Aided by robots, Amir Abo-Shaeer cultivates the next generation’s engineers
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.
Around that time,Dos Pueblos High School had received funding from the state of California to offer specialized engineering instruction. But the school had nobody to make the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy a reality. Abo-Shaeer, who had just been offered a job at the school, was asked to develop and run the program.
Initially, he enrolled only freshmen, working out the curriculum for them on the fly. The following year he created the second year’s curriculum, and the year after that the third. By the time the first class reached its senior year, in 2005, Abo-Shaeer needed a good focus for them. He chose the FIRST Robotics competition.
“It starts in January,” says Abo-Shaeer. “We receive the game challenge and then from there we have six and a half weeks to design, build, and test a robot. At the end of that six and a half weeks, we put that robot in a crate, whether it’s finished or not.” Then they ship it off and head out to the competitions.
The build season is “not for the faint of heart—you’ve got to be serious about this,” says Abo-Shaeer. “Sleep becomes optional.” The contest allows him to teach things that classroom instruction just can’t convey—“the value of endurance and perseverance” and “what it takes to create an amazing product, not just something that's adequate.”
The students end up matching Abo-Shaeer’s intensity and then some. “What other activity can you think of at school where it's 2 or 3 in the morning and the students say, ‘Please let us stay. We’re not done and we really need to finish this one thing before we go’?” he says.
Abo-Shaeer’s team has scored some impressive awards, even though he swears his goal is not to win but simply to have the students build what they believe is the best robot. He himself has garnered considerable recognition outside robotics, too. Three years ago Abo-Shaeer landed a US $3 million grant from the state of California to construct a building to house the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy. And in 2010 he was chosen as a MacArthur Fellow for his efforts to foster engineering education.
The best thing about the $500 000 MacArthur “genius award,” says Abo-Shaeer, is that it gives him a lot more credibility with his students when he tells them to follow their passions, even if their dream jobs don’t promise riches.
“Our society is what it is,” says Abo-Shaeer. How people are perceived is “based on recognition and how much money they make,” he observes. “I think my students knew that I was sincere, but I don't know that they could really feel that they could buy into it. I think [the MacArthur fellowship] is a gift to them.”
This article originally appeared in print as “High School Roboticist.”
To Probe Further
For more articles and special features, go to Dream Jobs 2011.
Amir Abo-Shaeer is featured in Neal Bascomb’s The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts (Crown), which goes on sale in March.