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Local teacher wins McChord AFA chapter yearly award

From Lego-sized robots to missile launching, students get kick out of class

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Her last name rings of a fictitious character who built a supreme robot in the Hollywood blockbuster movies Ironman and The Avengers.

But this is no performance with million dollar special effects. This is the real deal.

Shira Stark, a seventh-grade middle school teacher at Harbor Ridge in Gig Harbor, knows thing or two about robots, and her middle school students have caught on. In her classroom, they build Lego-sized robots and program them to go certain distances, make 90-degree turns, follow a black line on a board and more.

The Gig Harbor area educator from New Jersey was selected as the Teacher of the Year by the Air Force Association's McChord Field chapter and will be competing for the Washington State Air Force award against the winners from the two other chapters in the state.

Her class is pushing middle school students to learn about engineering and design.

"I'm excited that the Air Force community and community in general is trying to connect with schools and get kids more excited about math, science and technology," Stark said. "It makes me feel wonderful knowing I'm working and doing this and people are saying, ‘Wow that's cool what you're doing.'"

Tom Hansen, chapter vice president, said that her focus on robotics stood out among the other four contenders for the award. The chapter honors teachers who are doing an exceptional job in science, technology, engineering, math or a combination of all of them.

He said Stark met nearly each one of the criteria, making her the strongest performer.

"Robotics gets kids interested, and that's a key thing to do," Hansen said. "When you're doing something like shooting off small missiles in robotics, that's when the kids really get interested."

Among fun projects such as missile launching and LEGO robots moving around the floor, the class has spent the last couple weeks simulating a Mars landscape with volcanoes and caves. The students must program their robots to clear rocks in an area and move it into the base area or put a sensor in a cave or field and place their vehicle back to base.

The kids are getting a ton out of it, Stark said.

But teaching students about robotics during normal school hours isn't quite the extent of her passion for machines. She started up an after school club where they build underwater robotics robots from scratch, go to regional competitions and research underwater topics like WWII shipwrecks and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill catastrophe this past year.

Students recently placed their underwater robotics in the Gig Harbor YMCA pool on May 12 and competed. The club - which lasts about 90 minutes a couple times per week - has between 15-20 kids with parent volunteer support.

The 54-year-old New Jersey native graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in zoology. After working as an animal keeper at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, she moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1985 and received her teaching degree from the University of Puget Sound in 1987.

She's taught science at Hunt Middle School and core subject material for Stanley Elementary, an inner-city school in the Hilltop neighborhood, respectively. She's spent the last decade instructing middle school students for the PSD.

Stark will receive the award on July 10 from the McChord chapter, along with a tour of the base.

"It's especially honoring as a middle school (teacher)," she said about the award

"It's overlooked as far as things happening. There's a lot of cool things happening in the middle school and it's nice for that to be recognized."

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