Her school day is bookended by chemistry and global studies, but for Lauren Richards, the three hours sandwiched in between are anything but abstract and theoretical. They are grimy, noisy, hot, smelly hours.

Miss Richards is a car mechanic in training, one of nine students at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School who major in the vocational automotive program.

On this particular school morning, she and Ryan Greer pair up and spend the better part of class trying to wrestle a rotor off the right front axle of a 14-year-old Honda Accord. It is a lesson that could fray the steadiest of nerves, but Miss Richards and Mr. Greer take every sticky bolt in stride.

"This has got some hard miles on it," says Mr. Greer, eying the dents and the missing trim on the blue Honda.

Miss Richards grins and points to the drywall screw, holding the bumper onto the side panel.

The car belongs to one of their peers, a culinary arts student two doors down the hall on the east side of the high school campus. The young owner of the aged Honda will see a bill only for the cost of the parts, about $350 for two shiny new rotors, a set of pads and shoes and new wheel cylinders, says Miss Richards.

Labor is free for folks who bring their cars here for repairs, but don't let that fool you: These kids are laboring every step of the way, flexing muscles as they bang hammers, tighten vise grips and lug around hunks of steel car parts, pipes or tanks for the blowtorch.

In some ways, it's just another day in the car shop, but this has been a good month for the automotive side of the vocational high school. The program just earned a state-mandated certification from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). That's the same stamp of approval that real-world mechanics have to earn.

The new certification covers brake work, electrical systems, engine performance, engine repair and suspension and steering. Along with the new credential, the high school garage has just worked a new deal that would give graduates instant college credit at Mass Bay Community College in Ashland.

Earlier this month, 18 automotive students traveled to the college for a closer look at the course offerings and program which allows students to focus on one of four car makers as their major: BMW, Daimler Chrysler, General Motors and Toyota.

Miss Richards says she is thinking seriously about attending Mass Bay when she graduates high school next year. One of the key facets is an arrangement whereby students work while they study and earn enough money to cover the cost of tuition.

Her other interests? Criminal justice and forensics. Miss Richards may have the makings of another Mona Lisa Vito, the Marisa Tomei character from My Cousin Vinny, who used her car-smarts to get two teenagers off the hook for murder. This high school junior knows her way around a garage.

"A ten millimeter's the same as three-eighths when you convert," she says matter-of-factly as she and Mr. Greer ponder how to remove the next five bolts standing between them and a new rotor installation.

The kids call Ryan Greer by his last name. He's as soft-spoken as they come and has an easy smile. And like his partner on the rotor job, he's no slouch with the tools. It's in his blood. His father is a mechanic, and the young Greer knows that a little physics - using a two-foot pipe as an extra length on a wrench - will exponentially increase his pulling power.

The conversation among these budding mechanics just flows, like oil in the pistons. Eli Bonnell, another junior, is watching over the job since he'll be in charge of replacing the rotor on the Honda's left front.

"I'd like to do work on small engines, outboards, dirt bikes, four-wheelers," he says. "I like working with my hands."

"New cars these days, everything's electric, all computerized," he adds.

"You can't put your wrench anywhere without getting a shock," chimes in Miss Richards.

"That's what I like about old cars," says Mr. Bonnell.

"There's money in classic cars," Miss Richards says as she launches into a triumphant story of the time she helped do a frame-off restoration of an International Scout. She is smiling again.

Mr. Greer, however, is looking a little forlorn. They need help with a stripped bolt on the rotor and call on their teacher, Jeffrey Canha, to come help.

Mr. Canha is the real deal, an experienced mechanic who spent a lot of years around boat engines before taking this job three years ago. His teaching style involves hands-on demonstrations, and his approach with the kids is about as smooth as 80-grit sandpaper.

In other words, he's blunt, reminding Mr. Greer that there are no shortcuts. "I know you're looking for the easy way out but it doesn't work that way," Mr. Canha tells his student.

He calls for the blowtorch, and Miss Richards comes back with the rig, rolling the pair of five-foot tall tanks over to the workbench where they have clamped down this brake set, which hasn't been disassembled once since it came off the assembly line back in early 1990s. It's a process called heating and beating.

"It gets the molecules bouncing around," says Mr. Canha, his eyes lighting up.

Over at the next car lift, Nick Lopenzo and Josh Emin have wrapped up their work on a Nissan pick-up truck owned by vocational director Kevin Carr.

"Take him the bill, and tell him his car's ready," says Mr. Canha as he readies the torch.

Class is almost over. Mr. Bonnell proudly shows off the work he and his classmates did to demonstrate how air bags work. Mr. Bonnell dressed up as a crash-test dummy.

"The air bag comes at you at 200 miles per hour," he says.

Back at the Honda, they have finally busted out the old rotor. Mr. Greer is relaxed about the day's minor victory.

"You're doing that for a living, you'll come across problems like that," he says. "You have to be ready for it."

The final irony? Most of these student mechanics are lacking one credential: a driver's license. "I've been putting off driver's education," says one. "Too many other classes."