New Jersey town of West New York wanted to work on hotrod Hondas. Instead, they converted a 1990 Volkswagen Cabriolet to electric power.
That was a turning point in the school’s auto and machine shop class, which Grosinger would help transform into the school’s Alternative Fuel Education Class.
“We went on to convert a diesel car to run on vegetable oil and are currently halfway through a scratch-built Lotus 7 that will be electric as well,” says Grosinger. “We already have the motor, adaptor and transmission.”
The Lotus is not a kit. Grosinger – the students call him “Mr. G” – bought a book, Build Your Own Sports Car for as Little as £250 by Ron Champion, and the class follows the fabrication plan it lays out. “The Lotus is a long-term project. Each class makes something for it,” he explains.
Building an electric sports car would have been a Hollywood fantasy when Grosinger took the Memorial High teaching job in 2004. The shop class was in a kind of limbo. The classroom had a couple of 1960s cars, small engines, drafting equipment, and lots of tools. Milling machines and lathes, which still worked, had been purchased in the 1940s using a government wartime grant.
“They were teaching machining, wood shop, and basic automotive for about 60 years,” says Grosinger. “As people retired, they didn’t hire more. There was just one other teacher, down from six. I think they were about to close it.”
There was a silver lining in the gloomy outlook. Grosinger saw potential in the classroom’s equipment and had a green light to rework the class. “To make it relevant for the kids and teachers, I thought it needed to be more like an engineering class,” he says. “The school gave me the flexibility to try this creative route.”
Grosinger, who himself went to school for industrial design, wanted to teach students to build things through their own design and fabrication skills. He sold the school administration on the idea of teaching applied science and engineering principles through automotive applications.
“I’m a car guy. When I was a kid, I’d make gear-shifting sounds. If you’re really into cars, you’re into the engineering, the innovation. I wanted to come up with ways to connect that with people who normally might not care, such as science teachers.”
Making the science connection was fairly easy. “Look at it from a science point of view,” he explains. “When you park your car and put your hand on the hood, it’s warm. That heat is waste.”
Grosinger proposed an EV conversion as a way to teach students about a more energy-efficient way to propel a car, and the science supporting it. The school administration liked the idea. He then took an EV conversion course in San Diego.
“In 10 days, 25 teachers were taught to how to build electric cars,” he explains. “We converted a 2000 VW Beetle to run all electric. I designed and installed the motor mounts.”
With funding from the school, Grosinger acquired the Volkswagen Cabriolet with 115,000 miles. He taught students the theory and mechanics of an electric vehicle and then worked with them to build it. They learned to fabricate battery boxes and brackets and to adapt the electric motor to the VW’s clutch and transmission. They wired the batteries and controller and had to solve problems as they arose.
“We get very much into the fabrication of things, getting more into the electronics and computer issues,” he says. “It’s about getting kids excited about the future and coming up with new ideas.”
The students had something more meaningful to show than a good grade: a drivable EV. Using lead-acid batteries, the electric VW can run at highway speeds for up to 40 miles. It can even burn rubber. Grosinger’s classes still work on the electric VW and sometimes take it to local car shows to spotlight the school’s engineering class.
Grosinger’s approach was right in line with what would become the school’s implementation of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math), the Department of Education’s initiative to support application-based achievement in those areas. In Mr. G’s class, students learn by building things, from lightweight flashlights and hand-cranked USB phone chargers to vehicles. He keeps students and teachers engaged with social media, including a YouTube channel and Instagram account.
Grosinger’s students recently got more practical experience by repairing a damaged Tesla residential charger that someone donated. When they added the charger to the PlugShare website, three local Tesla owners began showing up to use it and took time to demonstrate their cars to students.
The class has since become popular with advanced math and science students, who Grosinger particularly enjoys showing the value of failing. “Application is the only place where you can fail and still win,” he says. “Failure is a great way to learn. If something breaks, you know you have to make it stronger.”
Critically, however, Grosinger believes that some high schools still need to adjust attitudes about “non-college-bound” students, as his earlier students were labeled.
“Those are the kids who built the EV with me,” he says. “So I think there’s a disconnect between that label and reality. If a kid can’t memorize something, they’re going to do badly in school. But if they can work with their hands and are willing to try and fail, they can build things, like EVs.”
The class’s success was good for all involved, bringing in grant money to buy more equipment. There are now four teachers, too.
On Saturdays, Grosinger runs The Electric Car Project for Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ. The students that participate are converting a full-size pickup truck to electric power.
As the auto industry accelerates toward electrification, he is not alone in pushing high schools and community colleges to teach the technology. In Sebastopol, CA, Peter Oliver founded Switch Lab in 2012 to develop an EV kit that high school students could build. The package includes a textbook, lesson plans, homework, and research assignments.
“We are now in 85 schools, and when we complete current orders it will be over 100,” says Oliver, a college-level instructor in computer programming and building electric cars.
“The Switch Lab kit includes everything required to assemble a full size, roadworthy electric vehicle,” says Oliver, adding that there are seating options from two to five.
Grosinger is all for expanding EV building programs to high schools and colleges, but he prefers to emphasize a “builder” approach.
“It's a great idea,” he says about the kits. “However, there’s no room for failure and fabrication of your own solutions. I would say the best curriculum would be a competitive project like Formula SAE or a American Solar Challenge.”
One of Grosinger’s students, Adrian Lopez, followed such a path after graduation. He went on to college at New Jersey Institute of Technology, participating on the school’s Solar Car and Baja race teams. He now works as a Tesla technician.
“Mr. G’s class helped me find a passion and a drive for what I do today,” Lopez tells Hagerty. “I utilized the skills I learned to be able to compete with other colleges around the world. It gave me the thought process and mentality that Tesla loved, which gave me the opportunity to work for them.”
Could the next Elon Musk be rushing through the halls of Memorial High School on her way to engineering class? We might have to wait for the movie.