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BCAT teacher wins $50,000 from Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Program

Shawn Burns A mechatronics and robotics teacher from Roanoke County Public Schools has been named a winner 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 today.

Shawn Burns, who teaches mechatronics and robotics at the Burton Center for Arts and Technology in Salem, will receive $50,000—including $35,000 for the school’s skilled trades program and $15,000 for him personally. He joins 14 other Prize winners, who each received $50,000, and three Grand Prize winners, who each received $100,000 as part of the annual prize.

“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.”

After serving as a Navy machinist for 25 years, Burns retired from the military and earned his bachelor’s degree in workforce education and a graduate degree in occupational technical studies. Today, he teaches mechatronics, robotics and manufacturing at the Burton Center for Arts and Technology, a hub for five schools in Roanoke County, and adjuncts at a local community college. His high school students use project-based learning to design, prototype and manufacture products, all while learning collaboration and communication skills. Students can also earn college credit toward a mechatronics certificate or a two-year degree and earn their National Institute for Metalworking Skills credentials. For the past two years, Burns’s students have participated in an apprenticeship program—working at three local manufacturing companies, earning apprenticeship credits and making up to $13 an hour. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, Burns received a grant that will allow him to teach students programming and robotics remotely in the coming year. Despite school closures, Burns also made sure his students were able to receive their certifications.