Top Teacher: Prospect Heights teacher builds partnership between middle and high school robotics programs
Filip Dudic taught high school classes for a decade, and now at Douglas MacArthur Middle School in Prospect Heights, he still kind of is.
Dudic, an applied technology teacher, is one of the driving forces behind an innovative partnership between Prospect Heights Elementary District 23 and Northwest Suburban High School District 214 that allows eighth graders to design, build and program a robot -- and get high school credit for it.
After teaching the 17 MacArthur eighth graders in his last period daily robotics class, Dudic stays after school twice a week to help coach District 214's award-winning WildStang robotics team.
This school year, Dudic started a Monday night mentorship program where sixth and seventh graders on the District 23 Lego robotics team are guided by high school members of the WildStang team, which has been meeting for team practices inside a converted old wood shop at the Prospect Heights school since 2017.
"I've never had more fun coming to work every day," said Dudic, 42, an Arlington Heights resident who has been teaching for nearly two decades. "This summer, I was pestering, like, 'When's the building open? When can I come in?'"
He started his career as a math teacher at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, before deciding to transition to middle school instruction in Skokie. For the past two years at MacArthur, he's been teaching a slate of applied tech classes, which encompasses robotics, programming, and 3D modeling and printing.
It's also commonly known in education circles by the buzzword STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Dudic never thought he'd become a teacher.
Growing up in Darien, he worked alongside his father, who owned a graphic arts company. Dudic regularly used vinyl cutters to make signs; now, he has the same equipment in his classroom and uses it as part of STEM instruction.
During his high school days, he was a member of the Hinsdale South High School chess team. As it turns out, the District 23 applied tech curriculum encourages chess playing for its problem solving value.
"Early on, talking in front of a group was not really appealing," Dudic said. "Me becoming a teacher just seemed funny because I was not a great student. My sister was like the perfect student. ... She fits that stereotype. She's that kid."
But through his mentorship and tutoring of his younger sister, she encouraged him to pursue a career in education.
Yes, his sister became an elementary school teacher. And his wife -- who he met in the math department at Stevenson -- is now an assistant principal at Maine South High School in Park Ridge.
Those who know Dudic and work with him attest that he's become a valued educator and coach in District 23 and District 214.
"I think his role is super, super important in order to make the partnership work," said Jack Costello, a senior at Wheeling High School and WildStang team member who first got involved in robotics as a MacArthur student.
"We're in that space so often during build season. And it's so important for us to be able to get in there and to be able to do all the stuff we do. It's important for them to also have a nice classroom space to work in and to not have our things all over the place. It's a balancing act that Mr. Dudic has to deal with, but he does it really well. He's able to accommodate both WildStang and his classes."
Costello, who has seen the evolution of the robotics program in District 23 over the last five years, said Dudic has been able to integrate lessons from WildStang and the high school level into his middle school robotics and applied tech classes.
It's not so much about his direct instruction, but how those brief lessons are applied during the hands-on robot design process, said District 23 Superintendent Don Angelaccio.
"You're looking for people who are genuinely good teachers. Because if you're a good teacher, the content matter really comes second," Angelaccio said. "Fil is a math teacher by trade, but he's done some computers. He's done some applied tech. He's done some design. So, as far as a candidate for us, he had a lot of varied experiences.
"The most important thing," Angelaccio continued, "is: 'I'm a teacher, which means I connect with kids. I help them ask the right questions. I guide them through the process.' It's not about, 'I'm the subject matter expert and I'm going to tell you everything I know about Lego robotics.' A really good teacher doesn't need to know anything about Lego robotics. It's about, 'I know kids.' And that's one of the things that Fil does extremely well. He gets to know the kids, understands their strengths, and kind of facilitates their exploration of this content."
Angelaccio hired Dudic to launch the dual credit robotics program, which has had some starts and stops since the inception of the District 23-District 214 partnership, which arose out of the high school district's need for physical space for its robotics team.
A District 23 teacher who was going to start the robotics class incidentally got hired by District 214's Rolling Meadows High School. Then there was the pandemic. Now with Dudic at the helm, officials thought 2022-2023 was the right school year to begin, in what is a test case for possible future shared academic course credit opportunities.
The robotics class at MacArthur shares a similar curriculum and outcomes as entry-level engineering classes at the high schools, officials say. Upon completion, the eighth graders in the inaugural class will earn credit for Robotics 1 at Wheeling and John Hersey high schools.
"It's what the high schools have been dealing with colleges, more and more and better and better," Angelaccio said. "And so now, looking at the other end of that spectrum, eighth grade coming into high school, are there kids that can have an experience in eighth grade and earn high school credit? That was sort of the question that started it all."
During the first semester, District 23 students built a robot that they entered in a regional FIRST Lego League competition held Dec. 17 at Lincoln Middle School in Mount Prospect. The 35-team event was run by high schoolers in the District 214 WildStang program, including Costello, who was tournament coordinator.
Dudic said he and the other WildStang coaches and volunteer mentors in the business community emphasize the value of service and mentorship to younger students who may be interested in pursuing STEM in high school and beyond.
He, too, still enjoys tutoring, even after school hours.
"They're dedicated kids. When they're not doing robotics, I'm trying to help them with their BC Calculus homework."
• • •
Curriculum vitae: Filip Dudic
Residence: Arlington Heights
Occupation: Applied Technology teacher at MacArthur Middle School in Prospect Heights
Education: Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Elmhurst College; Masters in Math Education from DePaul University
Activities: Assistant Coach for District 214 WildStang Robotics team
Tips from a top teacher
• Make connections and get to know your students.
• When making decisions, always ask yourself what's best for students.
• Lean on the expertise and experience of the people you work with and your larger educator network.
• Never stop learning.
• Be open minded and don't be afraid to try new things.