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story.lead_photo.caption Tate Rector, engineering teacher at Beebe Junior High School, was recently named the Arkansas Project Lead the Way Teacher of the Year. - Photo by Angela Spencer

In a Beebe Junior High School classroom decorated with Star Wars aircraft and various robotics pieces, Tate Rector is giving his students the ability to try new things and make lasting impacts.

Seventh- and eighth-graders with an interest in engineering have learned the basics of coding, robotics and design before embarking on bigger projects. Recently, two of Rector’s students were recognized for their efforts to create a device to potentially prevent children from being left in hot cars.

Because of these accomplishments, Rector was recently recognized as the Arkansas Project Lead the Way Teacher of the Year.

“This is so deserved, for Tate has worked so hard to inspire and lead his students in his Gateway Engineering classes, has taken them all over the country and recruited and mentored others about his program,” Carla Choate, Beebe High School counselor, said in a release. “I am so very proud of Tate and the work he has done to benefit our students through Project Lead the Way. He was a perfect choice.”

Rector is the son of two Mountain View educators — his father a superintendent and his mother a first-grade teacher. Rector’s journey into education was a natural path, he said.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher and coach,” he said. “I wanted to be this great Vince Lombardi coach, but you realize real quick that those guys are not the norm. So this kind of just fell into my lap, and I enjoyed it way more than anything I could have ever done.”

Ten years ago, after graduating from Mountain View High School and then the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Rector accepted the first job he applied for, which was in the Beebe School District.

“I haven’t wanted to leave,” he said.

When he was hired in Beebe, Rector didn’t know anything about engineering.

“I didn’t even know what engineering was,” he said. “I went to UCA for physical education, kinesiology. I was more about coaching football and loved it until I had kids. That’s when you realize that the things you loved at 18, 19 years old, you don’t love them in your 30s when you have family at home who you only see once in a while.”

But there was some shifting that had to happen at the school, and Rector found himself moving from teaching history to teaching science. He credits Ben Carrigan, who has since left and now works at Harding University in Searcy, with helping him learn to do labs and practical lessons for his students.

“When I was a history teacher, they had to make a job for someone else, so they moved me to science. He showed me how to be active and work with labs,” Rector said of Carrigan. “If he hadn’t mentored me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Beebe Junior High needs to offer a specific number of electives, and when the drama teacher was ready to retire, the thought of an engineering elective came to the administration.

“That’s when my principal came in and saw the labs I was doing and told me I should do engineering,” Rector said. “My principal, who was coach [Chris] Ellis at the time, saw that I was always up doing labs and offered the engineering program to me.

“I thought to myself, ‘Science is great, and I’m tired of coaching and being away from my family. I’ll try anything if it will get me home more.’ It’s been a perfect fit.”

This is Rector’s fourth year teaching engineering, and he said he thoroughly enjoys the program and the students.

Rector uses Project Lead The Way courses in the Beebe Junior High School engineering program. This program helps students go beyond just learning the principles of engineering to the point where they adopt a problem-solving mindset and complete real-world projects.

Students come into Rector’s classes and get excited about engineering. Rector said it’s a great change of pace for students, especially those who like working with their hands.

“You’re not doing the normal,” he said. “Seven periods a day, they might be sitting down, taking notes, reading a book. They come in here for this one 45-minute period when they’re going to get hands-on practice. They’re going to be up doing stuff; they’re going to be solving problems. The kids that other teachers might have trouble with — might not turn in their work — they come in here, and they love it. They’re active, and they’re having a good time. They might not get that otherwise.”

The classes Rector teaches include computer science; flight and space; design and modeling; and automation and robotics. His students work outside of class and compete in national competitions, bringing a lot of focus to the school and the program.

“Our normal curriculum includes building and programming robots and designing 3-D items in CAD (computer-aided design) software — legit engineering software,” Rector said. “But outside of that, on their own time and in volunteer work, we’ve had students really go above and beyond.”

Three eighth-grade girls — Savannah Lee, Madelyn Atkins and Taylor Foster — have developed an app for military members working through post-traumatic stress disorder.

“You can download it,” Rector said. “[The girls] were finalists in the state for the Congressional App Challenge. They were state finalists for a Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest with that app, too. The fact that it’s three girls is even better. They’re totally working against stereotypes there.”

Last year, two of Rector’s students — Mason Covington and Tyler Duke — invented a device to alert parents through their car horn and lights if a child is left in a car and the temperature reaches 80 degrees. This idea came about after news of a child dying in a hot car. The invention was a top-10 finalist out of 5,000 entries in the 2017 Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest, and the boys were awarded a patent from the U.S. Patent Office.

“It’s cool to see what they’ve done,” Rector said.

Rector has also started a competitive robotics team. Last year was its first year, and the team went to the finals.

“It was the first time we’d ever done it, and we were just happy to be there,” Rector said. “We ended up making the finals. This is our second year, and they’re doing really well, so we’ll see what happens.”

Even though Rector has been recognized by his administrators, politicians, contest leaders and industry professionals, he is careful to deflect praise back to his students.

“It’s a lot like football,” he said. “When you have good players, you’re great, and it’s easy to look good. When you’ve got good students, it’s easy to get recognition like that. The kids have done great.”

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