One of the ways that MEA member Demetrius Wilson challenges students in his Engineering, Robotics, and Mechatronics program is to put “faults” into equipment that students have to solve before they can proceed with other tasks.
It’s one thing to know how to build or use equipment, but it’s next-level to fix broken stuff, he says. “I tell students, ‘You’re worth your weight in gold when something breaks down and time is of the essence, and you get that piece of equipment up and running.’
“Students actually start enjoying it. They’re like, ‘Do anything, Mr. Wilson. I’m going to turn my back, and you mess it up.’”
Adaptability to change has served his students well in the pandemic, Wilson says. The Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northeast in Pontiac—providing skilled trades learning and technical training to students from five Oakland County school districts—operated virtually until mid-January. He kept them learning with Google Classroom lessons, home toolkits, and virtual simulation software.
“Something is always coming out new, and they figure out how to work it,” Wilson said. “This is difficult for them, and we talk about how to cope, but it’s impressive how they’re dealing with it. Our Zoom attendance is fairly strong, and we’ve made it work.”
The 30-year veteran has built an award-winning program in the building where a 1980s high school electrical class revealed his life’s path. He’s learned on the job—alongside students and colleagues—expanding content to include industrial electrical, mechanical, robotics, CNC and PLC programming, fluid power, CAD, and electrical power-line training.
Last October, Wilson learned he was a national prize winner in the $1 million Harbor Freight Tools for Schools competition—which earned his program $35,000 for improvements and included a $15,000 prize for Wilson. In 2019, his program won the state’s College and Career Readiness Initiative Excellence in Practice award.
“I tell my students, ‘When you find something that you could do every day, and you can almost do it for free, and you look forward to Monday, you’ve found a career.’”
First-year students get an overview, and 90% return to specialize for a second year. Most go on to pursue related careers, including one who patented a plug-and-play vehicle tracking and collision avoidance system and now runs a successful company in Florida.
That alum—Nathan Stotts—spoke with students last year about how Wilson and the program helped him realize his dreams. “That never gets old, having former students come back saying thank you,” Wilson said of why he chose a career in teaching.
Wilson hasn’t decided how to spend the Harbor Freight winnings for his program, but he hopes to use some to recruit more minority students into his program to access career opportunities.
Despite this year’s difficulties, he plans to stay in his post for a while, he said: “I’ve seen many challenges in the education profession, and this is by far the most challenging, yet we always come through better, stronger smarter. Teachers are change agents, and we get the job done.
“I have the privilege of touching the hearts of young people. This is what I love to do, what I was meant to do, and this is where I’m going to stay.”
Read more stories from the series, “What it’s Like: COVID Vignettes”: