Top teacher: How middle school teacher Rob Harmon brings technology education to life

When Rob Harmon began his teaching career, he knew he couldn't just sit at the head of the class.

He'd needed to be immersed in it.

With a hands-on approach and a dedication to help students develop problem-solving skills, over the last 18 years the technology education teacher has become a leader not only at Thompson Middle School in St. Charles but also nationally as a Master Teacher in the STEM-based Project Lead the Way program.

During the school year Harmon teaches Thompson students to build carbon dioxide-fueled mini-dragsters and design disaster relief structures out of shipping containers. In the summer he mentors other teachers in PLTW programs or gains expertise in the many PLTW courses.

The opportunity to keep learning and connect with students inspires Harmon.

Thompson Middle School teacher Rob Harmon, left, watches as student Derek Greco works with a classroom machine. Courtesy of St. Charles Unit District 303

"We all have those experiences with teachers we connected with," said Harmon, who has three children - Ava, Aidan and Asher - with his wife Jennifer, a teacher at Bell Graham Elementary School in St. Charles.

"You not only remember the content but you also remember the person," he said. "And I've always taken that into the classroom. If they remember me, there's a good chance they'll remember what we did together."

Memorable experiences saturate Harmon's classes. Through the PLTW program he teaches students how to make lamps, pens, jewelry boxes and shelves. He teaches them to redesign his classroom using architecture software, and he teaches them to create cooling structures while trying to keep penguin-shaped ice cubes from melting in a tub under a heat lamp.

"Every class we have there's an overarching problem that must be solved," Harmon said. "But to get there you've got to acquire skills and some background knowledge to solve that problem."

The students work collaboratively in teams and with Harmon, who dives in to help complete projects.

"I've always tried to get out from behind the desk and work on everything with them," he said. "Let's figure it out together."

Thompson Middle School student Allison Francesconi, left, and teacher Rob Harmon get ready to race dragsters created in Harmon's class. Courtesy of St. Charles Unit District 303

Harmon, 44, grew up detasseling corn in Frankfort, Indiana, before earning his bachelor's degree in Organizational Leadership at Purdue University. He worked as a supervisor at an RCA factory that produced television assemblies, but eventually he shifted to teaching.

Harmon spent 16 years at Haines Middle School before it closed, and the last two years at Thompson. Along the way he earned a master's degree in Teaching Leadership from St. Xavier University.

Through PLTW he's been certified to teach a wide range of subjects including flight and space, energy and environment, green architecture, robotics and computer science.

It's a diverse teaching toolbox appreciated by Thompson Middle School Principal Steve Morrill. And it's a reason why Harmon was honored as the Illinois Career and Tech Teacher of the Year in 2016 with Thompson colleague Ed Coyle.

"He's a ridiculously skilled craftsman in many areas, and he gets excited to be able to help mentor and model students to learn some of those skills in a safe environment," Morrill said. "We have a very healthy middle school engineering program with Project Lead the Way. He is just masterful in his ability to guide that work."

Keeping the work interesting and fun is the ultimate goal for Harmon as he guides his students every step of the way.

"It's kind of like a basketball team where we've gone through the plays and everyone knows how to dribble and shoot," Harmon said. "Now it's time to go out and play the game."

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Curriculum vitae

Name: Rob Harmon

Age: 44

Residence: DeKalb

Hometown: Frankfort, Indiana

Family: Wife Jennifer and children Ava, Aidan and Asher

Occupation: Technology education teacher at Thompson Middle School in St. Charles

Education: Bachelor's degree in Organizational Leadership from Purdue University, master's degree in Teaching Leadership from St. Xavier University, Master Teacher at Project Lead the Way

Honors: 2016 Illinois Career and Tech Teacher of the Year

Activities: Yearbook adviser, youth baseball and basketball coach in DeKalb

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Tips from a top teacher

With 18 years of experience behind him, Thompson Middle School technology education teacher Rob Harmon has learned a bunch about what works and - perhaps more important - what hasn't worked in his St. Charles classroom.

Here are a few tips he's gathered through the years.

• Parents should be bold when developing class schedules with their children and look more closely at the electives at their school. "What do we want as parents when we think about preparing our kids to become adults?" Harmon said. "Many kids leave school and never experience building anything hands-on. Parents should allow their children to experience these classes at least once so they're ready to contribute to society."

• Teachers should be flexible when it comes to their classroom techniques. "We have a tendency to think our way is the right way, and I learn a lot from my kids," Harmon said. "We need to be more open-minded and listen to our students."

• Teachers should allow kids to make mistakes and provide time to address the mistakes before moving on. "Teachers, especially new teachers, struggle with balancing their time because they're trying to move so quickly through different standards," Harmon said. "Slow down. Pick the standards that are most meaningful and don't move on until the kids have acquired that essential skill."

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