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Inspiring Innovator imparts love of discovery to her students

Published November 26, 2018
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Sally Coughlin likes to dream big. And like most inspiring innovators, she doesn’t let fear of failure stand in her way. While some might say, “Failure is not an option,” for Coughlin, “failure is expected and planned for. Perseverance is the answer to success.”

And she loves nothing more than passing that mantra on. When she retired in 2017 from teaching after 22 years, she and her husband, Mike, relocated from Livonia, Michigan, to Brooklyn, Michigan, and opened Fiddle Brickers, a STEM activity center where children could come to learn the engineering process.

Fiddle Brickers gave the Coughlins a taste of the world of robotics competitions. When their son Phil began attending Columbia Central Junior High School, they discovered the school didn’t have a robotics team. So, true to their innovative traits, they started one.

The Fiddle Brickers Columbia Central Junior High School Robotics Team named their first robot – made of TETRIX® parts – Tesla. “We went to two [FIRST® Tech Challenge] competitions and learned that Tesla needed an overhaul to be more competitive,” said Coughlin. “Some parts we just couldn’t afford, but the team came up with a new idea, and we took the robot apart and rebuilt it.”

That’s the kind of innovation she loves to see. “It takes grit to keep building, unbuilding, and rebuilding, and programming, deleting, and reprogramming, but the kids came eagerly every Wednesday and Thursday right after school and stayed until 5 p.m. It was amazing to watch the intensity and pride the team had designing and building their robot.”

But beyond the building and programming, Coughlin was thrilled with the life lessons the students learned. “Perseverance, getting along with others, and FIRST’s lesson of gracious professionalism” are takeaways the students can carry with them for the rest of their lives.

And they’re lessons she wants to impart to her new students as well. Now that Fiddle Brickers has closed, Coughlin has returned to teaching, and she and her husband are coaching five robotics teams, including a junior high FIRST Tech team named the Space Breakers, which will be competing with a TETRIX kit.

And like any inspiring innovator, Coughlin lets her students problem solve until they find a solution. “I love to see the amazement of the students when the robot works,” she said. “I like to take my students so far and watch them fly on their own. I was so proud of our team last year. They worked so hard, but they worked. . . . When Tesla broke down, they stepped in and fixed her.”

With a whole new group to inspire, this innovator seems ready for the task at hand!

“Everything fell into place with the STEM PD. I’ve been astounded by the creativity and the innovative ideas that our teachers have come up with in doing the design challenges that they’ve been given by the Pitsco facilitators.”

– Nicole Murray, district STEM coordinator, Duplin County, North Carolina

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