In my book, The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts, I follow one unique high school team in their pursuit of robotics glory. Led by Amir Abo-Shaeer, the first public school teacher to win the MacArthur “Genius” Award, the story highlights his innovative style of instruction, one relevant to teachers of every subject.
When Amir first left a successful career in engineering to become a high school physics teacher, he was frustrated by how he was expected to run his daily lessons. Too much of the focus was on walking his students through the textbook, memorizing functions and equations, in order that they could perform well on this and that standardized text. His students were bored—and he felt they were for good reason.
He knew, much as they knew, that what he was teaching them could just as easily be looked up on Wikipedia or the like. This was a waste of the precious time he had with these students. Since they were a “captive audience” within his classroom, he wanted to give them an experience, an education, that they could never look up online.
So began his four-year Engineering Academy within Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California. He designed a new curriculum, one that focused on interactive, hands-on experiential learning. The students would learn the theory, yes, but they would see this theory play out in real-life projects that they would be responsible for leading and completing—with the guidance, of course, of knowledgeable mentors.
The academy’s capstone course involves their participation in FIRST, an international robotics competition started by genius inventor Dean Kamen. Over six weeks, both during school hours and after, his seniors conceive, design, prototype, machine, program, wire, and build a robot that will compete in regional and national competitions. The students work side-by-side with mentors that Amir recruited from the local community, and these students earn a grade and academic credit for their participation.
Yes, the students solidify their knowledge of physics, programming, and engineering—and such basic concepts like how to actually use a ruler. But they also learn self-reliance, creative problem-solving, teamwork, and, perhaps most important, the level of intensity/effort needed to create something exceptional.
Many of the students I followed over the course of a year within Amir’s universe, have shared that they look back at the capstone course as their most formative “class” in high school. They learned lessons that will pave their path to success, no matter the endeavor they pursue.
This is what makes Amir’s story so compelling. He truly is a real-life Peter Keating of Dead Poets Society fame, except his métier is physics and math.