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He makes physics fun

Building 'awesome' robots is just one part of a MacArthur grant winner's formula for inspiring his students.

April 29, 2011|Steve Chawkins

GOLETA, CALIF. — It was lunch hour and hundreds of Dos Pueblos High School students surged onto the bleachers at the school's outdoor Greek Theater. The crowd was cheering, the music was thumping and a student-built robot named Penguinbot IV was wheeling and pivoting, sucking up dozens of lightweight balls and shooting them at the young athletes who had ventured onstage.

From a console to one side, teenagers in black, NASA-style jumpsuits guided the 150-pound machine as it weaved and dodged. When the robot and star basketball player Jay Larinan began pelting each other, a girl in the stands screamed, "I believe in you, Jay!" The crowd went wild.

It was the kind of free-spirited scene that gladdens the heart of Amir Abo-Shaeer, the 39-year-old physics teacher who each year leads the school's robotics team into a rigorous national competition that requires months of preparation and a season's worth of intense face-offs.

"There are plenty of robotics teams that are holed up in closets and have never seen the sun before," he said. "But these kids are walking around totally proud, wearing their flight suits and their patches. They're building crazy, awesome stuff, and we're bringing busloads of fans to their competitions. There's no doubt that it's cool."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, April 30, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Physics teacher: An April 29 article in Section A about Amir Abo-Shaeer, a physics teacher at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, said he was the first high school teacher to receive a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. Tommie Lindsey, a forensics coach at James Logan High School in Union City, Calif., was a recipient in 2004.

Or who made it that way.

At a time when the profession is under attack, Abo-Shaeer has emerged as a national example of great teaching.

Last year, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation $500,000 "genius" grant, the first high school teacher to win one. He and his robotics team -- known as Team 1717 and the D'Penguineers -- are the subjects of a recently released book, "The New Cool." A film is in the works.

And while Abo-Shaeer likens navigating the educational system to wading through peanut butter, he has managed to launch an in-school engineering academy and to raise $6 million for it.

Not bad for a hometown guy who could have made a lot more and worked a lot less if he hadn't decided to become a teacher at his old public high school.

Abo-Shaeer grew up in Goleta, the son of an Iraqi theoretical physicist who had worked and studied on four continents.

As a young man, Muhsin Abo-Shaeer had so excelled at math and science that the Iraqi government prepared him for a science career the way Russia grooms gymnasts for the Olympics. But when he settled in Santa Barbara, where he'd earned his doctorate, and couldn't find a physics job, he started mowing lawns for a living.

"When I grew up, I knew people looked down on what he was doing," Amir Abo-Shaeer said, "but he actually loved it. It gave him time to write poetry, to become the Renaissance man he wanted to be without the baggage of having to have people see him as successful."

It was a lesson his son took to heart.

As a Dos Pueblos student, he got good grades but cared most about playing drums for band director Ike Jenkins.

When Abo-Shaeer talks about Jenkins, he sounds much like his own students describing him: "He was so willing to talk and be open and be himself. He treated students as if it were a partnership."

After high school, Abo-Shaeer worked his way through UC Santa Barbara bagging groceries. He found it more fulfilling, he says, than his main job following grad school. The Goleta-based company he worked for made racks for industrial telephone equipment and Abo-Shaeer designed rack variations. He was bored out of his skull -- stuck for six years in a position whose perks included insomnia and back pain.

One of his few sunny moments was using a teacup and spoon to teach a colleague thermodynamics.

"He totally understood it," Abo-Shaeer recalls. "You could see a major light bulb going on."

Abo-Shaeer had liked being a teaching assistant at UC Santa Barbara and began taking education classes there. In 2001, when a job opened at Dos Pueblos, he jumped. "I didn't realize how much I would love it," he said.


When he feels like it, Abo-Shaeer comes to work wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and a day's stubble. Students vie to get into his classes, where they find a man both laid-back and relentless.

In Advanced Placement physics, he rails against standardized tests, but urges his students to ace them. "It's like me and them against The Man," he says. Only one or two of the 60 AP students he teaches each year flunk the test.

The AP test epitomizes the kind of education he detests: swamping students with information they'll soon forget instead of helping them absorb a few important topics in depth.

Reviewing a practice test one recent morning, he warmed up the room like a standup comic before moving on to gravity vectors and force fields. When a student in the front row nodded off, he crouched in front of him, leaned into his ear and, in a hoarse stage whisper, asked: "How ya doin'?"

"He's like, 'Just shoot me!'" Abo-Shaeer told the class. "He's like, 'I'd rather be anywhere than here!'"

The same morning, in his robotics class, he slipped into another role: chief executive of a high-tech startup.

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