B'laster Names December 2021 'Instructor Of The Year' Finalist

B’laster Names December 2021 ‘Instructor Of The Year’ Finalist

Austin Thorson from Elkhorn Area High School is the December 2021 semi-finalist.

For a kid who worried in junior high that school might not be for him to turn his thought processes around speaks highly of his motivation – it also speaks volumes of his mentor.

“I guess it kind of all started prior to middle school,” explains Austin Thorson. “I was pretty squirrelly. I had a lot of energy, didn’t like to sit around and kind of struggled with school a bit. Not that I was bad at it, I just had so much energy, I still do.

Austin Thorson, Elkhorn Area High School, Elkhorn, WI

“I was struggling with school, especially with reading and math. And I just remember my Tech Ed teacher sitting me down one day before I went to class, saying to me “You just think a little bit differently – apply those things.” I said, “Well, school’s just not a good fit for me.” What he said resonated with me: “Take your strengths and apply themIt’ll help you with your weaknesses.” I was struggling in math at the time with fractions, so he said “Think of it like a tape measure. You’re really good at reading that tape measurer. That is math.”

From the motivation of his teacher, Austin Thorson, Technical Education instructor at Elkhorn Area High School in Elkhorn, WI, learned that applying real world skills to theoretical applications can help solve seemingly insurmountable problems.

Thorson is the December 2021 semi-finalist in the B’laster and Tomorrow’s Technician Instructor of the Year program.

Austin Thorson starts the motivational process with fourth grade students. Students come to tour the auto shop and learn about career paths in high school that lead to automotive.
Fourth graders have a a chance to explore their interest in auto repair with Austin Thorson’s class at Elkhorn High School.

Thorson says thanks to his teacher’s encouragement, he began seeking ways to apply his interests to his education.
“He really started investing his time into me. I got into LEGO League and we built this robot. I got into the mechanics of everything and enjoyed working on stuff. Fast forward, my high school didn’t have an automotive program, but all of my friends were super into cars and that’s kind of where my love for Volkswagens came from. We used to work on them in my friend’s garage and I started thinking about maybe going to school to be a technician after high school.”

Thorson says he started in a youth apprenticeship with one of the middle school teachers in the school district and fell in love with teaching. “It was a good fit, so I ended up going on to the University of Wisconsin – Stout for four years for technical education teaching. When I got out of school, I really wanted to teach automotive, and I ended up getting very lucky – I got placed at Menasha High School with the teacher Jay Hanson.”

Thorson says that during his time at Menasha, a new position at Elkhorn High School opened up. “The instructor of the automotive program took a great opportunity at a tech school in the middle of the school year. When I came in, it was kind of starting from the ground zero again.

Thorson’s class working on community NAPA delivery car.

Thorson says the district had hired a retired social studies teacher handle the teaching side of stuff and brought in a mechanic to help with the automotive. They did their best for about nine to 10 weeks of a semester.
“But when I came in there just wasn’t anything to start with. There was no curriculum, there was no kind of baseline,” he says. “I had a little bit of rebuilding to do, but at the same time, the cool thing was I got to make it what I wanted it to be.”

Now, 10 years later, Thorson credits his district and the community for their commitment to the program.
“We’ve seen such a change of thought process about technical education,” he says. “Elkhorn is not very big but we’ve had so much support in our tech ed wing just to be able to increase not only our shop space and the equipment and tooling we have, but instructors.”

Thorson says that, in addition to the automotive and engineering instruction, Elkorn has a full-time woods teacher, full-time welding and full-time machining instructor. This commitment has been noticed by the next generation. “We’ve had so many kids leave to not only go into those careers, but also come back and give back to us. They tell students, ‘Hey guys, this is where I was. I was in Elkhorn, I didn’t think I could become a mechanic.’ I’ve got one student who graduated years ago, who back for a career fair, brought down a brand new Land Rover, was showing the kids, like this is what he works on every day. The kids were saying, ‘Wow, it’s just incredible that you came from Elkhorn to be able to do that.’”

Students build a Formula 1 car for competition.

Thorson says he uses his summers to achieve and maintain his ASE certifications, currently holding his A5 for brakes G1 for light maintenance.

“Our shop didn’t change too much size wise,” he says. “We still have eight bays, but we went from having two lifts, we have five lifts now, four two-posts and a drive on lift. We’re able to do alignments and mount and balance tires. We’ve got a really nice facility. We’re very fortunate to have a really supportive community. We added in machining, welding, we’ve rebuilt our construction and woods program. So it’s been really cool to be involved with it all. It’s really motivating.”

Wiring harness overhaul

Thorson says he wants kids to be involved, all the way from doing oil changes to the point of rebuilding engines, putting in clutches and transmissions. He says he encourages them to take on the next big challenge. “’You’re lifelong learners, it’s so much fun to learn new things,’ I’ll tell them. Cars were always a hobby for me, so that’s how I got to be where I’m at. The kids always kind of laugh when I call a prior student with a question. They’re like, ‘Well, why are you calling them? You should know everything.’ I have to let them know that I’m not going to know everything, there’s no way.”

Thorson says interest in his program remains high and his goal is to continue working toward helping students take the next step.

“I want to make sure that they’re not just learning the basics – if a kid wants to take it further, that’s what we’re working through. Helping those students that want to go above and beyond, not only just to maybe push themselves in the automotive area, but to give them that chance, to be able to earn some of those things that maybe they would do after high school,” he says.

The big thing Thorson says he’s working on for next year is to partner with a local technical college to bring one of their automotive classes into the high school. “They can gain some credit, save some students some money, maybe moving into their post-secondary education as well. And then as we look at our service center, I’m still trying to work through trying to make it more student led, currently the students do the repairs, they’re helping with invoicing and everything. I’d like to get the students a little bit more involved with parts ordering, helping deal with customers more, getting them learning how to put things into layman’s terms, help them be able to feel comfortable telling somebody what’s wrong with their car, which is something no one ever wants to hear.”

Students participate in their multimeter certifications.

His goal continues to work toward getting students experience in tech and skills competitions, though he recognizes the challenges brought on by the pandemic. “I’d love to go back to the Top Tech Challenge down at Universal Technical Institution. We held a competition right here at our school last year. I was able to get some grant money to put together some scholarships, and then with our service center that we run, I bought some tools and gave them away to the top five students as well. So we’re trying a lot of stuff. Unfortunately everything has gotten a little bit harder.”

What does it mean for Austin Thorson from Elkhorn Area High School, Elkorn, WI, to be recognized as a finalist in the B’laster Tomorrow’s Technician Instructor of the Year program?

“It’s pretty cool. Obviously, it’s nice to hear that you’re doing the right stuff. Cause it’s hard too, and I think as an instructor or even a teacher in general, you spend a lot of time trying to help highlight your kids. When I student taught, what impacted me from the principal and the teacher I worked with is that ‘We’re here for kids – that’s why you become an instructor, you want to make sure you’re helping students become better community members and adults of the future.’”

Are YOU the next B’laster Instructor of the Year? Nominate yourself or another worthy candidate today.

For more information on the 20212022 B’laster Instructor of the Year program or to nominate a worthy instructor, visit Tomorrow’s Technician today.

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