Science Teacher Wins ‘Genius Grant’ From MacArthur

By Erik W. Robelen — September 28, 2010 3 min read
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Amir Abo-Shaeer, who teaches high school science and engineering in California, 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, 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. He teaches physics and engineering at Dos Pueblos High School, in Goleta, Calif., and develops courses focused on project-based learning, including a robotics class. In 2002, he started the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, a specialized program at the high school with a rigorous applied science curriculum that integrates physics, engineering, and math courses, and he continues to direct the academy.

The MacArthur website says that “Abo-Shaeer’s novel and effective model of science instruction 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 21st century.”

“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.”

Other winners this year include a stone carver, a quantum astrophysicist, a jazz pianist, a theater director, and an economist. “All were selected for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future,” the foundation says.

Abo-Shaeer said 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.”

In fact, he played a leading role in securing a $3 million matching grant from California to create a new facility to expand the engineering program at Dos Pueblos High School. Construction began on the 12,000 square-foot Elings Center for Engineering Education in July.

Even if he eventually stops teaching, Abo-Shaeer said 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.”

[UPDATE (10:25am): Two other MacArthur Fellows this year also bear mention here. First, is Sebastian Ruth, a violist, violinist, and music educator for urban youth. He founded Community MusicWorks, a nonprofit organization based in Providence, R.I., that offers frequent performances and free musical instruction led by its house ensemble, the Providence String Quartet. Second is Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California Berkeley who, among other things, co-authored a study that sought to calculate the economic value of oustanding kindergarten teachers.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.