There’re twists and turns, peaks and valleys, bright sunny mornings and cold bleak evenings. Roadblocks appear when we least expect them. Some we stumble upon. Others we create for ourselves. Eventually, we arrive at our destination, older, wiser, focused and grounded.
Daniel Bartels could write a book on the vagaries of life. You see, from the time he ventured from home, he followed a circuitous path and pursued a wide range of interests and passions en route to his latest stop at Collegiate School where he serves as STEAM coordinator and resident robotics guru.
His story isn’t just about him, though. It’s not about what he’s done but who he is. He’s not even the star of his narrative. Instead, his narrative is about the stars he’s created.
That narrative began in Cincinnati when he was, by his own admission, an aimless high school student struggling to make sense of the process.
“I felt like they were asking us to do stuff so they could put a number in a book, turn a crank, and move us through a machine,” he said. “I fought the rules quite a bit. Didn’t do homework. Had around a C average, but I scored very well on standardized tests.”
Well enough that he earned a Presidential Honors Scholarship to Thomas More College in Kentucky. After a semester and a half, however, he dropped out and landed a job with Greenpeace traveling about the Midwest advocating for environmental issues, mainly clean water.
For a while, he worked for his father, an electrical contractor, then moved to Richmond with some friends. To make ends meet, he worked a variety of jobs including a wee-hours shift at UPS and a daytime position at W. Hirsch Oriental Rugs in Carytown where he developed a passion for textile restoration.
Inspired by his work at the rug store, he enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University to study art history with an emphasis on Islamic art. He planned to master Arabic and Farsi and make the textile business and Middle Eastern art his career.
His affinity for music interceded, though, and he and some friends founded a rock band, which cut albums, toured and got radio air-play internationally. Once again, he put his formal education on hold.
“The music thing kind of took over,” he said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My professors encouraged me to pursue it. We achieved moderate success. Not any financial success.”
In 1997, Bartels, now in his late 20s, broke up the band and returned to VCU full time to study math and physics. To make ends meet, he took a job with Visual Aids Electronics.
“They needed a guy to put a microphone on Kofi Annan (United Nations Secretary General),” he said. “I drove up to D.C., just to do that. I had to go through a vetting process. Since I’d been vetted, I got the next government gig.
“I ended up doing sound for President Clinton, Vice President Gore, a lot of government stuff. I had to sign that I wouldn’t talk about a lot of the top-secret things that I was hearing. Did a couple of jobs for the United Nations, one of which was the 50th anniversary celebration during the Kosovo Crisis, so it became a de facto war summit.
“The highlight of the VAE phase was working for a cameraman for Rosa Parks at a museum opening where I got to hang out with her in the green room for 10 or 15 minutes.”
Bartels was offered a job as an audio engineer for NATO Radio, but, after hauling sound equipment around the country, he was ready to address school in earnest. He returned to VCU and within two years earned undergraduate degrees in math and physics. His GPA, by the way, was a shade under 4.0.
In 2002, he secured a job teaching math and physics at Hanover High School. The first year, the principal asked him to start a robotics program.
“Thought it was awesome,” he said. “Thought it was exactly what I needed when I was in high school. When I saw the impact it had on kids, I never looked back.”
In 2015, he came to Collegiate. To say that he’s made an impact is an understatement. The first year, he oversaw the development of the STEAM program, of which robotics is a pillar.
Its competition robot, created through a mentor-student partnership, was named D-Day and advanced to the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) world championship in St. Louis. Along the way, it won a slew of awards.
This year, the competition entry is named Overkill. It’s a 150-pound robot capable of pulling a 250-pound payload, grabbing and climbing a rope and lifting itself three feet off the ground, all within two seconds.
This past weekend, Overkill participated in the initial round of competition, the Chesapeake District Championship, at Churchland High School in Portsmouth. Saturday, it returns to action in the Central Virginia event at Deep Run High. If it qualifies, it advances to the district competition at VCU's Siegel Center and, ultimately, the world championship in St. Louis in late April.
Bartels teaches as he wished to be taught. He speaks softly, encourages, strives to find the best in each of his students and fosters collaboration.
"Mr. Bartels is a very creative person who is very supportive of a student or group of students who have a great idea,” said senior Grayson Richmond. "He’s willing to run himself into the ground for the robotics team, sporting an average of 3-5 hours of sleep a night and, towards the end of build season, stay at school past midnight on weekends and days off. His intense commitment to robotics and STEAM while bringing new people along for the ride shows how deeply he cares about preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers."
I visited Bartels one day during the initial phase of “build season.” At first glance, his classroom, SBS 105, appeared a messy array of technological gadgets and gizmos. Yet amidst the clutter, collegiality – both teacher/student and student/student – problem-solving and creative thinking were evident.
He fielded questions, gave instructions and offered advice. Mainly, he mentored, quietly guided, and, in essence, led from behind.
“I’m a co-learner,” he explained. “We work side-by-side. You can do lots of this by yourself, but ultimately you have to work as a team. It’s too much for one person. I like it when ideas are bubbling up inside. I know things are working really well when kids say, ‘What if…?’ and ‘Wow!’
“The first year (at Hanover), there were some kids that said, ‘I wish school could be like this.’ I reminded them that this is school. I could see the kids’ gears moving, thinking about that. Yeah, school can be pretty awesome.”