By CRUZ M. BUSTAMANTE

As speaker of the Assembly, one of my most important jobs is helping foster opportunity for the young people of California.

That means shoring up our educational system to make sure it is as effective as possible for every student, from kindergarten through college. It also means finding ways to help signature California industries ? high tech, agriculture and entertainment, to name a few ? to flourish and remain strong sources of jobs and economic growth.

Recently, I was on hand to help inaugurate a program in which these goals merge in an innovative way. At Tulare Union High School in the Central Valley, an exciting new automotive technology program gives students the hands-on opportunity to build models of electric vehicles. As I watched the students test drive real electric vehicles, including the General Motors EV-1 and Chevrolet's EV pickup truck, I saw an excitement that went beyond the novelty of students discovering a high-tech option for getting to school in the morning.

This is a program worth noting ? and replicating ? for a number of reasons. First, as students work together to build the model electric vehicles, they are becoming familiar with state-of-the-art technology and developing real-world problem-solving skills. The sense of accomplishment students develop through building the models will help give them confidence to approach new technologies in other areas as well, which will be a critical tool for 21st century students.

With emerging electric vehicle technology continuing to affect the shape and future of the transportation industry, California is in a good position to have electric vehicle production become one of our signature industries ? if steps are taken to remain competitive with other states that would be happy to have the industry for themselves.

As the use of electric vehicles becomes more widespread in California and throughout the nation, the industry's growth and evolution will depend on the availability of a highly skilled and trained work force. Math, science, English and automotive technology classes will all play important roles in preparing a sufficient and proficient work force in California that can keep on top of rapidly emerging technologies in the electric vehicle industry.

Introducing students to electric vehicles in the classroom helps make the technology even less exotic, plants the seed for electric vehicles as a viable consumer choice and increases the likelihood that students will consider the electric vehicle industry when making critical career planning decisions in school.

Californians should view electric vehicle technology as not only a source for cleaner transportation, but also as a means to develop students' creativity and ambition. While our state is currently the front runner in electric vehicle technology, we cannot remain competitive without engaging and encouraging our youth. Through partnerships that bring electric vehicle technology to schools, we have the opportunity to excite students about educational curricula, train them to meet technological challenges and prepare them for a role in solving environmental problems.

I am particularly pleased that the electric vehicle industry is reaching out to communities that are not yet enjoying the same economic recovery as the rest of the state. In addition to the Tulare program, students from East Los Angeles College's automotive technology program recently took part in a presentation put on by Southern California Edison's Electric Vehicle Technology Center.

We should prepare now for the day when having a job in the electric vehicle industry will seem as commonplace in California as being a programmer in the Silicon Valley, a winemaker in Napa or an animator in Burbank. With the right tools, our students can be the ones who make electric vehicles seem as at home on California roads as a surfboard-laden Woody, a '57 Chevy or a Mustang with the top down.

Cruz M. Bustamante, D-Fresno, is speaker of the California Assembly.

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