MHS auto tech teacher plugs field as viable option

By Bethany Knipp

Automotive technology is changing and demand for mechanics is on the rise — so Manhattan High auto tech teacher Elizabeth Crooks is helping students make careers for themselves in an increasingly challenging field.

When Crooks, a 2000 MHS graduate, was a freshman at the high school herself, she didn’t expect to fall in love with automotive technology.

She signed up for classes in a slight act of rebellion after her military family moved to town.

When she and her parents and the principal were signing her up for classes, auto tech wasn’t emphasized as an option for the curriculum, she said.

“Automotive was one they kind of skipped over and weren’t very excited about, so that made me excited about it, and so I took it just for the sheer fact that they weren’t excited about it,” Crooks said.

“I didn’t know anything about cars. My family is not mechanically inclined in any stretch of the imagination and I fell in love with it.”

Crooks graduated from Pittsburg State University, where she actually has 24 credit hours in drag racing.

She became MHS’s auto tech teacher a couple years ago after the death of the previous teacher, Steve Barnes.

Barnes taught at MHS for 22 years, he had been Crooks’ teacher, and her current senior class of auto tech students was the last group to have Barnes as an instructor.

“He made learning fun. There was never a point when he made you feel inferior to him. He was just an incredible guy,” Crooks said.

To help raise money for a scholarship in his name, Crooks and her students held their first car show at the high school this month, and 65 cars were entered. 

She said the show raised roughly $500 for the scholarship, which will benefit at least one student from MHS.

Crooks said she hopes to have a car show every year.

In the high school’s auto tech garage, Crooks teaches about 120 students about a handful of cars that need work – including an aqua 1962 Chevy C10, which is one of her student’s vehicles.

The garage is where Crooks teaches her students the basics of vehicle maintenance and how to fix them.

“I’m a firm believer that if you don’t know how it works; you’re not going to know how to fix it. That’s just the way it is,” she said.

Crooks said some things her beginning students work on are flushing coolant systems, fixing alternators and fixing brakes.

She said her students sometimes are startled to discover that they’re incorporating chemistry, geometry and other academic subjects in their auto tech work.

“When we do alignments, they’ll just go to town on alignments – and after the fact, I’ll sit down and show them, ‘Look at all that geometry you just did,’ ” Crooks said.

“ ‘That geometry that you complain about in every class, you just did for an hour straight.’”

She’s teaching all of her students, however, that automotive technology is not what it used to be.

“Vocational ed [is] not so much vocational ed anymore. It used to be if you were not as smart as your peers, that’s what you did. This is becoming more of a skilled art,” she said.

Crooks said mechanics these days are not just grease monkeys, they’re computer technicians.

“The technicians nowadays are not just slapping parts on and throwing things together,” she said.

“You’re looking at computers, you’re working with computers. You’re a computer technician first, before an automotive technician.”

And despite constant changes in technology, she said the field is here to stay, which is why it needs young technicians.

“This isn’t a field that’s not going anywhere. This field is going to be around for a long time. This isn’t just a job. You can turn this into a career when you’re 18 and do it until you retire,” she said.

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