Building Robots, Fulfilling Dreams

California’s 2008 Teacher of the Year, Lewis Chappelear, has made it possible for underprivileged students at Monroe High School to gain experience with an aerospace company, compete in a national tournament, earn college scholarships, and gain the knowledge and skills to succeed in a high-paying career.

Lewis Chappelear

Lewis claims that all of these dreams never would have happened if it weren’t for National University.

Having earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Boston University, and a master’s in mechanical engineering from Columbia University, Lewis could have worked wherever he wanted. In fact, for a while he was an engineer in a very polished corporate environment, but it didn’t suit him.

“I needed meaning in my life,” explains Chappelear. “And engineering wasn’t at all what I wanted.”

So he quit his job, moved to Toronto, Canada, and opened a bistro. But once again, he found life “unfulfilling.”

On New Year’s Eve 1999, Lewis moved to Los Angeles to pursue more engineering classes at UCLA. Searching for a part-time job in the interim, he accepted a substitute-teacher position in the Los Angeles County juvenile hall system before returning to what seemed like his safest, most dependable career track. When he first arrived at juvenile hall and went through three security checkpoints, Chappelear almost turned around. But by the end of the day, he says he knew that teaching was his life’s calling.

Chappelear taught math on an emergency credential while pursuing his credential at National University. “I loved the online classes at National University,” he says. “The courses, as well as the interactions with other students and my instructors, were fantastic.”

Creating Bright Futures

As a fully credentialed math teacher at Monroe High School, Chappelear asked if he could teach an electronics class. Coincidentally, at the time federal funds were available through the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act for such a class.

With his initiative and funding, Lewis converted a beat-up old classroom into a state-of-the-art robotics lab.

“Six years later, I have students in internships at local aerospace companies. We have presidents of companies coming in and talking to the kids, and some of them are taking online college-level engineering classes.”

Chappelear created the classroom that he would have liked to have had in high school. Currently, 220 students a day attend his robotics courses, but Chappelear wishes every student in the district could benefit from his program. “How could any kid go through school and not have an opportunity like this?” he asks. “Tomorrow’s workers have to be so much more skilled and knowledgeable than my generation ever had to be. Consequently, we have to fundamentally change how we teach and what schools look like.”

Chappelear has coached the robotics team at Monroe High School to become one of the premier teams in the nation, having won the Southern California Regional Vex Robotics Competition in November 2015. He is working to ensure that most of his students end up going to college, or at least get hired in high-skilled jobs with a promising future. His protégés have excelled in academics and earned internships at renowned institutions such Northrop Grumman and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

“If I hadn’t discovered National University’s teacher credential program, I would not be a teacher today and none of this would be happening,” says Chappelear. “National gave me the ability to achieve my dreams and make a difference in other people’s lives.”