By: Elsa Chu
Photos by: Audey Shen
Physics teacher and Gunn Robotics Team (GRT) advisor Bill Dunbar has been at Gunn since 1994. However, after a long stint that included establishing a successful, student-run robotics program, Dunbar feels that it is his time to leave the team. “I’ve been working here in this building for a really long time,” Dunbar said. “I spend so many hours here. I work all summer to make sure things are okay for this team.”
Although Dunbar is dedicated to GRT, he has decided to focus on other priorities. “It is time for me to spend some more time with my family,” Dunbar said. “I’m going to be sad to leave this place, because I really love working with the students, but my job is suddenly going to be so much easier.” However, Dunbar will remain teaching Advanced Placement (AP) Physics C.
Dunbar established GRT in 1996, and after 16 years of fostering a spirit of independence, students are sad to see him leave. Senior Alex Sutherland expressed his concern at having a replacement. “I think the biggest thing about Mr. Dunbar leaving is that since 2002 this has been a student-run program,” he said. “We make the decisions, especially when it comes to spending money and how we utilize our fundraising, [but] with any new leading figure, there’s always going to be differences with teachers letting students spend money and determine what tools we need. It’s not easy to let go of that kind of control. We’re going to miss that.”
Since Dunbar was the founder of the team, the program is reflective of his own interests, personality and beliefs. Junior Wyatt Eberspacher believes that Dunbar’s methodology has helped students mature. “I think his leaving is really regrettable because he’s a great teacher and he helps us a lot, and he characterizes a lot of what GRT is,” Eberspacher said. “He knows what he’s doing, he organizes us and he adds a lot of character to the team. He’s been doing this since the beginning, and a lot of GRT is synonymous with his name.”
Many agree with Eberspacher and admire the faith Dunbar puts in the team and in his students. “My favorite thing about Mr. Dunbar is the perspective he brings, because he’s been at Gunn for 18 years and he’s been with the program since it started in 1996,” Sutherland said. “He has a lot of insight, and because he has it, he knows when to step in and push, or step back and let us further develop it on our own.”
[pullquote]“I want [GRT] to be a home on campus for students who don’t have a home.” —GRT mentor Bill Dunbar[/pullquote]
With Dunbar’s mentorship, the team has come a long way since 1996. Back then, the robotics area was an empty building and the team consisted solely of eight all-male students. Now, the room is home to 54 students, plus mentors, and has one of the largest percentages of girls of any coed robotics team nationwide. “I started this team because I wanted students to work on big projects,” Dunbar said. “One of the reasons I came to this school is because there were no shop programs, but there was the potential because the GRT building was empty when I first came.”
While working on multiple projects with the students then, such as Rube Goldberg machines and concrete canoes, Dunbar heard about a robotics competition in Manchester, NH and asked them for information. “They sent me a videotape, because that was back in the day, and I thought that it looked like a good competition,” Dunbar said. “We started building robots just as an after-school club. We still had a fairly generic engineering class, and after school we’d build robots. Then, I realized that building the robot was so much fun that it should be part of the class; it shouldn’t be something separate that we do after school.”
After six years of working with the students, Dunbar took a leap of faith and pushed for the program to be completely student-run, giving them full control of their design, budget and leadership. “I started working with students on projects before I came to Gunn, and I always believed that students could do a lot more than teachers really thought that they could do,” Dunbar said. “It was a combination of things that convinced me to make the program student-run. I knew the students could do great things if we just gave them the right tools and I got out of the way. Also, there’s a little bit of me in here. When I was in high school, I just built little things in my dad’s garage, and nobody knew and nobody cared. And I thought, if there are any students like me on campus, they would really like it if they could build things and they could work together.”
Dunbar’s way of teaching has brought many different types of students together in one of the most rigorous extracurricular activities at Gunn. According to many GRT members, his methods are what inspire them to work as hard as they do. “My ideology is based on two things,” Dunbar said. “One of them is ownership. It is very important to me to give the kids ownership and responsibility for what they do. I don’t tell them what we’re going to do, I meet with certain students each year and we figure out what we’re going to do. It’s not unique, there are other groups that are run this way, but the concept is very important to me personally.”
Another aspect of Dunbar’s ideology is competition. “I didn’t want to call it a class because one of the things I’ve learned is that students are highly motivated by competition,” Dunbar said. “If you go to a competition and you yell, ‘Go engineering technology!’, it’s very lame. But, if you have a team, and you yell ‘Go GRT!’, it stops being dopey and it starts being a lot more fun. You don’t think you’re going to class because you’re part of a team. We compete against teams that are really awesome, and we rarely win, and I like that because when we do win it feels so good.”
Through GRT, Dunbar wants his students to feel competitive. “If we had more engineering mentors, and if they weren’t held back because I make rules for them, such as they can’t touch any tool because I want the students to do it all, then we would perhaps be more efficient as a group, but the students wouldn’t have the same pride,” Dunbar said. “I want them to feel like the competitors, not the professional engineers.”
Dunbar is also extremely passionate about making sure students feel that they matter and are part of something important during high school. “I want this to be a home on campus for students who don’t have a home,” Dunbar said. “Some students on the team are really well connected academically and are in drama and on sports teams. But some students on this team are recruited because they aren’t well connected. My first year, I used to go out to the path and find kids who were smoking out there, and invite them to be on the robotics team. If all I wanted to do was work with star students, I would just stay in my physics class. I have some really great students in physics and that’s fine, but I want to work with students who need to be given a chance and a reason to be motivated.”
While Dunbar will be missed by all who have known him in GRT, the dedication, passion and faith he has ingrained into the team will always stay with his students in their future pursuits even after he leaves GRT.