When Brian Copes was a youngster, he wanted to grow up to become a missionary. In a way, that is what the Louisville-born boy did. But his title is “teacher.”
“What I do is inspire my students to reach beyond their perceived limits and change the world,” Copes said.
That might sound like a huge goal, but Copes, his students and fellow colleagues have already made tremendous strides in achieving that objective. What they have done seems miraculous — building a basic utility vehicle for use in a developing country; creating prosthetic legs out of salvaged automotive parts for amputees who can’t afford high-priced prosthetics; constructing a hydroelectric power plant to generate electricity for a rural medical clinic in a poor village; installing a water chlorinator to create safe water for an under-served community; establishing a Sister School partnership with Honduras; increasing classrooms in the developing country and much more.
“My goal is to inspire my students and fellow colleagues to be World Changers,” Copes said.
However, Copes’ passion for others does not stop upon a student’s graduation. When the mother of a former special needs student died, Copes and his family — his wife, Angel, and daughters Emily, Amy and Brianna Walton — welcomed the special needs student and his brother into their home in Calera, Ala.
Cope’s outstanding achievements have come to the attention of the Varkey Foundation, where Copes was recently recognized with a Global Teacher Prize as one of the top 50 teachers in the world. The Varkey Foundation received more than 20,000 nominations from 179 countries for the award. The top 10 will be announced in February and later flown to Dubai where the top teacher will be announced in March.
The education he received at Indiana State helped propel him on his path, Copes said. Back in 1989 when Copes came to the Terre Haute campus, he saw technology rapidly changing and decided that State was the place for him.
“I felt that ISU would give me the best preparation to enter into the classroom as a technology educator,” he said. “At that time, industrial arts education was transforming into industrial technology/technology education. During this time of transition ISU provided opportunities for their students to be successful in this new teaching field.”
While at State, Copes said he was a highly focused, goal-oriented student. “I carried around 21 credit hours per semester,” he said, adding that he also found time to fulfill his ambition to help others.
“I was a member of the Baptist Student Organization,” Copes said. “While I was at school I worked at AID Ambulance and enjoyed helping others. During the summer of 1991, I led a group of teens (through Teen Missions International) to build a church in the Ukraine. As we were leaving Moscow, I was standing in the middle of Red Square and witnessed the overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev.”
Among the Indiana State professors and staff members who helped shape his future, Copes said an important influence was Dr. Phillip Wright. “I had Dr. Wright in several of my undergraduate and graduate level courses. In his courses, he challenged us in our thinking to question what we believe and the way that we believe. He taught courses in multicultural diversity and inspired us to reach out to others of different cultures and beliefs.”
Copes received his bachelor’s degree in 1992 and his masters in 2002 in industrial technology education/technology education. Since leaving Indiana State, Copes has taught at several schools in Indiana, Illinois and Alabama, as well as being an adjunct professor at Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis. For the past three years, he has been a pre-engineering teacher at Thompson High School in Alabaster, Ala.
“In 2008 I taught eighth graders to reach far beyond their perceived ability by building a basic utility vehicle capable of transporting goods and services to and from the market place in developing countries,” he said. “These students went through an amazing transformation, from struggling students to, for the first time, having a desire and thirst to go to school. Students showed up to school at 6:30 and stayed until 6 at night working on these projects.”
So dramatic was the turnaround in these students’ perception that a parent thanked Copes for changing the direction of her son’s life. “Her son once hated school, but now was immersed into this project. He couldn’t wait to get to school. His desire to learn rebounded and his grades improved in all subject areas.”
At the end of the school year, Copes entered his innovative students into a collegiate engineering competition in Indianapolis, where his students were the only non-collegiate team in the competition. “I am proud to say that my eighth-grade students won first place, beating out well- known colleges and universities.”
The project continued for many more years at two other schools where students built vehicles that are now used in Honduras. “They are used as an ambulance, farm vehicle plowing fields, school bus, and one was outfitted with a water well drill that travels from village to village drilling life-giving water.”
In another instance, Copes’ students developed an inexpensive prosthetic leg from salvaged automotive parts. “The average prosthetic leg in the U.S. cost an amputee between $20,000-$60,000,” He said. “The students’ legs have been refined and are mass producible at $40 each.”
To take the basic utility vehicles and prosthetic legs to where they are most needed, Copes has led four teams of students and traveled to the jungles of Honduras where they have delivered three basic utility vehicles and fitted 20 amputees with prosthetic legs that his students created. A documentary was made of the student’s 2012 trip to Honduras entitled “Children Changing the World.”
In 2014, Copes’ students also constructed a hydroelectric power plant that they placed in a river in Honduras to generate electricity for a rural medical clinic. A sequel to the documentary “Children Changing the World” was made in 2016 entitled “You Can Change the World.”
“Most recently I have led a group of educators to Honduras to establish a Sister School partnership,” Copes said. “While on a trip to Honduras in 2012, I, witnessed a town in celebration, where they were graduating their first high school student in the history of the town.”
Copes learned that for a Honduras student to attend middle school and /or high school a student must travel to a larger town. “Education beyond elementary school is unaffordable to the people living in this village because families are lucky to make $2.50 per day,” he said.
Most students drop out of school during their elementary years to try to earn money to stay alive. “I earnestly believe that education is the key to get out of poverty,” he said. “During the 2013-2014 school year, I and my students raised the necessary funds to add two rooms on to the Cefalu School in Honduras.”
The addition allowed the school to offer both middle and high school classes. In the summer of 2014, Copes and seven students traveled back to Juitiapa, Honduras, to install solar panels on the school and to build a basic utility vehicle that serves as a school bus.
“It is exciting to discover that there are now 105 middle and high school students at the Cefelu School,” Copes said.
But still more needs to be done. “I noted deficiencies in the Cefalu educational system that I felt that my students could help with,” he said. “First this school only had five computers. Only one of the computers worked and none of them could access the internet.”
Although Honduran teachers are required to teach the English language, “none of the teachers at this school spoke English,” Copes said. So, in 2016, Copes led Information Technology students from Thompson High School to Honduras where they installed computer labs in three different Honduran schools. These labs connected both the Jutiapa schools in Honduras and connected them with the Alabaster City Schools in the United States.
Now, as American primary schools are learning ABC’s and 123’s, the teacher can turn on web cams and share those lessons with the Jutiapa schools. “Science teachers can share their lessons allowing students in Honduras and the United States to share experimental results with each other,” Copes said. “English as a Second Language students gives U.S. students a leadership role as they will be used as the translator for the teacher and classroom as lessons are shared.”
On the 2016 trip, Thompson Earth Science students also delivered and setup three water chlorinators. “These chlorinators treat the local water supply by creating up to 30,000 gallons of safe drinking water per day,” Copes said. “The students trained local people on how to set up and use these chlorinators, as well as taught them how to test their water source.”
Not having access to safe water is a deadly problem, Copes said. The World Health Association notes that “Access to water is one of the biggest problems that humanity faces. One in 10 people on the planet do not have access to safe water. That’s 748 million people, more than twice the population of the United States. This problem is a deadly one. More people die every year from diseases caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation than from armed conflict. Children are the most vulnerable, a child dies every 60 seconds from diarrhea diseases.“
Health Science Academy students also helped by volunteering in a free medical clinic located at the base of the cloud forest. These students trained local Hondurans on basic emergency medical care. Copes’ students also have developed inexpensive aquatic wheel chairs for special needs students, as well as a side-by-side bicycle thus allowing a student with mobility problems to ride beside an adult.
“This bicycle gives the student the exhilaration of riding a bike, in many cases for the first time,” Copes said. “A local business man desires to work with my students to take this bicycle adaption kit to the marketplace.”
Copes further established a high-tech green energy competition in Alabama known as Electrathon. “I have written and received grants where 30 electric car kits were given to 30 schools throughout Alabama,” Copes said. “Last year there were approximately 40 teams from four states representing at the Alabama Electrathon.”
His goal this summer, Copes said, is to establish a Sister School in Olvidado, Honduras. “Olvidado, which translated means “Forgotten,” is very poor. These people live in mud huts and many of the children suffer from malnutrition.”
Currently, Olvidado does not have a high school, “Our goal is to build a small two-room cement block building for this community to use for their school. This building will be equipped with a computer lab and allow their children to thrive, giving them outside educational access.”
In honor of their success, 50 of Copes’ students have received recognition from Alabama’s Lieutenant Governors by awarding and naming them Honorary Lieutenant Governors of the State of Alabama. Thirty-three students, teachers and administrators have been recognized for their volunteering efforts by receiving the Presidential Volunteer Service Award for their efforts in establishing the Sister Schools.
Now, Copes said, he is looking for schools across American that would like to establish a Sister School of their own. He is also seeking computer donations — new, used and refurbished computers — as well as funding to help school systems with the financial cost of developing and visiting their Sister Schools.
Not only are these projects helping the people in developing countries, they are also enriching the lives of the students and adults who participate in the projects, Copes said.
“The Sister School partnership prepares students to live and work in a 21st Century global workforce,” he said. “Many Alabama businesses have overseas connections and conduct business through overseas teleconference technologies. The Sister School project further develops students hard and soft work skills thus giving them a better understanding of cultural awareness and diversity.”
Most importantly, Copes added, “the students discovered a world outside of themselves and learned that they can change the world.”