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Hancock skilled-trades teacher named finalists for national prize from Harbor Freight Tools for Schools

Three high school skilled trades teachers from Michigan are among 50 teachers and teacher teams from across the country who were named today as finalists for the 2020 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence. The teachers and their trades programs are in the running for a share of $1 million in total cash awards.

Gary Mishica, an industrial arts teacher at Hancock High School in Hancock; Jeff Webb, a mechatronics teacher at Southern Michigan Center for Science and Industry in Hudson; and Demetrius Wilson, an engineering, robotics and mechatronics teacher at Oakland Schools Technical Campus-Northeast (OSTC-NE) in Pontiac, were chosen by an independent panel of judges from a field of more than 600 skilled trades teachers who applied for the prize. The finalists–some competing as individuals and some as teacher teams–hail from 23 states and specialize in trades including manufacturing, welding, construction, automotive, agriculture mechanics and technical theater.

“Trades teachers are truly unsung heroes, and our prize seeks to show everyone how powerful these classes can be,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “Skilled trades education has enormous potential to offer students pathways to multiple postsecondary opportunities, and these are the teachers who are providing them with the knowledge, skills and inspiration year after year.”

Gary Mishica has taught industrial arts for 38 years. His love of the trades started early, when he and his brothers worked with their father to build their family home. Today, Mishica’s students start out learning the basics of safely operating machinery and completing individual projects before advancing to group work and problem-solving using wood and metal, like restoring a 1962 Chevrolet pickup truck, creating copper and steel sculptures, and pursuing school improvement projects. Mishica continues to improve his skills and keep his course up to date by learning from engineering students and professionals in the field. More than half of Mishica’s graduating students continue working in the vocational trades after high school.

Jeff Webb teaches mechatronics at Southern Michigan Center for Science and Industry. He is a second-generation skilled tradesman, learning from the success of his father who worked for over 40 years in manufacturing. Webb keeps up to date on the field by regularly expanding his skills–in the last two years alone he received training in working with programmable logic controllers–computers used in manufacturing settings–and tool handling from FANUC, a robotics company. Students in Webb’s class build a hovercraft, a hydroponic plant system, and a solar-powered golf cart while receiving coaching for job interviews and resume writing, as well as opportunities to attend tool shows to immerse themselves in the industry. Webb was a finalist in 2019 Prize for Teaching Excellence as part of a team of three teachers.

Demetrius Wilson has been an educator for 29 years. Wilson teaches mechatronics–the engineering of both electrical and mechanical systems–and manufacturing at OSTC-NE. In addition to helping students learn computer-aided design, robotics, fluid power, mechanical drive systems and computer numerical control (CNC) programming, Wilson also mentors fellow teachers and coordinates with industry partners to create a curriculum. Wilson’s mechatronics program allows students to receive articulated credit with numerous postsecondary institutions and to pursue advanced learning through the Michigan Advanced Technician Training Program (MAT2). Within the last seven years, Wilson assisted more than 30 of his students to place into the MAT2 program, resulting in a $2.5 million-dollar investment in his students. Wilson was a finalist for the 2019 Prize for Teaching Excellence.

The 2020 finalists now advance to a second round of competition, where they will be asked to respond to online expert-led video learning modules designed to solicit their insights and creative ideas about teaching practices. The contenders will be asked how ideas from the modules might be used to inspire students to achieve excellence in the skilled trades. Two rounds of judging, each by separate independent panels of reviewers, will narrow the field to 18 winners and, finally, name three of those teachers Grand Prize recipients. All winners will be announced in late October.

The 18 winners will split the $1 million prize. Grand Prize winners will each receive $100,000, with $70,000 going to their public high school skilled trades program and $30,000 to the individual skilled trades teacher or teacher team behind the winning program. The 15 additional winners will each be awarded $50,000, with $35,000 going to their public high school program and $15,000 to the teacher or team. Finalists whose school, district and/or state policy prohibits receipt of the individual portion of prize earnings were eligible to apply on behalf of their school’s skilled trades program. If they win, their entire share of the prize will be awarded to the school.

The Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence was started in 2017 by Eric Smidt, the founder of national tool retailer Harbor Freight Tools. The prize recognizes outstanding instruction in the skilled trades in U.S. public high schools and the teachers who inspire students to learn a trade that prepares them for life after graduation. As recent research from JFF (formerly known as Jobs for the Future) and funded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools found, students who “concentrate” (or take multiple trades courses as part of a program) are more likely to graduate than their peers. Upon graduation, students are prepared for either further education or work in fields that routinely rank among the hardest jobs to fill.

Now, in the fourth year of the prize, more than 200 teachers have been recognized as winners or finalists. Winners join a nationwide network of outstanding trades teachers who convene regularly by webinar and in a three-day summer workshop to share best practices and advance their field.

“There’s a reason why polls show enormous support for trades education–with more than 8 in 10 parents and voters believing it deserves more funding,” Smidt said, citing a poll conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago and released this spring by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “Trades teachers are building up the tradespeople of the future–the workers who will keep our critical care infrastructure, our communication networks, our homes and cars, up and running. They deserve to be celebrated.”

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