Oklahoma Fellows Tour German Auto Plants

by Silas Allen
The Stillwater News Press

STILLWATER, Okla. — As a part of a program designed to help teachers bring the world into their classrooms, two automotive instructors at Meridian Technology Center took a trip over the summer to the birthplace of the automobile.

David Shields and Shelly Smith went to Germany recently to tour auto manufacturing facilities there. The trip was funded by a grant from Fund for Teachers, a program designed to enrich K-12 education.

The two instructors toured auto manufacturing facilities in Stuttgart and Munich. During the trip, they toured plants owned by BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and Audi.

One of the more interesting aspects of the trip, Shields said, was seeing the differences in the attitudes toward cars between Germany and the United States. While the Germans take as much pride in their cars as Americans, their driving habits are different, particularly in urban areas, he said.

When Germans commute into a major city, rather than driving to their place of work, they’ll typically park in a commuter lot on the outskirts of the city and take a train into the city, Shields said.

That style of commuting is possible, Smith said, because light rail systems in major urban areas like Stuttgart and Munich are so comprehensive. Unlike urban areas in middle America like Dallas and Kansas City, urban areas in Germany are designed to allow commuters to get anywhere in the city limits without the use of a car.

“If you knew what train to take, you could get there,” Smith said.

Each of the factories Shields and Smith toured included a museum chronicling the history of the company. Those museums included details on how existing technology came to be, Shields said.

For example, he said, the Mercedes-Benz museum has a display that includes the world’s first automobile, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. Being in the same room as that kind of history was a great experience, Shields said.

The museum did a good job of explaining how engineers had produced the car simply by trying their options, finding out what didn’t work and learning from their mistakes, he added; one of the exhibits in the museum lists ideas that ultimately failed, but allowed the engineers eventually to build a working product.

“It was just trial and error,” he said.

Smith said he was also impressed with the so-called fit and finish, or alignment, spacing and security of the car’s components. By today’s standards, he said, it might not be impressive, but considering the engineers were working with a brand-new product and using 19th-century technology, the car was remarkably well assembled.

Although they recently returned from the trip, Shields and Smith said they’re already working to incorporate lessons they learned in Germany into their courses. The two took about 1,200 photos during the trip, and they said they hope to be able to use them to show students what the inside of a German auto manufacturing plant looks like.

Another idea they hope to incorporate into their classes is the use of virtual tours. Many German auto factories offer online virtual tours of their facilities, as do several factories in the United States and Japan. Those tours could allow the students to compare an American auto plant — for instance, the Ford F-150 plant in Dearborn, Mich. — with one in Europe to see what methods are different and what are similar.

As important as it is to show students the inner workings of German factories, it’s also important to give them an idea of the culture surrounding the German auto industry, Shields said. To that end, he said, the two instructors won’t simply be giving students an overview of auto factories, but they’ll also be discussing German culture and geography.