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Braking News from the Diesel Program

diesel instructor kyle smith operates the new brake board
Rebecca A. Eckland

Thanks to a Perkins’ Grant, the TMCC Diesel Program is stepping up the quality and depth of its training program to a new level in its DT 201 class. The grant enabled the program to purchase a new brake board, an instructional tool that helps students to visualize the connections between the pneumatic brake system whose components are typically hidden within the massive bodies of those multi-ton trucks. 

“When we want to explain the brake system in a truck to students, it’s kind of hard because you can’t actually see most of it,” said Diesel Instructor Kyle Smith, who gestured to the components of the new brake board, which features all the main components of a braking system on a truck, but laid out in a way that makes connections visible. 

This provides opportunities for students to troubleshoot valve leaks and other malfunctions with all the components laid bare: important lessons for mechanics that will, one day, work on large trucks with expensive pieces and parts, who can also charge for their time in labor.  After all, mistakes can be costly, in terms of time lost and misdiagnosed repairs. Misdiagnosing problems can also lead to safety issues that can put the driver of the truck, as well as other motorists nearby, at risk. This is why training materials like a brake board are vital to TMCC’s Diesel Program. 

Practical Experience Through Tangible Learning Opportunities

Smith, who once worked in the industry as a lead diesel technician, remembers making the very mistakes that the brake board can teach students to avoid. In his particular example, he was working on a Freightliner Truck in which the leaking brake relay valve and its ABS modulators were bolted far in the belly of the truck. 

“It took me six hours to replace the valve which I thought was causing the leak. I put a brand new $300 valve on, and we charged the customer for that, plus all of that time [it took me to make the repair.] It turned out it was the wrong thing,” he said, pointing to the hoses that connected the relay valve to the actual brake chambers (the failed component) at the wheels of the truck, demonstrating that a leak oftentimes begins at a different component than where the air is leaking from the system. Finding a leak means understanding how the system is put together, and what is connected to what.  

While a brake board is certainly not a truck, it nonetheless functions and sounds like one (it even has functional brake lights!) The brake board makes learning happen in a real-time, tangible way.

Upgraded Technology Supports Hands-On Learning

While brake boards are nothing new to the program—an older model that details an older pneumatic system has been used by the diesel program for several years—the new brake board has several important upgrades, including a computer and electronic sensors to demonstrate how electrical systems such as anti-lock brakes and traction control monitor and control wheel speed in real-time. After all, these are common features on trucks that new mechanics—graduates of TMCC’s Diesel Program—are likely to encounter in the field. 

The new board can also show students what happens when certain systems fail, or when a driver encounters precarious weather conditions, such as an icy road. Smith flicked a switch, which mimicked icy conditions between the right rear wheels. Smith pressed his foot down on the accelerator pedal and digital displays beneath each wheel sensor provide the real-time speed of each wheel. Because Smith calibrated the brake board to simulate ice under the right rear tire, it is rotating much faster than the others. 

“You can see when this wheel is put on ice. Watch what happens to the brake,” he said, drawing our attention to a firing sound and the attached wheel that shows the S-Can (drum) brakes. “What’s happening is that the three other tires are going 40 mph, but this one, because it’s on a slippery surface, is going 20 mph or [it’s] locked up. So, the computer sends a signal to the modulator to release the brake so the wheel will start turning again. This board allows us to show the students what’s actually going on through these different kinds of scenarios.” 

The brake board also utilizes lights to draw students' attention to areas of the ABS and traction control system that are working in real-time. This visual reminder supports the learning that goes on later in the class, when students must identify what ports go where, and where ports are located on an actual truck. “When you work on a truck, you can’t just follow the [brake] lines, because they disappear,” Smith explained. Instead, students have to intuitively understand the series of connections within the system in order to diagnose problems, and more importantly, to fix them. 

Learning to do the Job Right

Diesel Instructor Jeremy Coggin discovered the new brake board and proposed that the program make this purchase through a Perkins Grant. The new board will be used for classes offered to students of all ages moving forward. Smith sees value in the new equipment for students just entering the program, as well as for mechanics who are already working in the field. 

“When I was working as a mechanic in the industry, I didn’t understand how all of this fit together. I addressed the simple, low-hanging fruit first... for example, if something was leaking, I just needed to figure out which ‘brake can’ it was. Or, if there was an ABS fault, it’s probably a wheel speed sensor, and I’d kind of go through the troubleshooting to figure it out. I didn’t understand [how the entire system was connected],” Smith said. 

Even mechanics in the field who currently work on these systems will gain new insight and a deeper understanding of these systems thanks to materials like the new brake board. “You can see it all, you can talk about it all and show it.  And then, you can ‘bug’ it and literally have them physically troubleshoot things in a short amount of time that you can’t usually do on a truck,” Smith said. 

This kind of training can also help mechanics to lessen the likelihood of making mistakes on the job. “I’ve had discussions with students that we’re kind of like doctors. If a doctor messes up, they could kill someone. And if a mechanic messes up while working on a steering system and you leave a bolt loose and that driver takes the truck out on the highway at 70 mph and he turns the steering wheel and it doesn’t respond... the consequences of that can be equally dire,” Smith said. 

Options for Learning

Starting in the Fall 2021 semester, the Diesel Program will offer three opportunities for students to earn their certificates and degrees. The morning and afternoon sequences are for students who want to take a deep dive into the program and complete the work for the Associate of Applied Science within two years. The evening classes are not as intense and are designed for mechanics who work and want to pursue their education while holding onto their full-time jobs. 

“We hope the community recognizes the value in sending their technicians to these classes even if it’s during the day, because there will be a real return on investment,” Smith said, explaining that the student-to-instructor ratio in the diesel program is especially rich; both he and Coggin have both taught every class, and are both available to students in every class, no matter which is the “official” instructor of the course.

What is clear: students who complete the TMCC Diesel Program progress more rapidly in the profession than those who don’t, and thanks to new training equipment like the brake board, which makes the connections between the air system, breaking and the wheels—as well as the overall maintenance of the truck and trailer—crystal clear. 

“Our classes train them to understand the systems and we train them to go to the literature, to be able to figure out those advanced systems so that they can advance more rapidly in the field and earn more while producing more and better repair work for their employers,” said Smith.

For more information about the Diesel Program at TMCC, contact the Applied Technologies Department at 775-856-5300.