STEM School Highlands Ranch teacher wins $100,000 award

Money will help buy engineering equipment for students

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A teacher at STEM School Highlands Ranch is one of three grand prize winners from a pool of 600 applicants to win a $100,000 award from the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools prize program.

Engineering teacher Mike Shallenberger was surprised with the news on Oct. 14. Representatives of Harbor Freight and STEM School presented Shallenberger with a check and new toolbox outside his home in Highlands Ranch.

Of the award dollars, $70,000 will go toward skilled trades programs at STEM School and $30,000 to Shallenberger.

“Thank you. This is crazy. I normally don't win a lot of things, honestly,” Shallenberger said after the reveal. “This is an honor.”

Shallenberger said he hopes to buy his students a robotic arm with the funds.

The machine has been on his wish list for two years. Experience with the robotic arm could make students more competitive for internships and help them get industry certifications while still in high school.

But the robotic arm can cost tens of thousands of dollars, far more than what the average school budget can accommodate. With the prize money in hand, Shallenberger said he can start shopping.

As for the $30,000 he gets to keep, Shallenberger plans to pay someone other than him to work on his car for the first time in years, he said with a laugh.

Shallenberger's 17-year-old son Henry is a student in the program and said the robotic arm will allow students to get direct experience with industry tools.

“I think it's sick,” Henry said. “I think it's very deserved. It's a great program and it will be great to have the actual robots to learn on.”

The award is meant to honor excellence in skilled trades education, Scott Springer said, an education consultant for Harbor Freight.

This year's applicants went through three rounds of judging from a panel of industry, education, trades, philanthropy and civic leadership experts.

Shallenberger is a 21-year teaching veteran. He designed a program called Career Discovery with local industry experts that offers students tours of area businesses and helps coordinate paid internships.

Through the program, high school students can earn their associate degree, tuition-free. The program also sets students up to earn industry certifications in robotics, programming, mechatronics and mechanical design.

Brian Manley, an automotive technology teacher at Cherry Creek Innovation Campus, also won one of the three grand prize grants. Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is awarding a total of $1 million in prizes to 18 teachers nationwide.

The program began in 2017. The award program is meant to honor excellence in skilled trades education, according to a release from Harbor Freight.

STEM School Executive Director Dr. Penny Eucker said she was proud of Shallenberger and grateful to Harbor Freight for helping prepare students for their futures.

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