Amir Abo-Shaeer: Project-Based Education for the Future

Amir Abo-Shaeer: Project-Based Education for the Future

Amir Abo-Shaeer_headshot

Project-Based Education for the Future


Amir Abo-Shaeer, Founder of Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, discusses how DPEA prepares students for careers that don’t exist today.

The first high school MacArthur Fellow teacher, Amir Abo-Shaeer, was recently invited to the 2nd Annual White House Next Generation High School Summit. Along with DPEA alumna Madison Pickett, he traveled to Washington D.C. to be part of a panel discussion in connection with the NOVA School of the Future documentary.

Amir Abo-Shaeer speaks with impactmania about how in addition to being a high school, DPEA is also a research project in itself, delving into the ways students learn. In the near future, DPEA will be working on expanding the successes seen through this integrated project and technology based approach to benefit other schools, students, and society. 

You were recently invited to the White House Next Generation High School Summit. What message did you bring?

Our world has changed very rapidly in the last 15 to 20 years; school has not changed in a hundred years. The two are now becoming more divergent. How do we address that? What goals can school achieve? What do students need to be successful in this changing world?

Our school, in particular, has this idea of project- and technology-based learning where the projects are real, authentic, and rooted in newer technologies.

Give me an example of project-based learning at Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy.

We have chosen to work on installations of kinetic sculptures and science exhibits. These could go into technical museums or museums of art. We’ve demonstrated that students can work with teachers on a collaborative project by building The Carousel of Physics that was placed at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. It has an intention beyond being cool. There’s an educational purpose in having students participate in an existing industry sector.

There are exhibit creators, for example, that create exhibits for museums across the country. We’re exploring this idea of a high school — a unique facility with students who have been trained to work together collaboratively — that creates professional exhibits that can actually be competitive with what would be found in an industry setting. 

With future jobs such as nano medics and 3D body part makers, jobs we have little information about right now, how do you educate students to prepare them for the future roles and responsibilities they have to take on?

The way that we address that is by working on something that’s open ended. As students move into these fields, they’re going to be inventing the field that they’re working in.

Project-based learning is where the project is well defined. Design-based learning is where we are identifying a set of constraints or a set of problems we’re trying to solve.

Then, we’re going to address that by solving that problem. In our case, we prepare students for future jobs by creating and making installations using current technology — industry standard in terms of the types of mechanisms and electronics. That gets students used to the idea of working with the latest software to achieve their goal.

Give me a specific problem that you put forward.

The Carousel of Physics – The challenge was to create something that was an interactive display demonstrating many interesting and exciting concepts in physics.

The Carousel of Physics built by 61 DPEA students

The Carousel of Physics built by 61 DPEA students

Imagine you’re sitting in a class where you are inspired by something that the professor does at the front of the classroom. These are the ‘aha’ moments. We wanted this entire device to present these things on demand and in perpetuity. A demonstration that someone might only get to see if they’re in a science college class is now accessible to a five year old. “Wow, this is how waves form on a plate vibrating” or “I didn’t understand how a Van de Graaff generator works.” On The Carousel of Physics, we have 61 different physics demonstrations happening, delightfully, artistically, and aesthetically presented.

The challenge was how do you get 61 people to work collaboratively together to build a unified installation that is both artistically and educationally coherent and meets specs? That’s what we were able to ultimately do and prove was possible.

What has been a surprising learning in the process of building DPEA?

I would say it’s both surprising and troubling: how hard it is to help students bridge the gap between a traditional learning environment and an environment that is more innovative. We find that it’s extremely challenging to get students who are used to getting points and grades on every assignment and test in this very predictable way to accept us suddenly saying, “We just want you to be a top performer and work on this open-ended project.”

That open-endedness, which is required of all of us once we become an employee or we start our own company, is not addressed in a traditional school setting. People get their first job and they hear, “Well, yes, you’ve learned all this stuff in school, but put all that aside. Now that you’re working in our company, we’re going to train you on how to be effective in this environment.”

We’re watching that transition happen, and it’s illuminating as to how many ways education is ineffective for preparing people appropriately for the world.

Do you feel that there are programs in other countries that have figured out education more so than we have in the U.S.?

I have only seen it through limited experience. It’s worth looking at some of these documentaries. In Finland there’s much less of a focus on homework, there’s more of a focus on process. The students generally tend to do better on standardized tests, even these international standardized tests.

I’ve been in discussions with folks, and they’re saying, “Look, the purpose of education is not to prepare people for going off and being successful for working in a company. The purpose of school is to give people a broad liberal education.” I think, “Why can’t you have a broad liberal education and maybe have two to four years in graduate school to be ready to participate in the world?” You can do both and I haven’t really seen examples of people doing that.

Unfortunately, education is too often done in isolation and abstraction. We would do ourselves a huge favor if we were clearer about our educational goals.

How do you scale a program like DPEA?

In only five years, we’ve developed a comprehensive integrated high school, engineering, art, and design experience. Maybe in the next couple years, we will have tied some kind of bow on what we’ve created and say, “This is something we’re ready to start spreading.”

Some people who have looked at what we’re doing have said, “There’s no way to replicate this, it’s crazy. You’ve raised all this money. You’ve got this wonderful facility.”

We’re in California, which is about 46th in educational spending; there are numerous states that are spending far more, even with the supplemental money that we raise. We raise about $2,000 per student. That puts us below the national average in spending.

Our idea is that we would go to places that are spending well over the national average first, and help them look to reallocate some of their money to offer what we’re doing, without having to raise money.

You started collaborating with Crane School (K – 8th grade)?

Yes, we also started collaborating with other elementary schools.

We don’t feel that what we’re doing at the secondary level is ready for prime time, in terms of replication. However, our integrated curriculum is ready to be deployed. We felt that the easiest place to start testing our model would be in the elementary schools because the teachers control all of the different subject matter. They would be in the best position to try to work toward integration of a variety of subjects.

What would be needed to make a social impact with DPEA?

We need to make sure that what we have is sustainable as a research exemplar. We view ourselves as a research institution. The students get educated, but simultaneously everybody here is acting as a practicing researcher.

Then, I’d identify regions in the country with adequate funding and create other exemplar versions. You’ll get change if you get enough of these programs in places where it’s not going to be challenging for people to start. With all of these exemplars in place, people’s views on education will change. 

Santa Barbara spends little on education, but there are districts in California where they’re spending $15,000 to $20,000 a kid. The politicians and the folks that are writing policies would look at these grassroots exemplars and say, “Let’s use these models of successful education. Let’s put in structures that can enable this to propagate.”

Our country is huge. We have so many school districts and many different approaches. However, the approach has always been top down, government funded innovation and initiatives being deployed to teachers and schools. There are no companies that innovate like that.

In industry and certainly within a startup, people innovate from the bottom up. Innovation is not going to come from somebody with a great idea who is six layers removed from the classroom. And then through another six layers of telephone games that turn into something that gets deployed into a classroom

Who has made an imprint on your professional DNA?

That’s an easy one for me. In high school I had a teacher, Ike Jenkins. He was my band director. I did band, jazz band, and drumline. Working with him over the course of four years greatly influenced me. For example, the fact that our program was multi-year; we had the same students over the course of four years

During senior year, I was able to participate in more aspects of the music department. Even that was built into DPEA structure where our seniors have more freedom — taking the classes necessary to help them matriculate and apply to college.

Ike Jenkins’s approach to teaching was very influential. He wasn’t doing education to us. We were arriving, collaborating, and developing music together. He was definitely visionary, but we all collectively worked towards that vision.

I could not see myself being a high school teacher if I used the other teachers as a models. Ike’s existence in my life gave me a model of how I could make an impact that made sense for how I am as a person.

That’s wonderful, does he still teach?

He does still teach. He runs a professional jazz band at the Santa Barbara City College. I think he’s nearly 80 now.

What are you not good at?

I am not the traditional academically successful person. Standardized tests didn’t measure what I could bring to the experience. I worked really really really hard to get reasonable grades. I worked harder than my peers in physics generally. Every experience that I had was telling me I wasn’t smart. It was beating down my self-esteem.

Finally, when I was a senior in college, our teacher assigned us a project in our lab class and said, “You’re going to build a solar water heater and whoever heats the water up to the highest temperature gets an A plus.” It was the first educational experience that connected with me. I did some novel things and won the solar water heater contest. That was the first time that college affirmed what I brought to the table.

That experience helped shape the DPEA. We try to speak to all different types of students. We might have a student that’s fantastic at computer science but struggles fabricating things in the machine shop. People are getting built up. They’re also realizing there are areas where they can work harder. They are having one consistent message, over and over again, about how they are as a person. They’re neither being affirmed all the time, nor are they being beaten down all the time. That’s valuable, because that’s how we grow.

Initially, the elective engineering class was set up in a room next to Dos Pueblos High School's auto body shop. Today, it is a complete program with an enrollment of 400-plus students with a 50/50 split between girls and boys.

Initially, the elective engineering class was set up in a room next to the High School’s auto body shop. Today, the Engineering Academy is a complete program with an enrollment of 400-plus, 50/50 split, female and male students.

A lot of what you speak about is clearly part of the education issue. How we teach our children and what they learn is outdated.

Yes, simply look at a standardized test. Some students will do better if you give them more time. Some people will not. Wouldn’t it be nice to know the difference?

You’ve got someone who’s going to get 80 percent on the SAT, and you give them 10 more minutes, and they get 100 percent. Then there’s another student who gets 80 percent, you give them two more hours, and they don’t get any better.

There are a bunch of different issues. But who cares about time? I’m not saying to give people seven days. If you’re feeling stressed, it should be about, “Do I know this stuff?” not, “Do I have enough time to demonstrate any of this stuff?” That’s a whole different way to look at something.

Maybe there are tests where it’s important to filter for time. If you want someone to diffuse a bomb, maybe that’s something where you want people to be able to work quickly!

In many instances you could be screening out something that would be very valuable, for example, conscientiousness on the part of the student.


Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy student in the machine shop. It is part of a 12,000 square-foot facility.

Give me one word that describes your journey so far.


That’s the word that describes what has been necessary to achieve the journey. There’s a bunch of other things that have contributed. I think having the belief to stick with something in the face of whatever was thrown my way — without tenacity there would not have been the success.

Where is this tenacity coming from?

In terms of creativity and creating something, I definitely have a very deep well to draw from. 

I don’t know if it crosses over if I was going to climb Mount Everest!

When I was assigned the solar water heater, I knew that I was going to be able to be successful. I could spend an infinite amount of time pondering how to make it better. I love continuous improvement.

Maybe there’s also the part of knowing that things are never perfect. It’s not perfectionism — it’s belief that you can always make things better. I think that fuels tenacity.