Previous Winners

Meet the 2019 Grand Prize Winners

Cesar Gutierrez

Precision Manufacturing
Desert View High School
Tucson, Arizona
“I can help students to understand that hard work can create opportunity, breaking a cycle of poverty. I love seeing students learn that they can design and create, and that they have talents and skills that are valued…. There is no greater joy for me then seeing my students begin to experience a sense of economic security and professional achievement.”

An educator since 2007, Cesar Gutierrez began teaching manufacturing at Tucson, Arizona’s Desert View High School in 2012, where he helped create the iSTEM Academy. iSTEM was a response to local employer concerns that prospective employees in the defense and aerospace industries were in short supply. Working with those employers, Gutierrez joined other educators to build pathways to connect students to manufacturing careers, starting with a class of 44 students. Today, the iSTEM Academy serves 300 of Desert View’s 2,150 students each year. Eighty percent of students are Latino and 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Gutierrez believes his role as a teacher is to empower students and, by doing so, transform a community and break the cycle of poverty.

Gutierrez’s students can receive up to 25 college credits—nearly a full year of school—toward their associate degree in industrial technology, thanks to a partnership with Pima Community College. In class, his students take ownership of their education by pursuing project-based learning. “Project-based learning helps solve the four little words that educators dislike the most, ‘I don’t get it,’” Gutierrez said. Projects help his students retain and understand information, apply math, English and science and learn about entrepreneurship. Each year, students form teams to design and manufacture products for contracted jobs, from building tables for the school’s culinary arts programs or crafting metal signage or parts for local companies. In the 2018-2019 school year, students worked together to create solar-powered golf carts, airplane parts and redesigned sewing machines.

Gutierrez’s students have a 100 percent graduation rate in a state where the average is below 80 percent. Eighty-two percent of his students graduate with post-secondary credit, and all have participated in work-based learning by the time they receive a diploma. Gutierrez notes that his program offers a variety of career pathways to students—he cites students who have taken their manufacturing background to college to learn mechanical engineering, to create a line of jewelry, and to serve in human resources at manufacturing companies. “Accolades aside,” he said, “our students have high expectations and the confidence to take on any project.”

“The biggest secret to this program is that we allow our students to invest and take part in their own education. Our students lead the curriculum and their passion drives the program. Each and every student owns the right to their educational process and the amount of hard work, dedication, and passion… allows them to be successful and come closer to accomplishing their dreams.”


Wendy Schepman

Landscape Operations
South Fork High School
Stuart, Florida
“I try to be the teacher that always encourages and leads by example. If my students are pulling weeds, I am right there with them. If we are changing oil, I am on the ground with them. If we are walking the half-mile driveway to the school to trim trees, I walk with them. I believe that by teaching with humor and kindness, I can keep kids coming to school to continue learning.”

Wendy Schepman spent hours as a child working on her family’s small farm, and studying agriculture seemed a natural fit. As an officer in her high school FFA chapter, Schepman caught the teaching bug and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in turfgrass science, where she was the only woman in the major. After graduation, Schepman became the first woman to work as a grounds crew member for the St. Lucie Mets, the minor-league baseball team in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

When Schepman learned that her former trades teacher at South Fork High School in Stuart, Florida was planning on retiring, she decided to obtain a teaching certificate. Soon, Schepman took over the landscape operations program at her alma mater, where she has taught for the past seven years in a classroom unlike any other: spread across 75 acres and including a three-hole golf course maintained by students, a workshop, an equipment barn, a nursery and an orchard. Living in a county with more than 160 golf courses, Schepman knows that her students can find employment if they know how to maintain grounds, irrigate them and provide other maintenance and services. “This is why I love teaching agriculture,” Schepman said. “I can incorporate all of my favorite things into one class and still be outside all day.”

Schepman’s curriculum, which offers students up to 18 dual-articulated college credits, teaches general agriculture and horticultural principles, moving on to design, installation, maintenance and mechanics. In Schepman’s outdoor classroom, students learn in a workplace-like setting, pursuing problem-solving by learning to do repairs on old, donated equipment. “Students light up when they finally get a mower started that has been in disrepair for a month,” Schepman said. She also strives to incorporate student interests into her classroom, like teaching hydroponics or how to build sprinkler systems.

Close connections with local industry—including through South Fork’s alumni network—help students access mentors and jobs. One alum, for example, is a John Deere mechanic who donates equipment to Schepman’s classroom for golf course construction and maintenance. The class also visits Orlando’s Landscape Show, the Golf Course Industry Show and the Sports Turf Managers Show, where they participate in quiz bowls, an opportunity generally reserved for postsecondary students. Schepman’s efforts have helped grow the program to require a second teacher for its 139 students.

Schepman was a finalist for the 2018 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

“My students often tell me that my class is the only reason they came that day or the only reason they enrolled in South Fork. If I make my class interesting enough that they never want to miss a day, they will subsequently end up going to more of their other classes such as English or math, which are needed to graduate.”


Brent Trankler

Sikeston Career and Technology Center
Sikeston, Missouri
“I love being part of something greater than me; getting to take a student with no knowledge of the trade and mold them into a craftsman; seeing the students get excited about the subject and follow their passion; seeing the students win a contest that they have spent countless hours preparing for; seeing the excitement students have when they get the job offer they worked so hard for; seeing former students go into business for themselves; having students beat me in a welding contest… and breaking through to a troubled student and seeing them turn their life in a positive direction. My hope is that I am as positive an inspiration to them as they are to me.”

Brent Trankler is a model of lifelong learning. An army veteran, Trankler earned two bachelor’s degrees—one in industrial technology and another in industrial education—and two master’s degrees, in industrial education and administration. Beyond these degrees, Trankler is a National Occupational Competency Testing Institute Welding Technology Subject Matter Expert, through which he helps revise and update certification tests for teachers and students beyond his own classroom.

A teacher at Sikeston Career and Technology Center in Sikeston, Missouri since 2010, Trankler teaches a curriculum aligned with the American Welding Society’s national skill standards. His program offers transferable college credit at several technical schools, including at Northeastern Arkansas College, where Trankler serves on the curriculum review committee. Trankler also supports other local welding teachers by serving on their advisory committees and helping test their programs to ensure alignment with industry standards. “My focus for welding technology isn’t solely on my students, but the success of all students,” Trankler said.

Trankler boosts his students’ confidence and pushes their limits by taking on large projects and allowing them to experiment, problem-solve and learn from mistakes. His students practice reading industrial prints, designing products and determining material needs before exploring a variety of ways to make their products and which welding procedures to use. Each year, Trankler’s class volunteers to help approximately 250 Boy Scouts earn their welding and metal works badges.

Upon graduation, 95 percent of Trankler’s students pursue postsecondary education or receive job offers from businesses like Manac—the largest manufacturer of custom-built and specialty semitrailer trucks in North America—or with local ironworkers, boilermakers and pipeliners unions.

Trankler was a finalist for the 2018 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

“I think of welding technology as academics in motion. My course includes hands-on lab activities with over $350,000 worth of equipment that brings science, technology, engineering and math into focus… Reputation, rigor and results build programs that attract serious students.”