California Science Teacher Wins “Genius Grant”
Amir Abo-Shaeer, a high school physics and engineering teacher at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, has been named one of this year’s 23 MacArthur Fellows by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Fellows receive a “no strings attached” award of $500,000 over five years to use at their discretion.
This is apparently the first time that a public school science teacher has received the MacArthur award, often referred to as a “genius grant.”
In an interview with Education Week, Abo-Shaeer said he was “stunned” when he learned that he was a recipient of the honor. “I feel a sense of responsibility to really try to do the award justice,” he said.
Abo-Shaeer began his professional career as a mechanical engineer before moving into education in 2001. Recognizing the potential for programs at the secondary level to encourage students to pursue science and engineering degrees, Abo-Shaeer left industry to become a teacher. In 2002, he created the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA), a school within a school with a rigorous applied science curriculum that integrates physics, engineering, and mathematics courses; hands-on building projects; and specialized competitions. The program culminates in the design and construction of a robot by the academy’s senior class and its entry into the FIRST Robotics Competition.
According to the MacArthur Foundation, “Abo-Shaeer’s ability to motivate students and his enthusiasm for science education have transformed the culture at his high school. DPEA participants are highly regarded by other students, and young women now comprise approximately half of the academy’s students—a proportion considerably above the national average in advanced high school science courses.”
Abo-Shaeer is currently developing plans to expand the curriculum to accommodate students at different academic levels, as well as to establish a training program for educators interested in undertaking similar efforts at other schools. “Abo-Shaeer’s novel and effective model of science education is instilling a passion for the physical sciences in young men and women and is contributing to the preparation of the next generation of scientists and engineers for the twenty-first century,” states the MacArthur Foundation.
“This group of fellows, along with the more than 800 who have come before, reflects the tremendous breadth of creativity among us,” MacArthur Foundation President Robert Gallucci said in a press release announcing the 2010 winners. “They are explorers and risk takers, contributing to their fields and to society in innovative, impactful ways.”
Abo-Shaeer tells Education Week he’s unsure exactly how he’ll spend his award, but he said the money is “intended to free me up to do creative things, allowing me … to act quickly on creative ideas that I have that we can try out in education.” And that’s what he intends to do.
“I’ve been doing a lot of things that are creative by any means necessary,” he said. “I’d really rather, if we have a good idea, implement it effectively.”
At the same time, he cautioned that he has no immediate plans to stop teaching. “I absolutely will stay a teacher for right now,” he said. “This award hasn’t changed my trajectory. … I absolutely feel very strongly about what we have in the community to creating this [engineering] program, and if something is not done, moving on before something is completed is not my style.”
Even if he eventually stops teaching, Abo-Shaeer told Education Week he expects to stay engaged in efforts to improve public education. “The core thing I’m trying to figure out how to do,” he said, “is offer students unique educational experiences that they cannot replicate in an online experience, so when they’re there, they see the intrinsic value.”
“I’m trying to change the way we deliver curriculum to students,” he said. “There is so much focus on information and not as much on the experience. … You can’t build a robot by reading about it online.”
by Michelle French
Since the public reviews of the Next Generation Science Standards have come to a close, like many primary teachers, I’ve been wondering what science will look like in kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms. Learn More…
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Responses from Readers:
Peter A’Hearn: Rush hour in little blue circle land.
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The election is being conducted electronically and opened for voting on April 16, 2013. Voting will close on May 16, 2013. All CSTA members were sent links to the online ballot. Members for whom we do not have current email addresses or who request a paper ballot have been mailed a ballot and candidate statements. Learn More…