Arab teacher earns US 'genius' prize

An Iraqi-American physics teacher in California has won a US$500,000 grant for using robots to inspire high school students to learn about science.

**HOLD FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EDT TUESDAY, SEPT. 28. THIS PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. EDT** In this photo taken Sept. 21, 2010 and provided the MacArthur Foundation, public school teachers Amir Abo-Shaeer Amir Abo-Shaeer poses with PenguinBot 4 in the Physics lab at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, Calif. Abo-Shaeer is among 23 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants." The $500,000 grants were announced Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010, by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (AP Photo/MacArthur Foundation, Amanda Edwards)  **NO SALES** *** Local Caption ***  CX108_Genius_Grants.jpg
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NEW YORK // Amir Abo-Shaeer took only one day off from teaching when it was announced he had won a US$500,000 (Dh1.8million) "genius" grant this week for his pioneering work in using robotics to inspire high school students, particularly girls, to study science.

The physics teacher, 38, said he was told two weeks ago about the award from the MacArthur Foundation, which can be spent however recipients decide. But he was sworn to secrecy, so it was a relief to share openly his joy with students at the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, with is part of the public Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California.

"I still had to teach because if I don't stay on track, the students won't finish the curriculum and they have national tests coming up," he said. "The award is definitely very exciting but overwhelmingly I felt relief it wasn't a secret anymore."

Mr Abo-Shaeer was born to an Iraqi Muslim father and a Catholic American mother in Sao Paulo, Brazil, but the family moved when he was nine months old to Santa Barbara, which is about 150km north of Los Angeles, and he has lived there ever since.

This is his 10th year teaching at the academy, which he attended as a child and where he has helped increase female enrolment to 50 per cent, well above the national average of high school girls studying science. He was among 23 creative people awarded grants this year on Tuesday and the foundation described them as "exceptional people who are likely to make great things happen". They included David Simon, the author and creator of The Wire television series, and Sebastian Ruth, the founder of an inner-city music academy in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as a number of artists and scientists.

Anonymous "nominators" suggest candidates to the foundation, where anonymous judges then narrow the pool of hundreds of people to about 20 each year. Including this year's fellows, there have been 828 recipients since the first group was named in 1981. Mr Abo-Shaeer was already on the verge of fame because of a book due to be released next year by Neal Bascomb, a New York Times bestselling author, and optioned for a film. The book, The New Cool, tells how Mr Abo-Shaeer set out to transform science education by making participation in an international robotics competition part of his curriculum.

The charity First, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, runs the robotics competition. The competition was designed to inspire high school students to become engineers by giving them real-world experience working with professional engineers to develop a robot. Mr Abo-Shaeer's students have won several prizes at First, which was founded in 1989. He credits robotics along with active encouragement and advocacy behind his high rate of female students.

"We reach to 13- and 14-year-old girls through seminars and get older students to speak with them to show science is accessible and interesting," he said. "It's a problem of society and culture that more girls don't feel science is for them. We give an overt and political message to girls about science that a lot of people shy away from." Mr Abo-Shaeer was fascinated by science as a child. "I would take things apart just to put them back together, play with Lego and invent things," he said. After attending the Dos Pueblos high school, he went to the University of California, Santa Barbara where he earned a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's in mechanical engineering.

He worked in the private sector for almost four years in aerospace and telecommunications but he found engineering too "controlled" and wanted a creative outlet. He thought he could find in teaching, so he then earned a master's degree in secondary education. He is married with one child. "Given I've won an award, I really hope to change education on a wider scale," he said. "I know some of the things I've been doing are working and it would be great to talk to people who shape policy rather than just wait around under policies that aren't [working]."

He has no idea how he will spend the grant, which is taxed and paid over five years in instalments, the first of them in January to allow time for recipients to reflect. But Mr Abo-Shaeer does not plan to take a sabbatical or quit teaching, which pays an average of $60,000 a year in California. "I'm not going to buy a yacht or give up teaching otherwise things would fall apart. We're in the process of hiring and training new teachers so perhaps after that," he said. "But a decent holiday would be nice!"