Vehicle for Learning

2005 graduate 'writes the book' for technicians nationwide

by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor.

Ryan Black's eyes slowly shift from an automotive manual to his dual computer monitors. Various images of integral vehicle components appear with the click of his mouse. Adjoining text enhances understanding of the pictures, whether they are illustrating drive shafts or the center differential lock sleeve. For a few moments, Black contemplates the information consuming his screens. Then he types away.

Watch videoThe beach and glorious Pacific Ocean, just 10 minutes down the road, beckon on this warm, sunny Wednesday afternoon. But as he does on most days, Black is finding peace and fulfillment within his open cubicle in a spacious first-floor office suite. His 22-foot sailboat can wait a few more hours. Now it's time to concentrate on his work, a job that impacts many of the vehicles whizzing past the window to his left.

The 2005 Penn College graduate is a technical training development administrator for the University of Toyota, the continuing education and training arm of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Inc. Black is responsible for formulating curriculum to train thousands of technicians at Toyota dealerships across the United States. Since arriving at Toyota's headquarters in Torrance, Calif., in 2007, Black has created four courses, enhanced several existing classes and devised numerous e-learning modules. The work produced on his computer screens leads to improved maintenance and performance of countless Toyota vehicles.

“You know that it's a part of you that is being taught to these technicians,” says Black, 29. “When I go to training events and interact with technicians, they might say, ‘I attended this course and got a lot out of it.' You can actually say, ‘I created that.' It gives you a great deal of pride, a sense of accomplishment.”

"You know that it's a part of you that is being taught to these technicians."

Ryan Black

Developing a single course consumes several months of work for Black and includes a multitude of steps, from conducting a needs analysis to identifying training gaps to creating appropriate content to conceiving hands-on exercises. The possibilities inherent in those numerous stages invigorate him.

“I have the ability to take a project in any direction I personally feel is necessary,” Black says matter-of-factly. “When I'm given an assignment, it's up to me to develop the overall path of the class. I have a great deal of flexibility in how I create the class. There's no micromanagement. That flexibility keeps it refreshing to come to work.”

Materials are developed in-house at the University of Toyota in Torrance, approximately 20 miles southwest of Los Angeles, and provided to service training specialists who deliver the training to technicians at regional centers across the country.

“They have to be able to take the package that we develop and be able to deliver the entire curriculum to our technicians,” Black says.

The “package” for each course typically consists of a thick instructional book, worksheets and practical tasks for the instructors to assign during the one- to three-day training process. Those activities are performed on Toyota vehicles or, when appropriate, simulators that Black helps create. On this day, he is proud to reveal a black contraption, about the size of a couple shoeboxes, which replicates engine control operations. Black demonstrates by depressing the throttle with his right hand to activate the simulator's accelerator.

“This device makes it easy for the instructor to manipulate common bugs,” he says.

Black's career at Toyota is a perfect marriage between his love for education and his passion for cars. Growing up in Chambersburg, Black was a fixture at his father's truck-repair business.

“From the time I was 12 years old, I was tinkering on cars. I was always good at fixing them,” he says with a smile. “I was interested in how things work, how they come apart and come back together.”

When searching for a college, Black wished to broaden his technical know-how. That's why Penn College's automotive technology management bachelor's degree proved to be the perfect choice.

The Parkes Automotive Technology Center is the hub for Penn College degrees in automotive technology and automotive technology management. Photo by Larry D. Kauffman.

“It was the best of both worlds,” Black says of the major, which stresses applied technical work for the first two years before shifting to a management focus during the junior and senior years. “You receive state-of-the-art technical experience, and they also mix in the business side of things. The degree opens a wide array of jobs you can target.”

According to Ronald A. Garner, professor of automotive technology management, three main professions influence the automotive industry: business, education and engineering.

The Penn College degree is unique and effective because it encapsulates all three of those areas.

“It is our students' strong occupational background, coupled with their hard work to complete the rigorous academic requirements focused on industry-specific content, that makes them successful,” he says.

Garner continues to appreciate Black's dedication as a student, which included many hours serving as a math, economics and business tutor.

“Ryan read, thought, wrote, analyzed data, went to the library and worked hard to master the content provided,” Garner says. “He understood how the assignments prepared him for a career path that an academic degree can provide.”

After graduating magna cum laude from Penn College and completing a hike of the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail, Black enrolled at The Pennsylvania State University for a master's degree in workforce development and education. He also secured full-time employment at a State College-area Toyota dealership, where he advanced from line technician to assistant service manager. During this period, a chance meeting at a wedding with an old friend working for Toyota in Torrance changed his life. The friend told Black about the University of Toyota and prodded him for a résumé to take back to the Golden State. Without giving it much thought, Black obliged.

“It wasn't more than a week or two later that Toyota called, and I was on the phone with a manager for at least an hour and a half,” Black says. “A couple weeks after that, I was on the plane. When I crossed the Mississippi, I thought, ‘I'm going to California and there was no turning back.' It was going to be an entire career path change for me, but I knew I wanted to be in education, so it was a good fit in the end.

“The major and the way it's set up at Penn College is exactly what they were looking for. I would not be able to do my job today without my Penn College education. You have to have an extremely solid knowledge base in the automotive field. I draw from that knowledge base every day with developing these materials.”

Most of the material he develops focuses on core powertrain issues. Course binders with titles such as “Engine Control Systems II,” “Manual Transmissions and Transaxles” and “Suspension, Steering and Handling” are propped up on the left side of his workstation. Black admits that creating the content within those binders is challenging.

“In reality, we have at most three days with the technicians when they come for training. It can be difficult to determine how much they really need to know about a topic before they can complete a task,” he says. “We have to drill down, cut the fat from courses and make the information direct.”

The e-learning modules that Black develops are often required prep work for the technicians prior to attending training sessions. The Web-based, interactive modules are centered on general information rather than specific tasks. “We put out 12 to 20 e-learning modules a year, and they range from 30 minutes to an hour for a technician to complete,” Black says.

With his confident approach and easy smile, it's obvious that Black has found a lasting home at the University of Toyota.

“You never feel like you're doing the same thing over and over again,” he says. “Even though the tasks are somewhat similar from project to project, it's the flexibility in what you're doing with that project that makes it interesting. It keeps you wanting to come back.”

Befitting a course developer, Black has outlined personal career objectives. The resident of nearby Long Beach hopes to secure a management role within his department, earn his master's degree in education or instructional design and become bilingual by learning either Spanish or Japanese.

But on this afternoon, the objectives for his courses are foremost on Black's mind. He examines the diagrams of vehicle components prominently displayed on his computer screens. He contemplates and resumes typing. It's obvious his sailboat can wait for another day.

A Journey of 2,000 Miles – by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor

While Ryan Black's classmates donned pristine gowns and walked down the aisle of the ornate Community Arts Center to receive their hard-earned diplomas, Black trudged over rocky terrain hundreds of miles away. His tattered clothing shielded him from the harsh elements and camouflaged a body that hadn't experienced a hot shower or soft bed for months. And Black couldn't have been happier.

Sure, he was proud of his time at Pennsylvania College of Technology. Black was a dedicated tutor and magna cum laude graduate of the rigorous automotive technology management bachelor's degree major. But on this May afternoon in 2005, he was not interested in a ceremony marking the end of one chapter and the start of another. Black already was tackling a new challenge, a quest that few complete. When members of the Class of 2005 turned their tassels, Black was navigating a narrow, wooded path, halfway to his new goal.

The destination? Mount Katahdin's Baxter Peak in Maine, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. An adventure that began on Feb. 28 still had about two-and-a-half months and 1,000 miles remaining.


The seeds for the Appalachian Trail excursion were planted in his youth. Raised in rural Chambersburg, Black, 29, discovered the joy of backpacking and camping. He relished the opportunity to get "off the beaten path" and find solitude in the midst of nature.

"The attraction is an adrenaline rush," he says. "You're out of your element and there is no safety net," he says from his air-conditioned cubicle at the University of Toyota in Torrance, Calif., where he works as a technical training development administrator.  "There is no running to a convenience store for any kind of thing that you may need."

Desiring an experience that would "echo through life," Black and two high school friends looked far beyond their usual southcentral Pennsylvania stomping grounds for exploration in the summer of 2002.  They chose a location about 2,100 miles away: Lake Powell, a glorious reservoir separating northern Arizona and southern Utah. The trio spent a summer at the second-largest manmade lake in the United States working as dockhands. By the time they returned to Pennsylvania, Black knew he wanted to go farther away the next year.

Through a company that did concessions work at Lake Powell, Black heard about Denali National Park in Alaska. Approximately nine months later, he and one of his friends were there, maintaining the buses that go in and out of the 9,492-square- mile picturesque park, located in the center of the state.

Black crosses a stream on the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Photo courtesy of Ryan Black.

"As a perk for people who worked on the buses, we were allowed to go into the park whenever we wanted free of charge," Black says. "Walking 20 miles deep in the countryside, throwing up a tent and then coming back out was really, really interesting."

The summer in "The Last Frontier" prompted Black to consider a more daunting task, one that would require backpacking and camping for several consecutive months. Hiking for a weekend was fun, but he desired a deeper, uninterrupted connection with the outdoors. Black researched and chose the Appalachian Trail, one of the premier long-distance hiking paths in the United States.

Black celebrates at the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Photo courtesy of Ryan Black.

The continuous trail weaves through 14 states touched by the Appalachian Mountains, from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to central Maine. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which, along with the National Park Service, preserves and manages the trail, only about one in four of the thousands who attempt a "thru-hike" complete the 2,174-mile journey. An estimated 12,300 individuals have accomplished the feat since the trail's establishment in the 1930s. Black and a high-school friend, Brian "Pigpen" Iacona, hoped to be added to that number.

"My parents thought we were crazy," says Black. "After spending two days driving us to Georgia they were like, 'Don't quit in a week and tell us to come back and pick you up!'"

Black thought he was ready. He had his supplies. He read as many books as possible on hiking the trail. With the benefit of two online courses, he even completed his automotive technology management degree a few months early so he could embark on this trip. But he quickly realized on Springer Mountain that one could prepare only so much.

Black's hiking compadre, high school friend Brian "Pigpen" Iacona, at the Maryland/Pennsylvania border. Photo by Ryan Black.

"You don't truly know until you actually do it," he says. "The first morning we woke up and we had 4 inches of snow on the ground. I looked at my buddy, and I was like, 'What did we get ourselves into?'"

The answer was months of traversing rocky, hilly ground and being at the mercy of unpredictable and constantly changing weather. A warm start to the day in a valley could morph into a wet, chilly afternoon on a ridge top with the limited number of three-sided shelters throughout the trail offering just an occasional respite from the elements.

Black, right, and friends prepare to set out on their five-month journey at the Southern Terminous Approach Trail, which leads from Amicalola Falls State Park to the southern end of the trail at Springer Mountain, both in Georgia. Photo courtesy of Ryan Black.

"It becomes more of a mental challenge than a physical one, dealing with the weather and the elements. It took us a week to get from Springer Mountain to this place called Neels Gap and that's this much on the map," Black says as he holds his thumb and finger a quarter-inch apart.  "I looked at my buddy and said, 'We're never going to make it.' And then next thing you know, you get your wheels under you, you're getting in shape and you're doing 20-mile days and you're zipping across the states."

Black and his friend quickly established a hiking routine, averaging approximately 18-22 miles a day. For breaks, they identified, with the help of a guidebook, small towns along the trail where they could replenish their supplies. Occasionally, they would rest at hostels, which provided the opportunity for a rare shower and a hot meal. Their pattern became so finely tuned that they could easily estimate time without the benefit of a watch.

"I remember being in Harpers Ferry and calling my parents in Chambersburg, which is like a 90-mile hike from there," Black says. "I told them to meet us at a pizza shop in Chambersburg (the trail runs by Chambersburg) in three days at 4 o'clock. I think we showed up five minutes early. We were able to calculate our time based on our hiking style. That was really, really neat."

Black stops for a photo of the view from Clingman's Dome in North Carolina.

As was the freedom experienced on the trail.

"You were never being told to shave or shower or dress nice," says Black, who shed 20 pounds during his adventure. "You did whatever you wanted to do when you wanted to do it. There were no rules. The best description of it is one that I heard from another hiker. He said, 'Every day you wake up on the trail, you are basically tasting the forbidden fruit. You will never have this feeling of absolute freedom again.'"

Five months after their snowy start in Georgia, Black and Iacona completed their quest on Aug. 1, 2005, in Maine's Baxter State Park. Finally, they ran out of peaks to conquer.

A view from the Bigelow Mountains in Maine.

"When we were on top of the northern terminus and looking out across the way, it was a weird feeling to say, 'We don't have to climb that mountain tomorrow.' I think the weirdest feeling was when we realized we had to take a vacation from our vacation because the trail became such a lifestyle," Black says. "When you get done with it, you need a little time to kind of break yourself of that pattern."

Black remembers not being able to sleep in a bed for weeks because it didn't replicate the hard "mattress" provided by nature that he grew accustomed to on the trail. Even showering on a daily basis felt odd for the "thru-hiker." However, after several weeks Black readjusted to society.  And seven years later, he continues to draw from the fortitude solidified during his Appalachian Trail experience

"If you're freezing and down to your last morsel of food and still have to hike out 25 miles the next day in soaked clothes and boots, you know you can handle whatever comes your way," says Black, who develops courses and educational material used to train Toyota technicians nationwide. "You know you can tackle any project and give it 100 percent. I think management here sees that in me. It's a strong attribute to have."

While employed by Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc. since 2007, Black has carved out enough time to experience outdoor adventures near his Long Beach, Calif., home. He's hiked the San Gabriel Mountains and Santa Monica Mountains and has spent time in Yosemite National Park in the center of the state. Lately, he's been teaching himself how to sail with the help of a 22-foot sailboat he purchased for Alamitos Bay.

"It's time to branch out a little bit," he says with a laugh.

That's obviously never been a problem for Ryan Black.

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