All of this spy-novel subterfuge – which included covert interviews with colleagues, undercover videography, embargoed reports, and, of course, the diversionary Liz Baker – served as tactics to secretly award UC Santa Barbara alumnus Abo-Shaeer with a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for his work at the Dos Pueblos High School Engineering Academy in Goleta. Calif. Academy Director Abo-Shaeer is the first public high school teacher to receive a $500,000 MacArthur “genius grant” for teaching.
“"It all seemed so surreal, especially because I couldn't talk about it to anyone for such a long period of time. I still can't believe it. I feel so fortunate and very humbled," says Abo-Shaeer, who had no idea he was being considered.

In fact, Abo-Shaeer tried to politely get off the phone with the MacArthur Foundation caller because he didn’t want to miss Liz Baker’s call.

“There is no Liz Baker,” was the reply. That’s when high school physics teacher Abo-Shaeer began to realize that he and his work at the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy had gotten the attention of more than just a Northwestern student.

Abo-Shaeer, 38, will receive a stipend of $500,000 from the MacArthur Foundation to use at his discretion to pursue his own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. He has hopes to train other educators about his curriculum and student recruitment innovations.

“I have done a lot of stuff in education but a lot of people helped me along the way so this is recognition of a community -- recognition of education,” says Abo-Shaeer, who received a bachelor’s degree in Physics in 1996 and a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1998 from UC Santa Barbara.

After starting his career as a mechanical engineer in the aerospace and telecommunications industries, Abo-Shaeer returned to UC Santa Barbara to complete a master’s degree in Education in 2001. He then began teaching physics and engineering at his alma mater, Dos Pueblos High School.

In 2002, Abo-Shaeer created the Engineering Academy and has served as the academy’s director since its founding. The program integrates physics, engineering, and mathematics in its project-based learning curriculum.

“Project-based learning really stretches them (the students),” Abo-Shaeer says. He points out that the traditional academic model is very different from the environment many engineers and other professionals face in a workplace where teamwork and problem-solving are the keys to success. “We try to get (the students) work ready.”

The Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy is a four-year program in which freshmen study Physics and Engineering, sophomores start on project-based learning, and juniors focus on Physics and Sciences. When students become seniors, they enter the robotics class who participates as Team 1717 in the international FIRST Robotics Competition every year.
But this isn’t a science fair project built by someone’s dad. The students are organized into teams responsible for specific aspects of the project. Mentors, including college students and retired professionals, offer their expertise as the students plan and construct the complex components of the robot themselves.
“(The mentor) wouldn’t write any code at all, he wouldn’t even touch the keyboard,” says UC Santa Barbara sophomore Kevin Wojcik, who graduated from the academy in 2009 and is now an academy mentor himself. “He would look at what we did, and gave us guidance. With his experience, he was able to show me what computer science really is.”
Make no mistake -- it is the students’ robot, and the students’ glory when Team 1717 has brought back regional, national and international awards from the competition.

“I don’t build robots. It’s not my robot. I’m an educator,” Abo-Shaeer says.

And educating is Abo-Shaeer’s focus in the academy -- creating an environment where students learn from experts and each other and leave with the knowledge that they can succeed.

Wojcik, a computer science major in the UC Santa Barbara College of Creative Studies, is considering a career in teaching because of his experience with Abo-Shaeer. “Now that I’ve had this experience with (Abo-Shaeer), who I think is an amazing teacher, it’s gotten me interested in education, so now there’s a great chance that I will come back to teaching.”

Abo-Shaeer doesn’t stop at the students who would take any science class they could, though. He wants all students to open themselves to the possibilities out there.

“We’re trying to create something where every student in the eighth grade can see themselves in (an engineering program),” Abo-Shaeer says.

He looks at it as a paradigm shift, where students, parents and educators consider science education and careers as accessible and appealing to every student population. Think of it as trading science geek for the James Bond chic of Q’s lab.

“The academy is really changing the culture at the high school and making engineering and science cool,” says Wojcik, who was a student software programmer and driver for the 2009 team. “Now you’ve got football players in the class, cheerleaders in the class. It’s become a cool thing -- not just for smart, nerdy kids who sit in the corner and talk mathematics all the time.” To that end, Abo-Shaeer and the academy have employed a recruitment program, which includes having college and high school students visit junior high school students to talk about their experiences in the program.

“Students can see someone much closer to their age and see what their future can be,” says Abo-Shaeer, who has worked to increase the diversity of students enrolled in the academy.

The first DPEA class had 33 boys and two girls enrolled.

I looked at that and said, ‘We can do something.’ Girls are taking themselves out of (sciences) in the eighth grade,” Abo-Shaeer says. “If two girls are taking a class with engineering in the title and there are equal numbers (of girls and boys) in every other class, there’s a problem in our society.”

When recruiting students from area junior high schools, Abo-Shaeer tells them, “You can listen to society tell you what you should do but, really, if you follow your heart you’ll see the rewards.”

His outreach efforts have already found success with 50 percent female student enrollment in the program, according to the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy. He hopes to mirror that achievement with recruitment aimed at ethnic diversity as well.

The Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy has several strong ties to UC Santa Barbara, including 31 students on campus who have graduated from the academy in the last four years. In addition, Team 1717’s mentors for 2011 include three UC Santa Barbara students, an alumnus, and a retired UC Santa Barbara staff member. Five members of UC Santa Barbara’s faculty and staff support the academy’s future growth as board of directors for the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy Foundation, which manages a capital campaign for the academy.
Abo-Shaeer says he would like to enhance the program’s informal partnership with campus, and explore how the academy can work more with UC Santa Barbara professors and programs.

“It is rare for a high school to be this close to a research university -- a university with strong programs that are science and engineering based” -- and we need to take advantage of it, Abo-Shaeer says.

In 2007, Abo-Shaeer garnered a $3 million California matching grant to create a new facility for the academy on the high school campus. Former UC Santa Barbara Physics Professor Virgil Elings donated $1 million to the capital campaign, and, in recognition of the gift, the new building will be named the Elings Center for Engineering Education.

“I’m delighted that Amir received a MacArthur Fellowship, but not surprised,” says Gene Lucas, UC Santa Barbara Executive Vice Chancellor. “I first met him as an entering graduate student in Mechanical Engineering. He was assigned to be a TA in my senior mechanical engineering design course. This is a course that synthesizes the engineering and science knowledge in a design project.

“Since Amir had a physics undergraduate background, he had to get up to speed in a number of engineering areas -- solid mechanics, heat transfer, fluid dynamics, etc. -- quickly so he could help the four design teams he was assigned to supervise. He accomplished that in short order and was my best TA that quarter,” Lucas says. “He really did show signs of ‘genius’ in that effort.

“I’ve since followed his development of the DP Engineering Academy, his efforts to get a grant and raise matching funds to expand the effort, and the success of the DPEA design teams.”

The connections increase as academy students graduate, matriculate at UC Santa Barbara and then return as mentors. “The experience I had doing robotics really did change my life. I feel like I want to give that opportunity to other students -- to take the program for everything that it is -- so someone else can have the same experience with the program that I did,” says Wojcik, who spends up to 70 hours a week mentoring students during the six-week build.

“UC Santa Barbara faculty is delighted to have this opportunity available to their sons and daughters, and consider the Engineering Academy one of the key attractions to living in the Santa Barbara area,” Lucas says. “This is just one more benefit of Amir’s ‘genius’ to UC Santa Barbara.”

Academy Director Abo-Shaeer will have more recognition coming his way as “The New Cool,” New York Times bestselling author Neal Bascomb’s book chronicling Abo-Shaeer’s success in the education field and his 2009 FIRST robotics team’s competition season, will be released in March 2011. The movie rights to the book have already been sold.

While Abo-Shaeer hasn’t decided what he will do with the $500,000 “genius grant” just yet, he says that he comes up with several ideas a day. He wants to be careful that this opportunity isn’t squandered.

“The failure of this whole thing will be if this award makes me be someone different from who I am,” Abo-Shaeer says.

Little fear of that. The excitement in his voice is never so intense as when he talks about education -- and how this opportunity is about what he can do as an educator.

“I feel really responsible to do something really profound with it.”

For an exclusive interview and information on the MacArthur Foundation click here.
Information on the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, please go to their website at www.dpeaf.org

UCSB Alumni Association logo Membership | Online Community | Programs + Services | Giving | News + Events | Get Involved