Pandora teacher wins innovation award

By John Bush -

PANDORA — A local teacher who created a unique and successful technology club has been recognized by The Henry Ford Museum for his ability to inspire innovation, creativity and problem solving among his students.

Mark Suter, a computer technology teacher at Pandora-Gilboa, was one of 10 educators from across the United States to be named as a first-place winner for The Henry Ford Innovation Nation Teacher Innovator Award.

“It feels very gratifying to know that there’s some interest from people like The Henry Ford that consider what we do in little Pandora to be innovative,” Suter said.

Suter won the award based on an essay he wrote describing “Rockettech,” a Web design, video production and technology training club he started two years ago at Pandora-Gilboa.

Students who participate in Rockettech serve area businesses by helping create websites and promotional videos for each organization they work with.

“Our business model is we create a content management system — usually a website — then we train them in person on how to run their website,” Suter said. “For the next year, if they have questions, the students will create custom screencasts that show them how to do those things.”

Suter described himself as more of a facilitator, allowing students to lead each project on their own. One student, known as the “project lead,” negotiates contracts, sets a timeline for the project and handles communication with the organization they serve.

Rockettech not only provides students with real-world business experience — it also makes quite a bit of money.

Suter said Rockettech has made more than $14,000 in the last two years, all of which has been invested back into the club. Though Suter allows students to spend the money however they want, he said they have the professionalism to know what to invest in.

“I like to tell my students, ‘Whatever you guys want to buy, we can do it,’” he said. “If you guys want to buy a pool full of Skittles — I don’t recommend it — but that’s fine. They have the professionalism to say, ‘No, that’s ridiculous.’ They’ve adopted the professionalism to the point where they’re asking if they should spend it on advertising, upgrading equipment, hiring a professional to increase their knowledge — all questions a small business has to ask themselves every day.”

Suter said he runs his club like a small business in order to teach students what it’s like to be young professionals.

“The main objective of Rockettech is to provide new opportunities for students to perform in ways they didn’t know were possible,” he said. “I want students to see themselves as young professionals, not just kids that don’t really make a difference.”

The most important thing students are learning, Suter said, is how to discover and take advantage of opportunities.

“Whether they are financial entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, or just creating a name for themselves in a professional space, they are learning how to communicate and creatively solve problems,” he said.

Suter described Rockettech as “intentionally messy” because it is meant to reflect a real business environment.

“When you get out into the workforce, there’s always going to be messy situations and you have to try to figure out the best way to maintain a professional demeanor,” he said. “That’s the most important thing they’re learning beyond the science and computer stuff.”

Rockettech has become so successful at Pandora-Gilboa that Suter now teaches it as a class in addition to the after-school club. Suter said the class reflects the professional environment he tries to create with the club, encouraging students to push themselves to reach heights they never thought they could achieve. Everyone in the class receives an ‘A’ to start out with, allowing students to be graded on effort.

Though it may seem strange to some, Suter said he encourages his students to fail.

“I want you to fail or else you’re not on the boundary of what you can accomplish,” he said. “There better be failure, and if there’s not, try something harder.”

Suter said he even has a sign in his classroom that reads “Fail Harder.”

“It simply means that failure is a good thing,” he said. “You have to fail or else you’re not really pushing yourself.”

He said he tries to model this message himself, citing The Henry Ford award as an example.

“I could have said, ‘Oh gosh, what if I don’t get it? It would be embarrassing if I don’t make the final round,’” he said. “Instead I say that if I fail, who cares? At least I’m trying for big things and trying to improve myself. I try to model this behavior because that’s what I like to see in my students.”

Suter said receiving the award is just a small part of what he is trying to accomplish with Rockettech. To him, what’s even more satisfying is knowing his method of teaching is helping students grow as professionals.

“If you do your job really well and push the boundaries of innovation, good things are going to happen,” he said. “I think this [Rockettech] is a good example of that.”

For winning The Henry Ford Innovation Nation Teacher Innovator Award, Suter will receive a weeklong “innovation immersion experience” at The Henry Ford museum center in Dearborn, Michigan. The experience includes behind-the-scenes tours, a teaching innovation workshop and a special recognition ceremony.

By John Bush

Reach John Bush at 567-242-0456 or on Twitter @bush_lima.

Reach John Bush at 567-242-0456 or on Twitter @bush_lima.

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