During the past 13 years, students of Dos Pueblos High School’s innovative Engineering Academy have advanced its reputation nationwide with award-winning projects built by teen brains buzzing with physics, mechanics, computer-aided design, and art. But to the program’s founder and director, UCSB-trained physicist Amir Abo-Shaeer, it wasn’t making the local impact he had imagined.
“People are flying in from across the county to see what we do,” he said, “but much of our own [school] district didn’t even know what was going on.” That’s now changing, due in part to cutting-edge partnerships the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA) has forged with two South Coast schools, one within its own Santa Barbara Unified School District, and the other a private K-8 in Montecito.
In the public realm, Adams Elementary School 5th-grade teacher Sean Federbusch — who spent a decade in the tech world before switching over to teaching five years ago — is spending the 2015-16 school year on a sabbatical of sorts, working full-time at DPEA to absorb its philosophy and techniques so he can bring them back to the Adams Design Center, a brand-new, 2,000-square-foot classroom funded by 2010 ballot measures Q and R.
Initially, the space was destined to become a computer lab, “but that sounded so archaic,” said Principal Amy Alzina, who, on a tip from Federbusch last year, became intrigued with Stanford University’s d.school, a multidisciplinary design program. She wanted something similar for Adams kids. It turns out, Alzina was delighted to learn, that similar cross-pollinating pedagogy had been the norm for years just up the highway at DPEA. Coincidentally, Alzina said, Abo-Shaeer was looking to expand DPEA’s program into primary grades. With a blessing from Santa Barbara Unified’s superintendent and board of directors, the partnership was born. Next fall, all of Adams’ students, K-6, will study Federbusch’s now-evolving curriculum as part of the school’s design, art, and music rotation.
“The idea is that if this works at Adams, it’ll spread to other elementary schools in the district,” Alzina said.
In the meantime, a similar partnership is preparing two Crane Country Day School teachers — Sabina Funk, an art teacher and fabricator, and Joe Donahue, who specializes in computer science and robotics — for the private K-8’s Oak Tree Quad, a $4.5 million expansion that includes an engineering and design center. As with Federbusch’s arrangement, Funk and Donahue will simultaneously teach this year at DPEA while absorbing and reinventing its lessons for younger students back at Crane.
Before partnering with DPEA, Crane was already a few years into the development of its engineering program, “but we had some blanks that needed to be resolved,” said Head of School Joel Weiss. During a DPEA tour with a visiting educator in February, Weiss and Crane Board President Tom Kenny were impressed with the facility and its founder, Abo-Shaeer. The lightbulb went off for Weiss and Kenny — some sort of collaboration with DPEA was in order, especially after hearing that Abo-Shaeer needed more hands to help out. “It was very serendipitous,” Weiss said. “[DPEA’s] need was more high-level teachers. Our need was a degree of expertise. The best partnerships happen when both sides are invested with the other.” If construction of Oak Tree Quad stays on track, its engineering and design center — sometimes refereed to as a maker space — will be filled with students next fall.
By Paul Wellman