Don't Pity the School

Meridian Students Create a Replica of the Iconic A-Team Van

The finished A-Team replica van sits outside Meridian Public School District’s Ross Collins Career and Technical Center.
The finished A-Team replica van sits outside Meridian Public School District’s Ross Collins Career and Technical Center

Jason Hauser

An ’80s television show might seem like an unlikely source of motivation, but Rob Smith, director of the Ross Collins Career and Technical Center in Meridian, recognizes the importance of encouraging student investment in nontraditional ways. 

Two years ago, he tasked his automotive students with constructing a life-size Tonka truck using a school bus slated for demolition; and this past fall, he had the center’s students turn a run-down GMC G-Series van into the famed A-Team automobile from the hit show. And the students pulled it off. 

The project had inauspicious beginnings. Last summer, Smith helped members of his church move a broken-down vehicle off a congregant’s property.

“The van was sitting on blocks,” he recalled, “with no wheels on it, and half of the engine was in the backseat.” 

After getting the van to his property, he pieced together the engine. To his surprise, it cranked right up. Smith purchased the van for use on his farm, but then he noticed the model. After realizing it was the same van from the long-running show, he decided to have his students spend the fall semester turning it into Mr. T’s iconic vehicle.

Before building the van, though, Smith and Mart Murphree, the collision repair teacher at Ross Collins, had the enviable task of introducing the students to the show itself. 

“Of course, students didn’t know what the A-Team was, so we had to teach a class on the A-Team,” Smith said. “We watched an episode, and I briefed them on who Murdoch was.

“But,” he added, “they already knew Mr. T.” 

Capitalizing on that recognition, Smith seized on an opportunity to further motivate the students: He promised to cut his hair into a Mohawk, don gold chains, and play the part of Mr. T for a day if the van looked enough like the original.

“I have watch what comes out of my mouth,” Smith joked, explaining the students made him keep his promise after making the van into a near-perfect copy of the original. “If I say something, they’re going to make me back it up. I’ve got to be more careful about what I promise.” 

Student Involvement

Smith claims the playfulness of the project belies the deeper educational theory that makes it effective.

“We found...if we bring in themes and build something according to a theme, it really excites the students a whole lot more,” he explained.  

“We do a lot of what we call ‘live work’—when people from the community bring in a vehicle for paint and repair,” Murphree added. “But this was different. This was something that students could say, ‘I’m part of this. I painted the A-Team van!’” 

That excitement encourages students to invest in their work.

“In these projects, I get a lot more involvement from my students, and they take a lot more pride in their work,” Murphree said. “And that’s what we want: students to take ownership of their work. That’s something that’s hard to teach.” 

Ownership and engagement begin much earlier than people think, Smith explained.

“What you might not understand is the behind-the-scenes research that took place,” he said. “It’s one thing to get a van and say, ‘Paint it like the A-Team.’ When you search for A-Team van images, you’ll find nearly a dozen different paint schemes. That means the students had to come to a consensus as a class about which direction we were going to go and which design looked best.” 

According to Smith, that kind of research and teamwork teaches the skills employers look for in potential employees.

“The project created a lot of opportunities to increase critical thinking and problem-solving skills,” he said. “And that’s what industry is telling us they want in employees: critical thinkers and problem solvers. 

“Teaching soft skills is difficult,” Smith added. “You have to get students excited and make them want to take pride in their work. Those characteristics exemplify themselves throughout this project.”

Quintarius Dean, a first-year collision repair student who was one of the team leaders, agreed that these themed projects are effective motivators, though he admitted the van itself wasn’t the only thing that encouraged him to work hard.

“I wanted to finish the project because I wanted to see Mr. Smith get his head shaved,” he said.  

Dean explained that his favorite part of the project was the preparatory work—the sanding and pre-painting phases that most students take for granted.

“I like working with my hands,” he said. “And I take pride in my work because I can see myself working in the industry, doing good work for myself, and maybe even starting my own business. It’s a job where I can do my best.” 

Smith said Dean’s attitude demonstrates why this teaching method is effective.

“Most come to [collision repair courses] thinking that it’s a paint class, but students don’t realize how much work goes into getting it ready for painting,” Smith said. “Painting is just the icing on the cake. The sanding, the prepping—it takes a whole lot of work. So, to say that sanding is his favorite part shows us that [Dean] is getting what collision repair is really about.” 

Smith said Dean’s attitude will serve him well in the industry.

“He’s going to make a good employee for somebody someday. He’s dedicated, he’s a hard worker, and he does what’s asked of him. That’s what a great employee does,” Smith said.

Starting a Conversation

Altogether, about 40 students worked on the van’s various projects, with collision repair, welding, and automotive students all pitching in to help. The result of that involvement is a van that is truly striking in appearance. 

“Coming down the highway, it looks like a million bucks” Murphree said. “That slick paint job—it looks like it came straight out the movies, like the real A-Team van. You see it coming and you start looking around for Mr. T!”  

Smith uses the van to promote his program and correct misconceptions about career and technical education (CTE).

“People will stop me when I’m driving it and say, ‘Oh man, that van is so cool.’ And that’s an opportunity to talk with the community about what CTE is and its value. It’s basically a huge billboard,” he said. “I get to talk about the wonderful stuff CTE students are doing, and people are blown away when they see what these kids are capable of. It really has opened up a conversation that cuts against CTE stigmas.”  

And that’s not the only positive, Smith said.

“When I come out of a store, it never takes me long to find my car,” he joked. 


Connections is the magazine for K-12 career and technical education (CTE) in Mississippi. The biannual publication features students, educators, schools, and organizations from approximately 50 career pathways across 16 career clusters. This Mississippi Department of Education publication is produced by the Research and Curriculum Unit at Mississippi State University. Issues are disseminated in print and electronic forms in May and December each year.

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