Two Michigan winners in $1 million Harbor Freight Tools for Schools competiton

PONTIAC—An engineering, robotics, and mechatronics teacher from Pontiac and an industrial arts teacher from Hancock have been named winners of the 2020 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence, receiving $50,000 as part of $1 million awarded to 18 trades teachers nationwide.

Demetrius Wilson, who teaches engineering, robotics, and mechatronics at Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northeast in Pontiac, will receive $50,000—including $35,000 for the school’s skilled trades program and $15,000 for him personally.

Also named a prizewinner was Gary Mishica, an industrial arts teacher at Hancock High School in the Upper Peninsula.

“This year has been one of the toughest on record for skilled trades teachers as they switch between in-person, remote or blended learning—all while trying to do their life’s work of preparing the next generation of tradespeople,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “At a time when tradespeople are more essential than ever, so is trades education. We are honored and grateful to have the chance to shine a spotlight on these teachers’ amazing work.”

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, to recognize outstanding instruction in the skilled trades in U.S. public high schools and the teachers who inspire students to learn skills to prepare 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 and that have come to be widely recognized as “essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Trades teachers are educating and developing the tradespeople of the future,” Smidt said. “Many of the students in their classes today will become—as soon as next spring—the workers who keep our critical care infrastructure, our communication networks, our homes and cars up and running. The prize is our way of saying thank you to their teachers.”

Demetrius Wilson. Harbor Freight Tools for Schools photo.

Wilson has been an educator for 29 years. In addition to 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 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. Wilson’s program won the 2019 Michigan Career and College Readiness Initiative Excellence in Practice Award, which recognizes outstanding practices, programs, or services that demonstrate exemplary support of career and college planning for students. He holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing and business administration from Baker College and a Master’s degree in educational leadership from Oakland University.

Gary Mishica. Harbor Freight Tools for Schools photo.

Teaching trades runs in the family for Mishica, a 38-year veteran teacher. His father taught industrial education before him and engaged Mishica and his three brothers in building the family home. In high school, Mishica spent his spare time restoring antique cars, including a 1941 Ford ambulance and a horse-drawn buggy. After high school, he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial education from Northern Michigan University. Inspired again by his father, who believed a rural trades teacher had to be a “jack of all trades,” Mishica introduces his students to a variety of trades, including welding, machining, automotive repair, construction and home repair. Students start out learning the basics of safely operating machinery and completing individual projects like tables, cabinets and shelves. They advance 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’s students also engage in community service efforts each year, like repairing school equipment, designing and building park benches and building a pergola for a local care facility (the coronavirus pandemic interrupted progress on the latter). More than half of Mishica’s graduating students continue working in the vocational trades after high school.

The 2020 prize drew more than 600 applications from 48 states and included three rounds of judging, each by an independent panel of experts from industry, education, trades, philanthropy and civic leadership. The application process, which included responses to questions and a series of learning modules, was designed to solicit each teacher’s experience, insights and creative ideas about their approach to teaching and success in helping their students achieve excellence in the skilled trades. All learning modules are available here.

In July, the field was narrowed to 50 finalists. The 32 finalists who were not named winners today will receive $1,000 gift cards from Harbor Freight Tools. Additionally, given the challenges teachers are facing due to COVID-19, teachers who applied for the prize but did not advance to become finalists were eligible to receive $100 gift cards from Harbor Freight Tools.

Also named a finalist was Jeff Webb, a mechatronics teacher at the Southern Michigan Center for Science and Industry in Hudson.

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