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Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy Celebrates Its Success

Seniors get a chance to bask in their accomplishments as excitement builds for imminent construction of new complex

The Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy has a richly deserved reputation for success in global robotics competitions. Last week its achievements were celebrated in a more intimate setting, in front of family, friends and other supporters of the academy.

The academy’s entire program — 32 Dos Pueblos High students — is structured around robotics, as high school robotics courses have proven to increase students’ interest in science and engineering while maintaining a high level of enthusiasm about them. Additionally, constructing a robot requires students to comprehend a variety of science and engineering concepts. By the students’ senior year, they are able to take part in the academy’s robotics team, Team 1717, which requires them to build a robot for competitions. The team is given six weeks to assemble the robot under specific guidelines, and then use it to compete in a designated game.

For the past three years, Team 1717 has accomplished quite a lot, including back-to-back-to-back appearances at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics World Championship in Atlanta. But the 2010 highlights are particularly impressive, with multiple prestigious awards. For the second year, the squad won the Motorola Quality Award for the best-made robot at the FIRST competition. The team also won the Engineering Inspiration Award, which recognizes the members’ influence in community service, their increased appreciation for engineering and engineers, and their efforts in raising money for the academy’s new facility.

In addition to the awards, they’ve also enjoyed major success as a team, taking home a first- and second-place finish in their two regional competitions in Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as becoming a quarter-finalist at the FIRST championship at the Georgia Dome.

For those interested in joining the academy, students must understand it requires their best effort. The team’s success didn’t just come from the students’ sheer intelligence. They worked tirelessly to make their goals happen. Whether it meant staying at school until 4 a.m. or giving up their free time to learn a new program or to practice driving their robot, they proudly claim to have spent more than 700 hours this year working on their champion robot.

The guidance from program director Amir Abo-Shaeer, who is in his ninth year teaching and seventh year with the academy, and the academy’s numerous mentors, who all possess strong backgrounds in science and engineering, has helped Team 1717 achieve great success. Abo-Shaeer believes they can influence a greater good, however.

“Our goal is to transform culture and education,” he told the academy’s supporters Thursday night. “We want to take this community and make it a place where engineering and science is celebrated.”

Nevertheless, the challenge of funding an intense engineering program is costly, and it is hardly something a public school would be able to afford on its own. With the help of the academy’s sponsors, including many of the Goleta Valley’s leading high-tech companies, the team has been able to operate on a budget of approximately $100,000 per year.

“Our sponsors are critical,” Abo-Shaeer said. “We have created a program that is supported by a diverse group of interests that has allowed us to display the value of teaching engineering at the high school level instead of just in college.”

According to Abo-Shaeer, the academy’s sponsors don’t just aid the program with financial donations, but by lending expertise, mentorship and encouragement. They’ve also assisted with the fabrication and production of more than a few parts.

Another notable aspect of Team 1717 is that it has more girls than boys — rare for a high school robotics team. That makeup — 17 girls and 15 boys — often draws attention during competitions.

“At first, they are shocked,” said senior Alexis Chasney, who will be attending Rochester Institute of Technology in the fall. “Then they are really impressed when they realize we know what we are doing and we’re not just there for public relations. It’s just fantastic to blow them away.”

Senior Eric Schuh, who is headed to Cornell, sounded a similar note.

“They are absolutely surprised to see that we have girls who are heavily involved in the engineering facet of the competition,” he said.

While the team enjoys surprising its opponents in more ways than one, Abo-Shaeer believes that astonishment is an unfortunate aspect of the culture. He says girls should be encouraged to participate in science and engineering programs rather than steered away from them.

With the seniors’ final days of high school starting to creep up on them and their freshman year of college inching closer and closer, they feel they have taken a great deal away from this experience.

“Before joining this program, I was really lazy,” said Chris Peterson, who will be attending UC Irvine. “It really caught my attention and changed my view on school. It got me more interested in certain classes and helped me become a much better student.”

Oriane Matthys, who will be attending UCLA, exclaimed, “I found my passion in engineering and I want to continue studying it in college. I just try to throw everything into what I do, and I feel that my passion and perseverance has really helped me.”

After four years of educating the class of 2010, it’s time for Abo-Shaeer to say goodbye to his students. It’s a bittersweet moment.

“It’s really exciting to see them move on to bigger and better things,” he said. “But at the same time there is some sadness. I’ve grown to know them so well and now they are going off to do their own thing.”

While the seniors’ departure creates a feeling that Team 1717’s success is going with them, the expectations are high for the future classes.

“All of the teams are a bunch of smart kids,” Abo-Shaeer explained. “However, I feel like I can work with any kid. When they are given a challenge they will rise to the occasion. Success has been built into this whole system and I’m confident we will continue to see it.”

“There’s extremely high expectations for (next year’s class),” Schuh added. “From what I’ve seen they are all very smart, and they will be dedicated. Once we get our new building, the only thing we can do is get better.”

The “new building” that Schuh is referring to is the $3 million, 12,000-square-foot Elings Center for Engineering Education. Thanks to a $1 million donation from Virgil Ellings and many other contributors and fundraising, the program has already collected more than $2.3 million over the last two years. With just $655,500 needed for equipment, construction is to begin this summer and is expected to be completed in the fall of 2011.

With the future looking brighter and brighter for the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, it’s apparent the program is headed in the right direction to continue its great success. Abo-Shaeer has taken away one major lesson from his experience so far, and he feels it has helped him and the rest of the team accomplish as much as they have.

“You really have to dream big,” he said. “You have to do the impossible. I never thought I’d be dreaming this big and have created such a focal point of engineering. I want (the students) to dream big as well. They need to have the ‘can-do’ attitude, and move beyond the fear of risk.

“It doesn’t mean it will be easy, but anything is possible if you work hard enough.”

This year’s D’Penguineers are Sky Adams, Jenna Becker, Katherine Bonsell, Kimmie Boydston, Jack Brown, Alexis Chasney, Anina Cooter, Bryan Cyr, Anjali Daniels, Casey Donahue, Ellen Feldman, Matt Grace, Cliff Lekas, Oriane Matthys, Chris McAmis, Chris Peterson, Kevin Rohde, Ryan Rosenfeld, Da-Bin Ryu, Nicole Schauser, Eric Schuh, Jack Sharkey, Andy Silverstein, Rashi Singh, Sam Skopp, Nick Su, Hanna Vincent, Nicole Voyen, Helen Wang, Carly Wopat, Sam Wopat and Anjian Wu. Click here for biographies of the team members.

The D’Penguineers are sponsored by Raytheon, Mentor Corp., Valley Precision Products, Allergan Foundation, Las Cumbres Observatory Telescope Network, ATK Space, Enerpro Inc., Tecolote Research Inc., Lockheed-Martin, FLIR Systems, Afar Communications and the Santa Barbara County Education Office.

Click here for more information on Team 1717 and the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy. Click here to make a donation to the building campaign.

Noozhawk intern Michael Goldsholl will be a sophomore at Loyola Marymount University in the fall. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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