WHAT HE DOES
Dos Pueblos High School
where he doeS It
Often travels with his students to thrill-packed robot competitions.
This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2011.
When Amir Abo-Shaeer told his friends and associates that he was going to quit his job as a mechanical engineer to teach high school, they warned him not to be rash. "If you decide you don't like it after three or four years, you'll have lost your skills," they said. Some cautioned that he was being too idealistic and that most teenagers couldn't care less about learning.
"Everything everybody said has been completely untrue," Abo-Shaeer reports from a classroom at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, Calif., where he has pioneered a four-year engineering academy.
What makes Abo-Shaeer's teaching so different is that he doesn't just lecture in front of a blackboard. Instead, he gives his students rich hands-on learning experiences. Central to that is the annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition, which inventor Dean Kamen and MIT professor Woodie Flowers started in 1989.
So he's a teacher, yes, but he remains an engineer—and a skilled one. "I build robots with students, and we use the newest and latest, greatest technology," says Abo-Shaeer. "I'm right there at the cutting edge."
Indeed, in the eyes of many in industry, Abo-Shaeer's expertise has only grown. "I have companies come to me and say, 'Can you talk to us about how you are able to get 32 students who don't know anything to build a deliverable in six weeks?' "
Abo-Shaeer engineered his transition to the classroom because he had so enjoyed being a teaching assistant in graduate school and was convinced that helping others to learn would pay off in the end. It didn't hurt that his Iraqi-born father had transformed himself in an even more drastic fashion, from a Ph.D. physics professor to a landscaper, after moving to the United States following Amir's birth.
Growing up in Southern California, Abo-Shaeer liked to tinker, but his household was one of modest means. "We had a drill and a saw; that was pretty much it," he says. During his senior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he majored in physics, Abo-Shaeer took a lab course that introduced him to a machine shop. "It was like I was in heaven," he recalls.
That year he entered a school competition to build a solar water heater. He won, hands down. One of his physics professors took notice and hired Abo-Shaeer as a lab assistant. He relished the opportunity, because by that point, he had decided to pursue mechanical engineering in graduate school and was seeking more hands-on experience.
While in grad school, also at UCSB, Abo-Shaeer began working for a small aerospace company. He decided to end his education with a master's degree. But he was laid off from his job after a year and a half, which led him to a dreary position at a telephone-products company. "It was kind of sucking my soul dry," he says. Looking back, though, he views that stultifying experience as the best thing that could have happened to him, because that was when he decided to go into teaching.