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Jay M. Robinson Robotics coach hopes award will inspire district to continue program growth
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Jay M. Robinson Robotics coach hopes award will inspire district to continue program growth

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CONCORD — Jay M. Robinson High School Engineering and Robotics Teacher Dave Parisi has been named a National Life Group LifeChanger of the Year Award winner.

He was nominated for the award by Kristi Parlier, Jay M. Robinson’s coordinator for the Academy of Engineering and Automation. She said there wasn’t an educator around who deserved it more than Parisi.

“He is definitely deserving because he is worthy of ‘LifeChanger,’” she said Wednesday. “He has changed so many lives, not just here at Jay. M. Robinson, but throughout the entire district.”

Parisi will receive $3,000 to be split between a $1,500 individual award and a $1,500 donation to his school or district for his win. He was humbled by the nomination.

“It was a surprise,” Parisi said. “(Parlier) told me about it, and I said, ‘That’s great.’ Then I kind of looked at previous years. This year there were something like 733 nominations, and I looked at some of the things people were doing and, you know, I didn’t do this knowing that maybe someday I’d be nominated for something, right? So it was just a matter of doing what needed to be done … but that was amazing.”

Parisi has been at Jay M. Robinson High School for 19 years. He started by teaching things like construction and design while coaching wrestling but has since moved to the engineering side and robotics.

He started the VEX program in 2012 at Jay M. Robinson and has helped grow it across the district. Cabarrus County Schools has gone from having the one program at Jay M. Robinson to offering robotics at each high school in the district. Last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools as educational institutions, more than 90 robotics teams competed in 13 robotics competitions at CCS throughout the year.

This week Parisi is hosting the first of six robotics camps that will take place over the summer. There are still a few spots open, but you’ll have to act fast to get involved. He initially started the camps as a means to raise funds for his Robotics teams, but three or four years ago he applied for funds through NASA to put teams in every school in the Cabarrus County School system.

Now he is trying to get others to accept VEX as a sport while also attempting to get supplements for his coaches across the district to incentivize growth in the program.

“These kids are doing the same thing NASCAR teams are doing,” he said. “They’re engineering a machine to perform a specific task. They have it easier than we do because their task is always the same — left-hand turns, right? Our task changes every year. So every year the design committee for VEX Robotics, they re-design the engineering challenge. They already released at Worlds this year a new challenge, and next year this field will have mobile goals, funky rings, a bridge, a tilt … they get points to get on there and get balanced and/or get one of the heavy goals on there as well. So it’s all spelled out what you have to do, and right now, since it has been released for a week, there are roughly 15,000 VRC teams throughout 70 nations engineering a machine to execute that game challenge, and everyone will play that game throughout the season.”

Jay M. Robinson has won seven state titles in robotics. The team has also earned a third-place finish in its division at Worlds, though the members are still looking for a title there. In that time, Parisi has been named Teacher of the Year at Jay M. Robinson three times, while also receiving the Inspiration All-Star Award and earning an induction into the Robotics Education Competition Foundation STEM Hall of Fame.

He said multiple times Wednesday, though, that he could not do what he has done without the support of the parents whose children are in the program. Many of them volunteer their time on nights and weekends to help set up and break down the fields for robotics competitions.

“He has a persistent, selfless commitment to helping equip children with the skills they needed to be successful in the modern world,” said Craig Porter, a parent of two VEX team alumni and longtime volunteer for the program, in a news release. “Mr. Parisi believes so strongly in the importance of the technical, communication, and interpersonal skills that students learn through the robotics program that he has worked with public and private schools across the state to help them launch similar programs. He’s worked with the NC School for the Deaf in the western part of the state (leading them to win a Design Excellence Award in their third year) and with Apex County Schools in the east. He is a resource, advocate, and partner broadly across the state.”

Parisi said he never could have pictured his program growing to where it has, but now he wants to do all he can to keep it going. He will be retiring in the near future and he needs someone to pick up where he leaves off. The district will then have to rely on more than one teacher at Jay M. Robinson High School to get it done.

“I couldn’t have done it alone,” he said. “And I’m hoping to convince somebody else at a higher pay grade to put things in place and keep them in place and get the funds approved. We just approved 95 new positions with COVID … director of VEX Communications at the district and county level wasn’t one of them, so right now it’s still kind of got to be this high school teacher at Jay M. Robinson High School putting on some more events. We’ve got to get it to that point for the families of this county. And I have no doubt, in all honesty, we have not scratched the surface with the capabilities of this. Haven’t scratched the surface. And I have no doubt that if the right person wanted to run with this and put the people in place … it’ll become a national model that other counties will follow.”

He knows the value of the program for his students and sees the success it can lead to down the line.

“These kids that are involved in competitive robotics get all the employability skills that companies see in athletes and more,” he said. “When I went in front of the board and told them what the numbers were — I was a collegiate athlete in Division III and I said, ‘7.2% of all the kids who do athletics … go to college to continue athletics. 92.8% will be pretty much done with athletics when they complete high school. Of that 7.2%, that many (he makes a pinching motion with his fingers) will make a living in athletics. You go to VEX Worlds, 99% of those kids there are going pro. They’re going to be in industry, they’re going to be making a livelihood in something STEM related. Programming, engineering, installation, maintenance, design, whatever. They’re going to have been a part of a team. They’re going to have experienced loss, experienced putting in major time, defeat, all of those things.’”

He continued: “But I can only take it so far. Somebody bigger with bigger decisions needs to see it and say, ‘OK, we’re going to make this a national model.’”

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