West Salem robotics and computer science teacher Greg Smith was honored with a 2019 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

There’s not much lecturing in Greg Smith’s class.

Within the first 15 minutes, students are set loose to experiment with programming robots to pick up blocks.

As teams worked through various stages of a challenge on a recent afternoon, building a robot or tweaking code, Smith walked around, asking questions about their approach or making comments, but never telling students how to solve the problem.

It’s what’s made the West Salem teacher beloved by years of students.

“He’ll let you fail until you figure out what you’re doing wrong,” said senior Kaden Reidhead, who’s been learning robotics from Smith since elementary school.

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Smith was recently honored with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the highest honor a U.S. science or math teacher can receive. Up to two teachers from each state are selected annually.

The award includes a trip to Washington DC and a $10,000 prize from the National Science Foundation.

Smith studied mechanical engineering in college but quickly learned he’d rather teach than work on an engineering team. He began 28 years ago at North Salem High School before moving to West when the school opened.

For him, it was about the payoff: the successes he felt as an engineer weren’t worth the bad days. But a bad day teaching is quickly overshadowed by watching students learn, he said.

“Students succeeding is my rush,” he said.

At West, Smith has built the school’s robotics team into a national powerhouse that sets the standard for other Oregon teams. In the spring of 2019, Smith’s students fielded eight teams at state, with three qualifying for worlds.

Multiple boards in Greg Smith's West Salem High School classroom display awards and memories from the school's robotics teams.

His classroom is decorated with awards, photos and other mementos from years of competition. They also host competitions at West and have an open lab space off the back of Smith’s classroom to work in, building robots and testing their ability to perform challenging tasks.

Retired teacher Maureen Foelkl, who’s worked with Smith for years, nominated him for the presidential award because of his work with her Chapman Hill Elementary students.

“He’s a star at his level but he can come down to the elementary level,” she said. She’s seen him get third graders excited about 3D printing and starting their own robotics teams, even coaching them after school.

“The way he lights up when he teaches, that glow that I see in him: that’s being that genuine teacher,” Foelkl said.

When Smith started teaching at North, he began with networking and engineering classes where students built and raced electric cars. Now, his courses include AP Computer Science and robotics electives, which many students say are the high point of their day.

“It feels more like a hobby than a class,” Reidhead said as he worked on programming a robot for competition with three classmates.

To win the presidential award, Smith had to write essays and submit a video of him teaching. Fate wasn’t on his side.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever had a fire drill in the middle of class,” he said, laughing.

Greg Smith works with West Salem robotics students in the classroom (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

In Washington DC, Smith talked with other science and math teachers from around the U.S. and heard from the heads of NASA and the National Science Foundation. The awardees were “treated like royalty” and had a dress code a step up from the more casual look favored by engineers.

“I had to find my old blazer and dig it out,” he said.

Smith’s classroom has a few technological relics: a 1984 Mac, hollowed out with the screen removed, where students submit paper assignments.

“I tried to make it into an aquarium but it didn’t work,” he said.

In a cabinet, he stores punch cards from his early programming days at Oregon State University.

He wants his students to try different approaches and views his role as more of a project manager, encouraging them to talk through successes and setbacks so they can learn from each other.

It’s an approach Foelkl said she admires, whether with high school or elementary students.

“There’s no wrong there’s just ‘Work through it,’” she said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.