2012-03-30 / People


Robotics is good for youth, says teacher
By Kristy Wagner Staff Writer

Ralph Newell in his physics classroom doing what he does best: teaching. Newell, a resident of South Portland since 1977, has taught physics at South Portland High School since 1983. Before becoming a teacher, Newell served in Vietnam in the 1960s and also volunteered for the Peace Corps in the Philippines. (Kristy Wagner photo) Ralph Newell in his physics classroom doing what he does best: teaching. Newell, a resident of South Portland since 1977, has taught physics at South Portland High School since 1983. Before becoming a teacher, Newell served in Vietnam in the 1960s and also volunteered for the Peace Corps in the Philippines. (Kristy Wagner photo) The only thing Ralph Newell loves more than physics is teaching. Next to teaching physics, he might also mention the South Portland High School robotics team. “It isn’t me. It’s (the students),” Newell said.

One of Newell’s favorite parts of teaching at the high school is his involvement with the robotics team. “I will tell you (robotics) is the best extracurricular school activity I have ever seen and that includes all the wonderful sports we have, the music programs, the Key Clubs, the class meetings and all that stuff,” Newell said. “None of it has the qualities that this one does. It’s just a wonderful program.” Newell said he began facilitating student robotics in 1996 when the superintendent at the time asked him if he would be the teacher liaison for the group.

“(The superintendent) said to me, ‘I don’t know what I am getting you into, but why don’t you look into this because it looks good,” Newell said. “Not knowing at all what it involved, we got into it.” Newell has participated in robotics every year since its inception and could not say enough about how beneficial it is for students.

“The ruse is, we tell kids we build these wonderful complicated robots, which we do, and they are high tech and powerful and fast and they have built-in computer sensors and all these things, but that’s not the point,” Newell said. “The point is to get kids interested in math and science.” Newell’s enthusiasm for robotics is nothing compared to the students involved.

“This is what I wish I could have in my classroom,” he said of the robotics students’ commitment and diligence. Newell said as a teacher of physics he knows not all of his students are interested in the subject and usually take it for academic reasons. He said he looks at physics as an important part of being an educated person and not all students in his classes share his curiosity on the subject.

“(Robotics) is like a self-starter. (Students) work their tails off. It’s labor intensive, but that’s what makes it work. It’s real,” Newell said. Newell said when he writes information on the blackboard it is not “real” for students.

“When you make it and create it—that’s real,” he said. Newell said robotics’ students build 150-pound robots that function via computer programs the students write themselves with the help of volunteer engineers and mentors. The team and their robot participate in a competition every year.

“Each year is different,” Newell said.

This year’s objective was to build a robot capable of picking basketballs up off the ground and shooting them into a hoop. Robots must also have the capability to function autonomously via programming and they must function remotely by a student’s commands. Newell and the team went to Manchester, N.H., in the first week of March for a three-day regional competition and won first place. The team’s next stop is St. Louis, Mo., in April – a trip for which they are still trying to raise funds.

“We need to raise $35,000,” Newell said.

Each competition has an entry fee of $5,000 and the rest of the funds go toward travel expenses, food, and materials to fix the robot if it breaks during competition.

“There are 4,000 teams in the country of which we are currently (ranked) 58th,” Newell said.

He gives full credit for the robotics team’s success to the students.

“The kids know every cubic centimeter of that machine. If something goes wrong they have to be able to fix it,” he said.

Newell is firm in his assertion that the students are the miracle workers of the robotics team.

“I am just a teacher liaison. I am not the coach and I am not the engineer,” Newell said. “I just hang out and have a good time and make sure kids are all passing.” Newell has been a teacher in the South Portland School Department since 1967. His first teaching job was at Memorial Middle School, where he also coached cross country for 16 years.

“It was the first year Memorial opened,” Newell said.

Once Newell started teaching, he never looked back. “I became a teacher and I liked it, to my great surprise,” he said.

Newell, who grew up in Gorham, attended the Gorham State Teacher’s College, known today as the University of Southern Maine.

“My folks and I had very little money and the Gorham State Teacher’s College was in town and it was $50 a semester for tuition,” Newell said. “I got a very good education there.”

The University of Southern Maine went through a variety of names as it changed over the years. Newell jokes his two master’s degrees – one in the physical sciences and one in education – are labeled with different college names, while actually granted from the same institution. After college, Newell volunteered for the Peace Corps and served in the Philippines, but before he began his teaching career, he was drafted into the Army and went to Vietnam.

Newell served in Vietnam for nearly one year.

“11 months, four days, eight hours, and six minutes, but who’s counting,” he said.

Newell brightens at memories of his time in the Philippines. He volunteered in the Bicol Region and even learned and spoke the regional language.

“I still have good memories of that,” Newell said. “All I know is that it was interesting and it made me look at the world maybe in a different way.”

Newell said he joined the Peace Corps after college because it was “just a neat thing to do at the time” and he is pleased that many people still volunteer to join the organization today.

He recalled an instance when he worked for immigration during the time the Scotia Prince still docked in Portland and he came across Filipino visitors who were from the Bicol Region. Newell said he was surprised how the language came right back to him, despite the fact that he had not spoken it in 30 years, and he could joke and carry on a conversation.

“The irony is I also used to speak Vietnamese, but I don’t remember any of it. I think it was because the Peace Corps was a happy time for me and (Vietnam) was not,” Newell said.

Newell said physics caught his interest in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

“I was a freshman (in high school) when Sputnik was launched. It was just that time, Oct. 4, 1957 – from that point I just was interested,” he said.

Newell carried that interest all through high school and graduated with physics still on his mind.

“In my high school yearbook it says, ‘What do you want to be?’ and mine reads ‘physicist.’ (Physics) fascinated me then and it still fascinates me now,” he said.

After 16 years at Memorial Middle School, Newell left to teach physics at South Portland High School in 1983. Newell moved to South Portland in 1977 – 10 years after he began teaching in the city’s school district – and has been a resident ever since.

“When I got out of the Peace Corps I came to work in South Portland because it was a great system,” said Newell, who added that he has visited many countries, but southern Maine always remained his home.

Both of Newell’s children graduated from the South Portland school system and both became teachers. One of his children now teaches statistics and psychology at the University of Maine in Orono and the other teaches special education in Dexter.

Staff Writer Kristy Wagner can be reached at 282-4337, ext. 219.

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