CARMEL, N.Y. -- Carmel High School’s Don Saldicco is teaching throwback to the days when students worked with their minds and hands. If knowledge is power, Saldicco believes it can be acquired in part through hands-on learning and teamwork, and not merely by reading books, watching videos and searching the internet.
Perhaps his approach as the technology teacher at Carmel High stems from his first certification as an art teacher. Or it could have evolved from his own childhood, when he was more interested in the social scene than academics. It might also be rooted in his interests, which include gardening, home repair, cars and any other gadget with which he can work his hands and brain.
The winners in Saldicco’s time-tested teaching style are the students at Carmel. He runs the school’s Makerspace program, teaches Project Lead The Way Way Principles of Engineering and computer programming, and advises the school’s award-winning Robotics Club. Eight years into his career at Carmel, Saldicco brings an unbridled, infectious passion into his work.
“I think part of it is the drive in me in skill-collecting,’’ Saldicco said. “You can show them something. How many times in this world do you have an opportunity where somebody will show you something for free? The kids rejuvenate you. They’ll fix your depression pretty quickly.”
One of Saldicco’s favorite classrooms at Carmel is its Makerspace, where students work independently on their projects with assistance from teachers. Carmel is one of the few high schools in the region to create a Makerspace classroom, which is located in former offices of the guidance department. The space supports and fosters the demand for creative, self-initiated learning and creates environments for students to make their ideas a reality.
“I thought this was something that really needed to be in our school,’’ Saldicco said. “It has really taken off. We’ve had 11 school districts come see us because we’re one of those just starting with it. It succeeds because of the self-motivation of students. There’s self-direction, mastery and purpose. You don’t have any behavior problems, and the administration has really been supportive of it.”
Saldicco also advises the school’s Robotics team, called “The Bad News Gears.” The team competes in an international competition in which students and mentors work during a six-week period to build a game-playing robot that can weigh up to 120 pounds. The club supports learning in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Carmel has varsity and junior varsity teams.
“In the old days, a lot of kids used to work on hot rods,’’ Saldicco said. “These days, not so much. But this is the same kind of thing. It’s tools and machines and being on a team.”
Project Lead The Way is a traditional educational environment in which students learn the principles of engineering. Students can also obtain college credit at a discount price. “It’s online learning and project-based,’’ Saldicco said. “It’s intense. Students are doing sophomore college work. They’re working on trigonometry and statistics, sometimes for the first time. It’s quite rigorous.”
Perhaps most importantly, students involved in the technology program at Carmel develop a range of skills that can be used inside and outside the classroom. New York state has developed a teaching initiative that focuses on communication, collaboration, creative thinking and critical thinking. Carmel’s technology programs provide all of those, developing an eclectic mix of hard and soft skills that prove invaluable over the course of a lifetime.
“Sometimes I feel every student should take two years of art school,’’ Saldicco said. “An art class teaches you to think creatively. Some really smart students just don’t understand that. Sometimes you have to start from nowhere.”
It’s ironic that Saldicco is the teacher most responsible at Carmel for teaching technology. Before he developed skills as a technology teacher, he focused on art, and was about as far removed from being a Bill Gates-like computer geek as you can get.
“I liked to use carpentry, glass, ceramics, anything,’’ Saldicco said. “I was interested in skill collecting. I know to use woodworking tools. I was a fine furniture maker. I used to draw and build stuff. Now, I build robots.”
Saldicco’s challenge is keeping up with the continual changes in technology. He self-taught himself many of the skills by researching on the internet. His wife, Jenn, is also a technology geek and also coaches the Robotics team.
“Our son, Logan, even comes to us with the Robot club,’’ Don said. “When we have our morning conversation, it’s like we’re brainstorming. She’s become a lot like me. She’s been very supportive of this every step of the way.”
Saldicco’s creative, hands-on teaching style might someday again be the model that most teachers emulate. Whether it was through vision, luck or a combination of both, he has a passion and knack for reaching bright young minds. “Occasionally you’ll have a project that will flop,’’ Saldicco said. “You have to change it and move it around and re-make it. You can only that with creativity. That’s not something you get in every classroom.”