Students in Curtis Silver’s automotive technology class at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology in Mays Landing were tackling heating and air conditioning systems last week.

After the students left Tuesday, Silver walked around and broke the practice cars — pulling relays and fuses from some, disconnecting a blower motor on another, and draining refrigerant from yet another.

“They all have different problems,” he said Wednesday morning as students pored over the cars and examined schematics on nearby computers. “The students have to come in and diagnose. I try to simulate the real world for them a little bit.”

A self-professed “motorhead,” Silver, 61, who lives in Voorhees, has taught at the school for 22 years. Before that, he spent 20 years as a technician for Chrysler, a job he still holds on Saturdays and summers at Mount Ephraim Chrysler Dodge as a way to stay engaged in the industry and current on automotive repair technology.

“It got into my blood as a kid,” he said. “Then I went to Atco and got into racing. That love for tech never stops.”

In November, Silver was named the National Automotive Youth Educational Systems Instructor of the Year by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. He won the award based on his continued success in following the AYES Model and placing interns into the automotive industry. A nonprofit organization that partners businesses and schools to help prepare students for employment, AYES is used in 347 high schools in 45 states.

Most students in the automotive program split their time, spending three hours a day at ACIT and the rest at their hometown high school.

On Wednesday, the morning group worked against a ticking clock to diagnose their air-conditioning problems.

Justin Anderson, 17, of Weymouth Township, asked for the gauge so he and Charles Casey, 18, of Mullica Township, could check the air-conditioning pressure on a Buick Lacrosse.

Anderson will do an internship this summer at Walker’s Automotive in Pleasantville. If he is successful, that could lead to a job after he graduates in 2014. He’ll learn how to overhaul an engine next year at ACIT.

“I’ve been working on cars my whole life,” he said. “I never get bored with them. It’s nice to love what you do.”

About a half-dozen serious students will get internships at the end of their junior year, Silver said. He said there is always a demand for qualified auto technicians, with starting salaries typically around $12 to $15 per hour for basic skills. Experienced and talented techs can work their way up to $30 per hour.

Silver said he always enjoyed training others, so when the opportunity to teach at ACIT came up, he applied. He still loves it every day and has an easy camaraderie with the students as they puzzle their way through all the reasons a car’s air conditioning might not work.

Giovanni Batista, 17, of Atlantic City, triumphantly held up a relay, confident he had found the problem in a Subaru. He was correct.

Another group was still looking, and Silver started asking questions: “How do you know how much refrigerant is in the system? If it calls for 2 pounds, how do you tell if that’s what’s in there?”

Students talked about checking for leaks, and draining and weighing how much refrigerant was in the car compared with how much should be in the system.

Robert Harper, 17, and Aaron Ripley, 17, both from Weymouth Township, explained later that their car had no refrigerant, so they checked for leaks, then recharged the system.

Silver said the auto repair business has become much more complicated. Students have to know how different components talk to each other, what they’re saying and how a problem with one component can affect others.

“You can look into a system now using a laptop,” he said. “But the system itself is much more complicated.”

He said the job is also still physically demanding, but so far, he has no plans to retire either from teaching or fixing cars.

“It’s in my blood,” he said. “The more I do it, the more I like it.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.