SAN PABLO -- Brandi Corona's past experiences with cars largely consisted of working on brakes on Sundays or waiting for a mechanic if stranded on the side of the road.

So, the 25-year-old Richmond resident decided to take some courses at Contra Costa College to hone up on his automotive skills while trying to get into the culinary field.

It turns out he enjoyed it. A lot.

"The program really captured my attention," said Corona, while working on a sedan's suspension Wednesday at the college's Automotive Services building. With one semester remaining, he hopes to work as a technician at a dealership and ultimately open his own shop.

For almost a half-century, Contra Costa's program, regarded by those in the industry as one of the best in the Bay Area, has helped students find careers in collision repair and automotive mechanics fields. It continues to evolve by teaching about the ever-changing technology in cars and environmental consciousness.

The program, which has about 100 students enrolled between its two fields with many graduating or receiving certificates, was recognized for its environmental stewardship when certified in October as a Contra Costa Green Business -- the first program in the Contra Costa Community College District to earn that distinction.

The Collision Repair Education Foundation and AAA Northern California awarded it a $50,000 grant in January over 10 other applicants. The grant allowed the collision program to purchase a SimSpray, or virtual simulation car-painting program, said instructor Peter Lock, a 35-year professor in the program. The grant also enabled the purchase of computers, parts and other equipment.

Lucile Beatty, department chairwoman of Contra Costa's automotive program, said a key element of the program is its strong advisory committee of industry professionals, such as parts distributors, technicians and shop owners. That alliance helps with donations and keeps instructors abreast of what students must learn to succeed.

Corona and about 20 other students were hard at work last week testing the alignment, brakes and tire wear of cars, either donated or their own. On the other side of the building, students were wet sanding dents out of metal panels and spray painting.

"You get a lot more shop time and there are good teachers," said Juan Rosales, 18, of Fairfield. He opted to drive an extra hour to CCC at the recommendation of a cousin.

Kittrick Redmond of Hercules and Teo Maldonado of Albany see the program as a good way to change careers.

A veteran and former sales associate, Redmond, 42, plans to start a mobile business where he repairs cars and helps people make decisions on car purchases. Maldonado had aspired to become a mechanical engineer, but his interest in cars has "grown exponentially" the past three years.

The course load on the repair side also includes lessons on fixing air conditioning, electrical work and diagnostics, and engine performance.

The program has also moved toward the future by acquiring five hybrid cars that students can learn to repair, said Beatty, a longtime auto technician.

Collision-repair lessons include estimates, dismantling, welding, repair and painting.

"Our teachers are showing the students work that they do every day," Lock said.

The program is also working to improve how its teachers, all of whom come from the trades, teach the students, Beatty said.

"There needs to be that strong link between what is done academically and what is needed in the marketplace," said Jon Fowkes, co-chairman of the advisory committee and coordinator of the Automotive Apprenticeship program of Northern California.

"(Contra Costa College) does a good job of saying we need you to tell us, rather than us telling you what we're doing," Fowkes said.

Said Mary Kemnitz of D&H Enterprises in Concord: "The industry is just changing so rapidly. There's so much we can teach the students."

Kemnitz, also board president of the Automotive Service Council of California trade group, hopes to address any "disconnect" between auto shop owners and students as well as create an internship program at Contra Costa College similar to the one at San Bruno's Skyline College to help "bridge the gap."

Among the practices used to earn the Green Business distinction is a dedicated wet/dry vacuum for excess oil and coolant, going paperless or double-sided printing and water conservation.

"What's so exciting is not only that they're doing this, but they're teaching their students why they're doing this and to use nontoxic alternatives," said Paris Greenlee, the county's green business program manager. "They will be able to take that knowledge with them to their future employers, which reaches a lot more businesses. They will also save them money and the hassle of dealing with regulatory issues."

Providing instructors with new tools and equipment is key to getting new blood into the collision-repair field, said Brandon Eckenrode, the Collision Repair Education Foundation's director.

"When you take your car into a body shop to get fixed, you don't want them practicing on it," he said.

Collision repair is a $35 billion industry and many of those professionals now in the field are getting older, Eckenrode said.

Lock and Beatty are working on rewriting the curriculum to achieve National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation certification, so students can get jobs earlier and still complete the program at night.

Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.