Not only do students and staff at The Chantilly Academy know what an outstanding teacher Marty Rothwell is, so does the Virginia Department of Education.
In a June 6 ceremony in Richmond, it presented him with a Regional 2005 Creating Excellence Award. His plaque reads, "For exceptional and exemplary contributions to career and technical education in the Commonwealth of Virginia."
"HE'S WORKED hard to build a solid program that kids just love," said Chantilly Academy Administrator Doug Wright. "It's got math, science and hands-on elements and has just been tremendously successful. Students can see the real-life applications of what they're learning."
Rothwell is one of eight regional winners statewide and was honored for his work enabling Academy students taking Engineering Systems and Engineering Physics to earn college credit at GMU.
It's the first time a Northern Virginia high school's classes have been accepted for college credit and, said Wright, Rothwell's award is "very much deserved. That articulation agreement took him three years to orchestrate."
Rothwell, 49, teaches both subjects at Chantilly, and Academy support staff member Meg Holman says he's simply amazing. She describes him as "extremely intelligent, but low-key and patient, accomplished but humble."
"He never sings his own accolades," she said. "He always says, 'It's the kids' or 'It's the project.' But it's due to his nurturing, support and guidance. He gets kids to analyze what they're doing. He doesn't say, 'That's a bad idea' or 'That won't work.' He says, 'Let's think about that. If we do this and this, what will happen?'"
Holman said Rothwell weaves math, physics and science together and makes it useful and easily understood: "It's very high-level stuff — college level — and he's the catalyst. He'll give them the problem, get them going, stand back, watch for awhile, ask pointed questions and give them a couple suggestions to lead them in the right direction."
Born in Westfield, N.Y., Rothwell came to Virginia in 1960. He received a bachelors in physics from Mary Washington in 1988 and a masters in business administration from Averett College in Danville, Va., in 1993. He and wife Jennifer — a 911 dispatcher for Fairfax County — live in Centreville's Sully Station community; children are Jonathan, 25, Javan, 23, Mike, 20, Hannah, 8, and Ben, 7.
DURING AND after college, Rothwell worked for MCI for 15 years as a special-projects manager, doing out-of-the-ordinary things to fulfill particular federal-government needs. He also taught physics at GMU for non-physics majors and discovered he enjoyed teaching.
"During the IT bubble around 2000, I went to work for a small nonprofit," he said. "When the bubble burst, my wife noticed that Chantilly Academy was looking for an Engineering Physics teacher." So Rothwell took the job, beginning in 2000.
Last year, though, he was almost de-staffed, due to low enrollment in his classes. But Wright saved the day. Said Rothwell: "He found out more kids signed up than were actually counted, and he enthusiastically promoted the program."
Initially, 80 students took his classes. This year, there were more than 100 and, in September, some 120 are expected. "I like the idea of exposing kids to engineering as an exciting field," he explained. "That's the first joy — seeing somebody who doesn't get it, get it. Then they become self-starters, and you just have to say, 'Here's another thing.'"
"That's when you know you've done it well," he continued. "After they've got the spark, they get the fire, and then they're teaching themselves. And it's because they're really enjoying what they're doing. I'm here in case they run into a bump."
Rothwell also heads the Academy's robotics program, and his students this year built a robot which competed in Nationals. Chantilly's team finished 37th out of 85 teams and, said Rothwell, "For our first year at Nationals, we beat over half the teams, so we were happy."
Meanwhile, a woman who works with handicapped children in Fairfax read about the robotics program in the newspaper. She then asked if Rothwell's students could build a motorized baby walker for a 10-month-old boy born with truncated arms and legs. So students in the Robotics Club went to work.
"We used old parts from the robot, and we bought a baby walker, gutted it, motorized the wheels and put on controllers to tell the wheels what to do," said Rothwell. "And, concerned about the baby's safety, we put sensors on it to know when it was coming close to a drop-off or a wall — or it somebody jumped in front of it — so it would stop in time."
The project was successful and enabled the boy to move on his own. Students also equipped the walker with controls allowing the child to hit panels that will light up. Then, said Rothwell, "He'll be able to teach himself how to drive it — which panel to hit to go right, left or straight."
"TO ME, this is where we want to go with teaching," he said. "The students learn technical skills and see how their work makes a big difference in someone's life." He said the baby walker could be the start of many other such projects — even research.
"For example, the earliest children can get a wheelchair is age 3 or 4, and this could even help their cognitive abilities," said Rothwell. "So there's a lot more we can do with this, and I'm hoping this project will attract more kids — those who want to become engineers and those who want to do research on child development."
He said this baby walker "gives hope to a lot of people who didn't have it before. So the project has a human aspect that most people don't associate with engineering. And I'm hoping more female students will take engineering and see" the positive effects they could have on people's lives.
However, there's no funding for this project, so Rothwell also hopes for some financial donations. Then, he said, "We could really improve the baby walker — and make more of them." For more information about the program, see www.team.chantillyrobotics.com and click on photo gallery. To donate or request more information about the baby walker, e-mail email@example.com.
So what do the students think of Rothwell? "Everything his classes do is hands-on, especially the robotics project," said senior Peter Greczner, on the robotics team. "There's always a new idea, and we have to think about how each thing is applied. With the baby walker, Mr. Rothwell knows how things go together. [Yet] he didn't tell us explicitly how to do it, but helped us find out on our own, through his initial push."
Junior Imad Arain, who just completed his first year in Engineering Physics, said Rothwell "not only gives us the theoretical part of a project, but puts it into practical knowledge. And we [incorporate] what we've learned in math, science and trigonometry to design a project."
Senior Drew Goralczyk, who just finished Engineering Systems II, said Rothwell is "active when it counts, but lets kids explore on their own. He, himself, is a systems engineer, so he's got a natural feeling for how kids can learn and operate on their own. And allowing kids to be creative is something rare in the school system."
Goralczyk said Rothwell would teach the students about parallel circuits, for instance, and then they'd apply that knowledge to their projects. And it's that relaxed atmosphere, said support staffer Meg Holman, that's conducive to learning.
"IT'S NOT competitive," she said. "He fosters teamwork and gets his students to work together nicely and take leadership roles. He also teaches at GMU, but he's so dedicated that he's always at the Academy after school and on weekends. His students go to his room between breaks and classes just because they like being there."
"There's always someone in there working, and it's really rewarding to see how enthusiastic his students are about what he's teaching them," continued Holman. "They become passionate about what they're doing."
For example, Rothwell's students have earned such respect in their field that even the professionals have sought their input. Lockheed Martin is working on the International Space Station and, this past year, a company representative came to the Academy for help with a problem.
Students were asked to figure out how to rescue someone who ran into trouble at the Space Station. So, said Rothwell, "They did research and designed a crew rescue-vehicle. It had to rescue seven people and have a life of two years with no maintenance."
They used systems-engineering software developed by Vitech Corp. and, said Rothwell, "Vitech was blown away by what the students were able to do with the software. They asked them to demonstrate it and talk to other companies about their success with it. After the presentation to Vitech's user group, one of the companies was so impressed by the presentation that they hired one of my students."
As for his award from the state, Rothwell said, "It's really wonderful," but he's actually happier about the agreement, itself, between the Academy and GMU. "This is the first time any high school has taught systems engineering," he said. "There's a big demand for people in this field in Northern Virginia, and GMU has one of the best systems- engineering programs in the country."
"Marty is global in his thinking and has a passion for systems engineering and where it's going to be in the future," added Administrator Wright. "He's a teacher with a vision."