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‘You can see their minds expanding’

Grandville — When the Women in Engineering program at Michigan State University was seeking nominations for its Inspiring Teacher award this spring, Ellie Clark immediately had someone in mind. 

“I didn’t realize how great of a teacher and coach Mr. Evele was until I graduated,” said Ellie, a Grandville High School alumnus who recently finished her sophomore year at MSU. “But now looking back, it’s like, oh my gosh, he was so amazing. He would just be there for everyone, if you needed him.”

Mike Evele is an honors and AP physics teacher at GHS and one of two founders and head coaches of its robotics team, the RoboDawgs. He also won two different awards this spring for exceptional teaching: the Excellence in Education award from the Michigan Lottery, and, thanks to Ellie’s nomination, the award from MSU, specifically for his work in encouraging women to pursue engineering and other STEM careers. 

“Thinking about my experience (in high school), about who helped me the most, Mr. Evele really helped me find my passion for STEM and physics and classes like that,” said Ellie, who is studying mechanical engineering with a biomedical concentration at MSU. “His physics class was probably my best physics class ever, and as a (robotics) coach he would help you along the way but also would let you fail sometimes, which is really important to help learn the lesson.”

“… With his skills of putting us on teams that don’t all look the same, and then having to collaborate with everyone to make a robot … I will use that for the rest of my life.”

— Ellie Clark, Grandville High grad and former student of Evele’s

Evele just completed his 26th year of teaching at GHS and his 13th year of coaching the RoboDawgs. He discovered a love for teaching thanks to his 11th grade English teacher, Mr. Bacon, and a presentation Evele did for Bacon’s class about the moons of Jupiter.

“I realized that I wanted to help people understand the things that they didn’t know,” said Evele. “I had always had this feeling that I was on the planet to serve people, and it was like it just clicked, (teaching) is what I can do to help others.”

When it comes to teaching physics, he said, “I always start off the year telling (students) physics is all about asking the ‘little kid’ questions: Why is the sky blue? Why are sunsets red? How does the universe work? A lot of other science classes deal with a lot of small details, but physics is about the big ideas, and that really appeals to me—and it appeals to a lot of kids as well. You can see their minds expanding as we get into these topics. You know, we’re all little kids at heart, and when we find out how things work, it’s exciting.”

Keeping Doors Open

To enable those sorts of discoveries, Evele has always been a very hands-on teacher. For Ellie, some of the most memorable classes were the ones where Evele let the science do the talking. They learned about centrifugal force by spinning students on a giant wooden, teeter-totter-like contraption, for example. 

“He wasn’t like, ‘Let’s learn about forces;’ he was like, ‘Let me show you how this force works,’” Ellie said. “And he always let the students do the experiments, so you could actually experience what was going on. I was just fascinated by that.” 

Evele has also placed a high importance on academic success, not just physics-class success or robotics-team success. All students on the RoboDawgs team must maintain a base-level GPA in their core classes; he does regular grade checks and helps team members write out an improvement plan if they find themselves struggling with that grade requirement. He also offers study halls after school in the robotics building. 

“I think he makes sure that you know it’s not just a robotics team—you’re getting ready for college and real-life experiences, as well,” said Ellie. “In my junior year we went to Hawaii for a robotics tournament, but we couldn’t just take time off from the rest of school while we were there. I remember (Evele) sitting in the hotel there, looking out over the ocean, helping people with schoolwork so they wouldn’t get behind. And now, looking back, I’m pretty sure he didn’t have to do that, but he did.”

For Evele, that extra support is about keeping doors open for his students. Although the experience his RoboDawgs gain by working on team projects and competitions is valuable, he doesn’t want it to come at the expense of other opportunities a student may have. 

“When they come in as freshmen, they really don’t understand all the doors that are open to them right then. There’s things out there that they haven’t even dreamed of yet that they could be doing,” he said. “If robotics takes up all their time and their grades drop, we’ve defeated ourselves. They won’t get into the programs they want or get the scholarships they need. So, a lot of being a teacher and a coach is being a counselor, to change their trajectory and not let them close any doors.” 

The RoboDawgs (in burgundy shirts, including Ellie Clark, front center), are pictured at the 2018 First Robotics competition in Hawaii

Inspiring Women in Engineering

As a father to three daughters, it has always been important to Evele that he be a champion for women in STEM fields. That means providing lots of encouragement starting at a young age, and being aware of traditional gender roles and stereotypes that women may face in their pursuit of a STEM career. 

“I feel very passionate that we are leaving half the talent—half of the human race—at home if only guys go into engineering,” said Evele. “We can’t afford to have that happen. Young women can be engineers, or they can be whatever the heck they want. 

“I know it’s maybe been a part of old culture, where the boys can build the robot and the girls can do the presentation, or the girls defer to the boys in a group project. And I’m like, nah—that’s not the way this is going to work. We can do something about this. These gender roles that we don’t even realize were being superimposed on kids, it’s just got to stop. Everyone in the room has potential.”

Ellie said she saw her teacher live out this belief in myriad ways over her four years at GHS, and his encouragement changed her own personal trajectory, as well. She joined the RoboDawgs as a shy freshman, but with Evele’s support began to come out of her shell as she grew more confident in her talents on the team. By her sophomore year, she was a captain of one of the smaller robotics teams, and as a junior she served as co-captain of a First Robotics team of 20 students. 

“…Physics is all about asking the ‘little kid’ questions: Why is the sky blue? Why are sunsets red? How does the universe work? … physics is about the big ideas, and that really appeals to me—and it appeals to a lot of kids as well. You can see their minds expanding as we get into these topics. You know, we’re all little kids at heart, and when we find out how things work, it’s exciting.”

— Grandville High physics teacher Mike Evele

That experience boosted her self-confidence and leadership skills, Ellie said. And she also realizes now, two years after the fact, that she gained a lot of communication skills from working with people who weren’t exactly like her. That, she said, is a direct result of Evele’s insistence that everyone be able to participate, and it was a big reason why she wanted to nominate him for the Inspiring Teacher award. 

“Understanding that everyone’s different and everyone brings something different to a team is a great thing to learn,” she said. “You could tell he felt very passionate about everyone having the same opportunities. And with his skills of putting us on teams that don’t all look the same, and then having to collaborate with everyone to make a robot … I will use that for the rest of my life.”

In presenting the MSU award, Ellie gave a speech in which she detailed these and many more reasons why Evele has inspired her, other women in engineering, and his many physics students over the years. Evele said he was humbled to receive the honor.

“It was really special, because (Ellie) is more talented than I will ever be,” he said. “For her to look at me and say, ‘That guy helped me down this path,’ that’s really fantastic. I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. You don’t always know if you’re doing the right thing as a teacher, so when somebody says, ‘You made a difference,’ that really does help and is a special thing.”

Mike Evele takes part in a tie-dying activity with students at robotics camp
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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Rockford, Lowell, Grandville and Cedar Springs. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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