Inside the Genius of MacArthur Award-Winner Amir Abo-Shaeer

The award winner stops to chat with Fast Company about his plans for the $500,000 prize.

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Amir Abo-Shaeer was named a MacArthur "genius" grant winner this week, and when you hear about his innovations in science and engineering education, you'll understand why. Abo-Shaeer founded and raised over $6 million to build the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy in Southern California, an experience-based learning program for high school students that essentially is re-branding engineering to the young, self-conscious demographic of teenagers.

It's not that it's cool to be a nerd, Abo-Shaeer says; it's that engineering is just cool. Leave the nerdy part out of it and you get a discipline that at its core requires and encourages creativity. Without creativity, Abo-Shaeer says, an engineer is simply an analyst re-packaging information.

His approach is a departure from the mainstream, and what he hopes to do with his $500,000 is to invite teachers to the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy to become trained and then go out and replicate his approach in other communities, he tells Fast Company.

Abo-Shaeer says he runs the Academy "like a business." "Students help write grants; they do PR, and they develop our website." He calls his approach project-based learning and says the students learn both soft skills and business skills so they are ready "to join the world of work."

"We are going to be left behind if we don't see a paradigm shift," says Abo-Shaeer. He therefore wants to see his project-based learning applied to all subjects and taught across the United States in order to meet the demands of "students as consumers of education."

"I can get this info on the Internet," is the sentence that he says is his main competition. "Having that access [to the Internet] changes the dynamic of education," says Abo-Shaeer, and that's precisely the reason why he feels an imperative to innovate and build a new approach to education.

Abo-Shaeer has much to boast of—there is a waiting list for his rigorous classes, which are now 50% female (compared to 5% when he first started) and his students like and respect him and enjoy doing science and engineering. "If you package it right, people want to do it."

The award is dispersed over five years, which Abo-Shaeer says he's grateful for. It's giving him the time to step back and reflect on how to use the funds, as he's still not quite sure what everything's going to look like.

The award is, more than anything else, "a recognition of what I'm doing," says Abo-Shaeer. And when he looks back on his life, he wants to be able to see that a whole new approach to education was implemented in schools and to know that he drove home an approach that he knows works. After all, it was his experience as a Teacher's Assistant (TA) in graduate school that made him realize his draw toward mentoring and it was his band director in school, a Mr. Ike Jenkins, that showed him the power of everyone working together.

From those early experiences, Abo-Shaeer developed a love for—and insight into—innovative learning and now, well, now he's a MacArthur genius!

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