John Korzick found his calling relatively late in life.
By the time he reached 57 years old, the father of three had clocked 25 years in his chosen career – mechanical engineering and running his own company. He also accomplished incredible physical feats – seven Ironman triathlons, not to mention his second job as a high school football coach. But just when many would start thinking about retirement, the career scientist changed tack. He went back to school to earn his teaching credentials.
That was six years ago. Today, the 63-year-old is living his dream teaching California High School students the art of robotics, engineering and technology as lead teacher of the school's fledgling Academy of Engineering and Design. And for his key role in founding the academy and its state-of-the art engineering lab, he's been chosen from the San Ramon Unified School District's 8,200 teachers to represent the district in the 2010-11 "Teacher of the Year" contest in Contra Costa County.
"Honestly, I was surprised," said Korzick, who's now in the running to compete in the state-wide level of the competition.
To his students and colleagues, the news came as less of a shock.
"John is extremely dedicated and passionate about engineering," said Cal High Principal Mark Corti. "And what he's done is he's taken that passion and he's created an amazing program that's just off the charts."
This spring marks the end of the first year for the academy, which brought in $250,000 of state grant money for its first three years running. Even before its formation, Korzick had ramped up the applied science and engineering curriculum at Cal High by getting his students involved with regional, state and national robotics competitions.
He originally helped bring the school its first robotics engineering course in 2004, figuring that his decades of experience in mechanical engineering and business made him an ideal teacher for the class. Soon, thanks to a district-wide bond measure and a generous state grant, Cal High got its science and tech center and the cutting-edge tools to equip it.
Korzick – whose wife also teaches in the district – approaches his job and the lab he's given to work in with the fascination of a discoverer, or a student first realizing the wonder of science. He talks excitedly about his class's projects: The electric car they're rebuilding or the 3-D printer they get to use. He waxes poetic about the philosophy of engineering or his style of teaching.
And naturally, he remembers the exact moment he first decided to become an engineer – when John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961, announced to Congress and over the airwaves that U.S. would send a man to the moon – and hopes his students will experience similar life-changing moments under his guidance.
"Today, there are so many 'moon shots' to solve," Korzick said. "We need to figure out how to feed starving countries, cure cancer, stop the oil rig spill … there are all these problems out there that I can't solve, but I think the kids in these classrooms can solve."
It's evident that on a small scale the beginning of that hope is coming true in the budding curiosity of some of his students. One talks about the various hurdles he and his group have overcome in building their class project, a remote-operated underwater robot. Another talks about how he recently learned the real-life applications of such a robot, like diving thousands of feet under the ocean to maintain massive oil rigs.
"This class exposes students to the fundamentals of engineering, which isn't about perfect solutions," Korzick said. "It's about doing the best you can with the resources you have."
Whether or not all his students fully grasp that philosophy, they certainly apply it.
Five groups of students at the Cal High swimming pool this week took their underwater robots out for a test run. Some wouldn't stay underwater – too much buoyancy. Another kept spinning in circles – broken propeller. The class has another week to fix the defects before they have to race them against each other as the final stage of the project.
"We're just trying to see what works and what doesn't," said 18-year-old Glenn Carros, who credits Korzick's class with helping him decide to pursue mechanical engineering as a major at California Polytechnic State University next year. "That's basically the key to the hands-on work in this class. I like it that way – that he lets us just figure it out."