HOMEGROWN HERO: A physics teacher at the very high school he once attended, Dos Pueblos High’s Amir Abo-Shaeer (pictured), who also heads up the school’s Engineering Academy, was officially announced this week as a 2010 MacArthur Fellow — an unsolicited, if not somewhat mysterious, honor that provides carefully culled recipients from all walks of life with $500,000 to use as they wish.
Paul Wellman

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 

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


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