Brian Copes

Brian Copes isn’t just working to change his own students’ lives. With his class, he’s helping others who live a thousand miles away.

Copes is committed to helping rural, poverty-stricken communities in Honduras. He encourages his pre-engineering students to think and reach far beyond their classroom in Alabaster, Ala.: “I want them to realize there’s a world outside of themselves, and their job is to make the world a better place.”

A carpenter by trade, Copes has a master’s degree in vocational education. Last year, he took 10 students from Thompson High School to Honduras, where they fit 14 amputees with low-cost prosthetic limbs the class had built out of old car and bicycle parts.

The students manufactured the limbs for about $40 each. The teacher says similar prosthetics can typically cost $10,000 to $20,000 or more, making the expense prohibitive — particularly when 80 percent of all amputees live in developing countries.

  “After the first amputee was fitted with a prosthetic, one of my students ran up to me shouting, ‘It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle!’  That’s when I knew the lesson had been learned,” Copes says.

The students also built aquatic wheelchairs and adaptive bikes for the disabled. Another hugely successful project has been refurbishing old computers and building sister schools in Honduras. Copes raised funds and took students there in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

“For many of the students, it was their first time out of the country, and certainly the first time they ever traveled to a third-world country,” Copes notes. Another trip is planned for this summer.

  Last year, the students built and delivered a hydroelectric power plant, several diesel-powered vehicles, a computer lab, a web camera, a projector and even an air conditioner to keep the computers cool. They also delivered three chlorinators that can clean 10,000 gallons of water a day so rural Honduran communities can have safe drinking water.

Among Copes’ most exciting concepts are sister schools. His team built a two-room high school, outfitted it with computer equipment, then formed an ongoing relationship with rural Hondurans through Skype. From Alabama, Copes is coordinating lessons to teach English and other subjects. This summer, they plan to build another sister school.

The nation’s — and world’s — best

Outstanding teachers who think big like this get noticed, so it’s no surprise that in 2012, Copes was named one of People magazine’s top five teachers.

He was also recognized in 2014 by the Environmental Education Association of Alabama as its Best Environmental Educator and was named 2012 High-School Teacher of the Year for the Shelby County School District. He has presented about his program at conferences, too.

Copes likes a good challenge: He’s enjoyed leading students to several victories in college-level engineering competitions. But his heart and passion will always lie in community service. He and 33 of his students received the 2015 Presidential Volunteer Service Award. Now he’s excited about SkillsUSA.

“SkillsUSA is new to our school — this is only our second full year,” he says. “My students hope to participate in the SkillsUSA CAD [computer-assisted drafting] competition as well as doing classroom projects, individual projects and the Community Service competition.”

Copes was recently one of five U.S. teachers on a “Top 50 Teachers” list for the Varkey Foundation Global Prize. The foundation received more than 20,000 teacher nominations from 179 nations. The Top 50 represented 37 countries, and the winner received $1 million.

Copes sounds like the ideal teacher, so it’s surprising that he didn’t even like being a student. He actually hated high school for the most part and remembers it being uninspiring and traditional.

At a crossroads, he recalled his high- school technology teacher as a mentor who believed in him strongly. With that in mind, Copes decided to pursue a career in education so he too could encourage others to grow and learn.

Using this philosophy in his classroom, Copes sets high standards that lead students to achieve far beyond their own expectations. He often acts not only as teacher but also the only male role model. At age 48, he has three nearly grown daughters of his own.

Next step, space

Copes’ approach in the classroom is project-based learning. It incorporates STEM skills and integrates knowledge with the designs that help others. He really enjoys the hands-on projects and working one-on-one with students on their ideas.

Their designs for inexpensive vehicles, which can be assembled using hand tools in remote world locations, have won them recognition through the Institute for Affordable Transportation’s annual Basic Utility Vehicle (BUV) competition.

“The next six months will be extra busy,” Copes says. “My students plan to enter an electric car in the O’Reilly World of Wheels show. I will begin showcasing my students by having them display and present their electric vehicle to industry representatives. A group of first year students will refine, fabricate and test aquatic wheelchair designs. My students watch the Discovery Channel’s ‘Project Earth’ series on global warming, and Dr. Jennifer Languell from the show will visit our classroom.”

They’ll also work in the engineering lab at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, helping build cryogenic freezers for the International Space Station.

Copes has this advice for other teachers: “Don’t be afraid to stretch. The greatest learning discoveries lie at the outer fringes of our knowledge and experience. Take chances; learn along with the students.”

Photos from L-R: Copes’ students feeling the satisfaction of helping others in Honduras; A utility vehicle the students designed and built; a Honduran tries out a prosthetic arm while standing with amputee Noah Galloway of “Dancing with the Stars” (a graduate of Thompson High School, Galloway was a trip chaperone); a health clinic offers deworming.

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