Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An Inspiring Conversation with Amir Abo-Shaeer

Amir Abo-Shaeer is a high school physics teacher in Santa Barbara, California.  But he is not just any physics teacher.  He is the founder and Director of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, is the 2010 recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellow award, and is the lead character in the book The New Cool by Neal Bascomb which tells the story of his high school's winning entry in the 2008 F.I.R.S.T. robotics competition.

Amir and I spoke recently about robotics, his program and his views about teaching, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), the importance of making things, and American kids.

When I asked him what he thought about President Obama's recently announced AMP program - $70 million of which is for robotics - I was a bit surprised when he said he wasn't up on this. He explained to me that his focus has always been on education; not on developing robotics. He described how robotics has offered the ideal means by which to teach his students physics and engineering, and the FIRST program has given them the opportunity to utilizes skill sets that they can handle. Amir stated that inspiring kids to make things - to create things - was his number one priority.

In fact, Abo-Shaeer has incorporated the FIRST robotics competition directly into his 4-year curriculum. The entire senior class makes up the school's team and the class project is to create, build and compete. Amir said that he chose the FIRST program because it already exists, it has a successful track record, and it is exciting to the kids.

When I asked Amir whether he had read Suzanne Berger's essay on why manufacturing matters, he said that he hadn't but that he agreed with her position. He verbalized his concern that if Americans continue toward a service economy, there doesn't appear to be anything figured out - any national strategy or retraining program - for that portion of the middle class displaced by the loss of their jobs to offshore manufacturers. He also said:
I personally think it's a national security issue that we're not producing what we use. Every country should be capable of reasonably supporting itself. Yet we are leading the charge for one country (China) to make everything by our offshoring all of our products.

China could have something go wrong; not evil or with malice; just something that would cut off our products. It's important that we not be held hostage to that kind of disruption.

If you get people excited, they can figure out our problems and create businesses along the way... like harnessing the sun's energy. We need more creative people in science and engineering working on this.

Science, engineering and technological advancements are what made us embrace science in the past; we can do it in the future by getting our kids into the pipeline, properly trained and motivated.
Goodtime Clock IV, by George Rhoads, Santa Barbara Airport
Part of Abo-Shaeer's 4-year program is teaching art and creativity. In the 9th through 11th grades, the focus is art, engineering and architecture; the 12th grade is for robotics.
Kinetic sculpture (like the one by George Rhodes at the Santa Barbara Airport) is fun and exciting - to figure out how it works; to make their own version.

My personal mission is to broaden awareness of creation as a way of life: art, engineering... to make something; to create something.

The junior class will build kinetic sculptures which will be offered for public spaces in the Santa Barbara area. These are the kinds of projects I'm searching for - stand-alone things like that; robots are just a prop along the way of trying to teach the kids how to do everything - using their hands.
Another part of Amir's program is partnering with local businesses which can provide mentors, financial support and internships for the students. Raytheon, a national company with two divisions in Santa Barbara, is a good example of how this works.
Since we've begun the program we've gone full circle with Raytheon. They've provided mentors, financial support and internships to our kids. And now that the first few have graduated college and returned to Santa Barbara, Raytheon has hired some of them. That's how it works.
Abo-Shaeer has a plan to grow his program throughout California. He's creating a curriculum and bringing in teachers and helping them grow their own programs.
We are successful. You hear all the time that our kids don't want to do science. But they do. We aren't really marketing our program and they are still turning out in good numbers. With our new building we can now accept three times our original number of students. They want to do it and are excited about it. We're letting 100 of them in each cycle. Our attrition rate is zero! We're demonstrating that kids love this kind of stuff - and 50% of our students are girls!

I've had students that couldn't cut paper with a scissors. But when they leave the program they can build anything with confidence!
Abo-Shaeer is an energetic speaker and seems to be a natural at getting people excited. Although he's not that into the business of robotics, he's interested in whatever it takes to keep kids' attention. He wants everyone to understand and embrace his message: American kids can be interested in science, technology, engineering and math. They can make things with their hands. They can find excitement in STEM in that context. And their combined creative energy can solve problems.

[As an aside: Amir reminds me of the reason I chose to learn glass blowing many years ago. John Burton, coincidentally he was from Santa Barbara too, won an Emmy award for his philosophizing while glass blowing - talking about the same things that Abo-Shaeer talked about with me: the value of making things with your hands, the creativity unleashed, and the joy of learning and accomplishment. I wrote and asked whether he gave private lessons and when he said yes, drove 90 miles each Friday for many years - enjoying my time with him, learning new skills, making lots of different things, and seeing my skills expand. I forgot to ask Amir who inspired him....]