Imagine for a moment that it is the early morning, you haven’t had your coffee yet, your workday looms ahead, the sun is just starting to wake the world up, and your home phone rings. On the other end is a man’s voice. You don’t recognize it at all; in fact, you were expecting someone else all together. Nonetheless, you carry on with the conversation as the mystery voice excitedly starts talking about “Genius Awards” and money, lots of free money with your name on it and absolutely zero strings attached. Your mind boggles as you hang up the receiver and it begins to set in that you have just been given half a million dollars with the sole purpose of making the world a better place.
Such was the weird and wonderful experience of Dos Pueblos (DP) High School physics teacher Amir Abo-Shaeer earlier this month. The primary figure behind DP’s esteemed and award-winning Engineering Academy since it was founded in 2002, Abo-Shaeer was officially announced this week as a 2010 MacArthur Fellow — an annual honor bestowed upon roughly two dozen U.S. citizens who, according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Web site, “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”
Commonly called the “Genius Award,” the fellowship — which has 23 honorees this year including Abo-Shaeer — is really more of an investment in the brilliance and good nature of the recipients themselves, as it gives each $500,000, paid out over five years, to do with as they wish with absolutely nothing expected in return. “You can’t apply for something like this and there is no actual application, so, yeah, I was surprised,” said Abo-Shaeer. “I really had no idea. … Even once I realized what [the fateful phone call] was about, it still seemed so unrealistic. I kept thinking, ‘I don’t get things like this, nor do any other public school teachers for that matter.’” In fact, in the three decades that the grants have been given, this blissfully non-cell-phone-owning husband and father of one is the first “teacher” to win the award.
A beloved part of the Dos Pueblos faculty since 2001, UCSB alum Abo-Shaeer left a lucrative career in engineering to join the ranks of public teachers — a move that he readily admits has raised a few eyebrows over the years. “I really have never looked back [from that decision],” he reflected this week. “I tell my students every day, if you follow your heart, everything is going to be okay. … I don’t think enough people follow their passions.” Luckily for students at DP, Abo-Shaeer’s own passion-driven career change led him back to the very campus where he himself attended high school. A physics teacher by trade, he headed up the Engineering Academy in 2002 and, with help from parents, fellow faculty, the community at large, and, of course, the students themselves, has helped grow the school-within-a-school program into an immensely popular and shining example of public school done right.
Not only has the Engineering Academy, thanks to grants and donations, recently broken ground on a new 12,500-square-foot facility — something that will eventually allow it to triple enrollment and open its doors to students of all achievement levels — but it has gained international recognition via frequent top-three finishes in robotics competitions against bigger and better-funded programs from around the world.
In fact, last year’s team and Abo-Shaeer are the subject of a soon-to-be-released book by New York Times bestselling author Neal Bascomb called The New Cool. Even more impressively, and perhaps a better indicator of what exactly makes this newest MacArthur Fellow tick, the program, thanks to purposeful recruitment work by Abo-Shaeer in the district’s junior high schools, boasts a nearly 50/50 enrollment between boys and girls — a classroom gender makeup that is leaps and bounds above the enrollment averages for other advanced science and math courses in the nation. “My hope is that we create a program that any student in eighth grade, no matter who they are, can look at it and say, ‘That is something I can do.’”
As for what exactly he plans to do with the unexpected windfall of funds, Abo-Shaeer is still getting his head around what exactly it all means. Saying that, at this point, all he knows is that “I want to continue what I’ve been doing, but maybe with more creation and less strings attached,” the teacher explained this week that he definitely knows what he doesn’t want to have happen. “The failure of this whole thing will be if this award forces me to be not who I am,” he remarked, before adding with a smile, “I’ve already told my students that nothing is going to change, except they have to start calling me Genius.”