Stellar Educator

A passion for hands-on learning trickles down from an educator to students, motivating the next generation

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In an era where the labor shortage and skills gap dominate discussion in the manufacturing industry, educators who influence a new generation of individuals to fill valuable roles in the workforce deserve more recognition for their efforts. The Association for Advancing Automation (A3) saw a need to do exactly that and has followed through with the A3 Educator of the Year award.

A3’s first award recipient is Danny Murphy, assistant professor of mechatronics at Central Virginia Community College. He beat out 100 nominees for the award, which will be presented annually. Murphy has 25 years of experience as an automation consultant specializing in controls engineering and has a career full of interesting highlights. He took up teaching barely six years ago, but his impact is already making waves.

Danny Murphy, assistant professor of mechatronics at Central Virginia Community College, offers a curriculum heavy on hands-on opportunities with real-world equipment.

Rick Ramey, director of education at A3, said in a news release that A3 reviewed the skillsets of many impressive nominees, but that Murphy fully embodies the criteria considered for the award.

“Not only is he a highly effective, engaging educator for students at Central Virginia Community College,” Ramey says, “but he consistently demonstrates a remarkable willingness to share his expertise in robotics and automation with fellow educators. His extensive background in workforce development and project-based learning further enhances his contributions to the field.”

The engineering path

At the young age of five, Murphy tinkered with electronics. He begged his parents to collect broken televisions and washing machines so he could put them together in a vague semblance of a robot (he was a big Transformers fan). But it was only by happenstance early in his high school career that Murphy would choose an elective that would cement those early tendencies hinting to a future in engineering.

His friends Kevin, Nathan and Christian, who were fellow video game enthusiasts, thought that if they chose an electronics elective, they might spend the bulk of their time playing video games, so Murphy followed suit. And while video games weren’t part of the curriculum, Murphy couldn’t have known that the hands-on experience with electronics he would receive would be right up his alley, and that his instructor, Steve Cosner, would serve as a role model/mentor inspiring Murphy to do what he does today.

Murphy went through some trying personal times as a senior in high school, and while Cosner wasn’t one to get into deep emotional conversations with his students, he was quick to notice Murphy needed a bit of encouragement. His support is what Murphy needed to work hard enough, academically, to earn a scholarship at DeVry Institute of Columbus, Ohio, and earn a bachelor’s degree in electronics.

This video on Danny Murphy’s LinkedIn page is an example of the many videos he posts of his students having enriching learning experiences.

“He took me under his wing and cared about me in ways that were as simple as a gesture, a head nod, a pat on the back,” Murphy says. “It’s amazing how powerful those types of things can be in terms of commiserating with someone who needs to be believed in.”

DeVry introduced Murphy to several fields of study, but he gravitated toward automation, robotics and controls. He was fortunate enough to land an engineering job right out of college, and it was fortunate in a couple ways, he explains.

“One is because it was more responsibility than I deserved at that point,” he says. “In retrospect, the decisions I made as an engineer with no practical experience taught me to be humble and listen to the men and women who had experience with the actual equipment.”

His career also took him many places, including to York, Pa., where he worked on technology related to Harley Davidson motorcycles. Murphy’s knowledge of programming controls led him to engineering positions that took him all the way to the Chilean Andes, the home of the ALMA observatory, the world’s largest deep space telescope array.

“Not only did I get to design those things,” Murphy says of the controls used at the array, “I got to go up to the top of the mountains to install them. Most engineers don’t get to experience the thrill of taking their babies to their new home.”

Return to education

Around six years ago, Marci Gale, an electronics instructor at Central Virginia Community College, approached Murphy with a question. “Do you think there’s any value in teaching mechatronics?” His reply was, “what is mechatronics?” She informed him that it is the combination of mechanical troubleshooting and electrical programming.

“My response was ‘absolutely!’” he says.

Gale asked Murphy if he could assist her in writing a letter to the state government, conveying the value in teaching mechatronics, a task for which he was happy to provide assistance. Soon after, she had another question: Would he like to help her teach the class? Despite having zero teaching experience, he saw an opportunity.

Danny Murphy beat 100 other nominees for the A3 Educator of the Year award.

“It was a pearlescent point of light shining back to the impact Steve Cosner had on my professional and personal development,” Murphy says. “I thought, if I was a teacher, would there be any possibility that maybe someday I would get to impact someone’s life as much as he impacted mine? The incredible reality of the situation is that any teacher has that power every semester.”

Was it immediately apparent from Murphy’s first class that he would one day be the recipient of the Educator of the Year award, among numerous other honors and accolades? Not even close. His introduction to a new career was humbling.

“I had no idea how to teach,” he says, adding that the first couple of weeks were embarrassingly rough as he learned the ropes. “But I did find that when I interacted with students, they really seemed to identify with me and open up to me. I think that’s because they could sense at some level that I really cared about who they were and how their lives went.”

Promoting positivity

Teaching is Murphy’s passion and something he appears to be cosmically aligned to, but that hasn’t demoted his engineering career to side-gig status. Rather, he’s burning the candle at both ends by staying active in consulting roles and taking on design jobs outside of his teaching role.

“I feel a responsibility to remain engaged with how industry is managing technology,” he says, “because it’s industry that drives technology, not the people talking about it.”

And that technology is finding its way into his classes. Global manufacturers have, to date, donated tens of thousands of dollars worth of hardware, including sensor components, which Murphy’s students have the unique opportunity to work with, program, design around, etc.

And, to the point about hands-on experience, Murphy has seen the criticism on various social media channels about educators failing to provide enough hands-on training, which motivated him to share what goes on in his classroom on Instagram and LinkedIn.

“It occurred to me that I designed my whole curriculum around hands-on education,” he says. “I thought, I should share videos of my class and maybe that will encourage people.”

The first time he posted video of students having positive experiences working with real-world equipment, he got a call from a local OEM.

“They said, ‘we want to hire the guy in the gray shirt,’” Murphy recalls. “And I thought, ‘wow, the first time I post a video of my students just having fun in class and one of them gets a job.’”

Murphy continues to post videos on Instagram and LinkedIn and feels it’s having an impact.

“What I started to see was the videos generated this positivity,” he says, “an undercurrent of people saying, ‘yeah, that’s the kind of education we want. That’s what we want to see – people actually programming stuff in industry.’”

Gaining recognition

Months ago, when Murphy was notified by Ramey that he had been nominated for the A3 Educator of the Year award, he thought he was being pranked.

Danny Murphy is making a positive impact on students with videos like this.

“I was sure it was a scam call because who cares about me, you know?” he says. “Somebody’s preying on my ego. Good try.”

When Murphy realized the call was for real, he was bit stunned, but was sure the honor would go to someone else. When he got a second call in April that he’d actually won, he was, not surprisingly, humbled.

“If somebody tells you that you’ve been awarded the best at something,” Murphy says, “I think what any reasonable person is going to do is start thinking about all the areas they actually need to improve in order to earn that.”

Looking into the future, he’s excited to see who will be named as the 2025 recipient of the award, learn about their teaching techniques and have the chance to collaborate with others passionate about teaching.

“Society has gifted teachers with the privilege that allows them to be important in their students’ lives,” he says. “Given that gift, it’s wise to do that responsibly.”

Association for Advancing Automation

Central Virginia Community College

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