BRIER, WA — Ben Engelking speaks softly and carries a big stick. He doesn’t like to brag about his accomplishments — his students do it for him.

The owner-operator (Head Master) of B.R. Engelking Co., Inc., Hvac/r Training School in this Seattle suburb is not your run-of-the-mill votech instructor. He has a unique philosophy about teaching that he’d like other instructors to copy. Problem is, his style isn’t what most students are used to.

He has two rules for his students in each of his seven classes: They are not allowed to take notes, and they are not allowed to ask questions. “My job is to ask the students questions, their job is to find the answers,” Engelking said.

That may sound like a radical concept, but it has worked for Engelking. Just ask the 40 to 50 former students and business associates who turned out for his award presentation Sept. 11.

Among the attendees was Engelking’s 7th grade shop teacher. One former student drove 300 miles from Spokane to be there. Engelking himself was assisted by his wife Lynn, mother Patsy (visiting from Albuquerque, NM), and sons Montana and Crawford.

The crowd gathered on the common area between Engelking’s home and his school, a converted 1,400-sq-ft garage that has turned out 3,500 students since 1989. The humble surroundings attest to the immense popularity of Engelking and his school.

Garage Turned Classroom

“I don’t enroll more than 24 students for each class,” Engelking said. “This keeps the classes manageable for personal attention by myself and my two assistant instructors.”

Inside the converted garage is an array of furnaces, pumps, motors, condensers, etc. Among the equipment are Engelking’s test furnaces, 18 units that are rigged with 10 “bugs” controlled by individual toggle switches on a board mounted to the side of each unit.

“Each unit took between 40 to 80 hours to prepare,” said Engel-king. “It gives our students the op-portunity to troubleshoot many different component failures.”

Part of each student’s final testing involves correctly troubleshooting 10 failures on a furnace within 30 minutes.

This type of training results in high test scores for graduating students. A 1992 study of ARI competency tests for Refrigeration showed that Engelking’s students had an average test score of 93.75%, compared to the national average of 59.56%.

The Discovery Approach

All of this hands-on work is part of Engelking’s “Discovery Approach to Education,” which involves a bare minimum of lecture and textbook instruction and a heavy dose of training on the equipment.

Engelking is a strong believer in making students accountable for their work, and the best way to do this is by using a wrench instead of a pencil.

“The students discover the fun of learning by actually doing field work in a controlled and structured setting,” he said. “They have to be involved.”

They also have to do most of the work without Engelking at the head of the class. He doesn’t believe in over-lecturing.

“Why spend everyone’s time talking about something when they’ll just forget what they heard anyway? It is generally recognized that most people will only remember 5% of what they heard, as opposed to those remembering 90% of what they do.”

If these philosophies are enough to scare some people away, it hasn’t been reflected in the classes. In 11 years, Engelking has had a total of three vacancies. And after that occurred, he revamped his brochures and interviewed more contractors, to get them involved. He now has a waiting list of people who want to take his classes.

Enrollment Boosters

“I’ve heard that enrollment is down 71% in hvacr votech schools,” he said. “I’ve got people waiting to take my classes. I’ve got to be doing something right.”

Engelking said that 85% of his students are referrals. He runs a 1-in. ad in the local Yellow Pages that costs less than $100 a month; that’s the extent of his advertising.

Once students complete his courses, Engelking doesn’t stop helping them. He places 95% of his graduates and works with many after they graduate.

“I had a former student fax me an electrical schematic that he had questions about. I faxed back some questions that he answered and the problem was solved.”

Student Praise

Engelking received several accolades from students and graduates who nominated him for the award, like this one from former student Duke Giraud.

“Ben teaches you the fundamentals and does a very good job at that,” Giraud wrote. “But what a person gets most is encouragement. Taking Ben’s courses has changed my life and my family’s lives for the better. I no longer work dead-end jobs and have tripled my income.

“Ben is one of the best men and best teachers I have ever met.”

Engelking would like to see other hvacr instructors adopt his teaching philosophy. He thinks it will make the hvacr trade more marketable and saleable to students and workers considering a job change.

For now, though, he’ll settle for people in the area coming to him for instruction. “My goal is to become the hub of hvacr education in the Northwest.”

Publication date: 09/25/2000