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Alumnus Inspires Interest in STEM

December 1, 2016

Mike _spock _1

Innovative Teacher: Mike Spock has developed new classroom projects to inspire his students in math, physics and computer science at Columbus (Ind.) North High School. (Photo by Mike Wolanin/Columbus Republic)

Engineer-turned-teacher Mike Spock is using innovative projects to get high school students jazzed about math, science and engineering.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed.

The teacher at Indiana’s Columbus North High School was among 57 teachers in grades 7-12 honored last fall with the 2016 national Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. The winners are selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators.

Spock, a 1992 electrical engineering alumnus, left his job as a systems engineer at Cummins Inc. in Columbus, Ind., 18 years ago to teach secondary math, physics and computer science. He helps his students use math to model the world and connect with other fields of interest such as music or current events. Students in his computer science classroom typically work collaboratively on projects and take an active role in their own learning.

“A challenge is to find ways to connect the subject matter to things that are important to the students,” he says. “I get to be creative and come up with interesting ways to help students connect to the material. I have been able to use my engineering experiences as a model for structuring projects that I have my students do.”

In 2012, one of Spock’s classes recreated the classic 1980s Centipede arcade game using the Java programming language and Java’s built-in graphics packages. He also has created an annual artificial intelligence-based competition that requires students to program virtual RatBots to navigate a maze—each year bringing different challenges and scoring dynamics that require students to think creativity.

He encourages students to develop new approaches to solving problems and helps them value mistakes as a step in the learning process.

Connor Boyle, now a sophomore computer science, software engineering and math major at Rose-Hulman, says, “My desire to study computer science stemmed from the class that I took with Mr. Spock, and I hope to inspire other students in the future the same way that he has inspired me and so many other students.”

Another of Spock’s former students, junior chemical engineering major John Rupp, says his former teacher “has a genuine love of his craft that clearly shows in class. He has a great sense of humor, and encourages students to try new challenges and go beyond the norm.”

Outside the classroom, Spock coaches multiple academic teams, including mathematical modeling, debate and computer application design. In addition, he has mentored students who have designed and led computer-programming camps for elementary school students.

“I enjoy getting to know and help all of the students, and love seeing their excitement when they succeed,” he says. “My background in engineering has helped me mentor students who want to enter a similar field.”