Over the past decade, Goleta’s own Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy has shaken up education as we know it by providing design- and project-based education to more than 400 students each year, half of whom are young women.
One hundred seniors graduate each year and head off to college, where most continue on a career path in science and technology.
DPEA alumni can be found in engineering and tech firms, from startups to large established corporations, both here in Santa Barbara County and across the country.
This month, DPEA Executive Director Rebecca Summers caught up with two alumni who are finding success as engineers, one in New York City and another in Austin, Texas.
Emily Williams first learned of DPEA at a presentation in 2007 when she was an eighth grader at Goleta Valley Junior High School, and she applied without telling her parents.
Her acceptance letter was the first they learned about her life-changing initiative, and it was not until the parent meeting that they realized what a remarkable and challenging path she had chosen.
Williams, who was a high-level competitive swimmer, loved her freshman physics class with DPEA founder and physics teacher Amir Abo-Shaeer, but she was unsure whether to continue with DPEA because she didn’t want to compromise her swimming career or potential college swimming scholarships. Shaeer encouraged her to stay the course — and she did.
Senior year was “absolutely crazy,” said Williams. During the “build season” for FIRST Robotics, Williams would get home from school at 2 a.m. and get up for swimming practice at 4:30 a.m. She considered four hours of sleep a luxury.
During her senior year, she went on five recruitment trips, swam her way to the state finals, submitted 21 college applications, won Channel League’s Athlete of the Year and traveled with Robotics Team 1717 to St. Louis, Mo.
After getting accepted to many colleges, she chose the University of Texas (UT) both for its Division 1 swim team and its excellent engineering program.
“The DPEA made me fall in love with engineering,” said Williams. “When I got to college, not one of my friends had ever touched a mill or a lathe, and nobody had experience with SOLIDWORKS.”
During her senior year in Texas, Williams, on a whim, applied for a position working for Dr. Kenneth Diller, who founded UT’s biomedical engineering department and is an internationally recognized authority in heat and temperature processes in living tissues.
Williams was chosen to travel to Cambridge, England, for a semester to work with Diller. As an engineering major and not a biology student, she was an impressive selection for this program.
At Cambridge, Williams was in her element. She fell in love with biomedical engineering and immersed herself in research centered on transport phenomena, which control the exchange of mass, energy and momentum between systems. She received the highest grade in her class and was offered a scholarship for graduate studies with Diller.
Instead, she chose to go to work. She was avidly recruited by BSX Athletics, a local startup that has developed an LED-based wearable that measures the lactate threshold in the blood of extreme athletes.
As a “research scientist,” she is currently working on a new product line using many of the skills that she learned at the DPEA. While the product line is “top secret,” Williams hinted that it has something to do with hydration.
“I love combining my athletic experience with my engineering experience,” she said. “It’s great being part of a startup and knowing that what I am doing now will have a profound impact on wearable athletic products in the future. I’d like to grow with this company and then perhaps move somewhere larger, like Nike. I think I’ll have a lot of options open to me.”
Fellow alumna Erika Eskenazi didn’t have to apply to the DPEA to get in. In 2003, she merely signed up to take a freshman physics class with an emphasis on engineering after hearing Shaeer speak at her junior high school.
Shaeer quickly became her favorite teacher, and she thrived in his physics class. At the close of her freshman year, Eskenazi and her classmates learned that they were officially the first class of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy.
Similar to Williams, Eskenazi was unsure whether she wanted to stick with the program due to her many other interests and commitments. But after a few encouraging words from Shaeer, she decided to give it a shot.
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” she said.
After graduating from the DPEA, Eskenazi attended UC Santa Barbara’s College of Engineering. Her classes were challenging, but her time at the DPEA taught her how to solve problems and “get things done.”
During her junior year at UCSB, Eskenazi took a part-time research position at Dr. Igor Mezic’s laboratory.
Mezic, the director of the Center for Energy Efficient Design, put Eskenazi to work creating building energy models. She loved the research and enjoyed working with Mezic’s brilliant team of engineers.
Before her senior year, Mezic offered Eskenazi an internship at his startup, Ecorithm, and she jumped at the opportunity.
Her work centered on analyzing the mechanical systems that heat and cool buildings. Eskenazi enjoyed the work, and when she graduated with an engineering degree, Mezic hired her. She was officially “employee No. 1.”
Eskenazi has remained with Ecorithm, opening their New York City office four years ago and taking on various other responsibilities, including building the company website, managing its blog and producing its newsletter.
In regard to her work in a male-dominated field, Eskenazi says, “My experience at DPEA gave me confidence as a young woman in a man’s world. Almost all end users of our product — the building mechanical engineers at large buildings — are men with at least 25 years on me.”
As for the future, Eskenazi would someday like to be an entrepreneur and start her own company.
Reflecting on her high school experience, Eskenazi said, “The DPEA had a tremendous impact on my life. Shaeer’s enthusiasm was contagious and his dynamic approach to teaching — and making sure every single person in the room really got it — are things I carry with me every day.”
The truest measure of success of an educational program is the success of its alumni. Williams and Eskinazi have taken what they learned at the DPEA and launched their careers with confidence, skill and enthusiasm. Way to go!
— Rebecca Summers is the executive director of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy Foundation.