Recent graduates from the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy’s class of 2016 will be fanning out across the country (and the world) to attend college this fall.
Nathan Alvarez and Megan Handley are two such grads who are preparing for this new, exciting chapter in their lives.
Alvarez heads to the University of Sourthern California in mid-August, where he will major in mechanical engineering, while Handley will attend UC Berkeley where she will major in bioengineering.
Over half of all students in the Engineering Academy are girls, and like Handley, they are swelling the ranks of young women entering colleges as engineering majors.
Virtually all students who attend the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA) enter four-year colleges and universities, and DPEA has a long track record of sending students to UC campuses along with public and private colleges across the country including MIT, Caltech, Harvard, Stanford and Yale Universities.
Alvarez comes from a family of educators. His father is the vice principal at La Cumbre Junior High School, and his mother is the chief business official at Montecito Union School District.
Alvarez has been awarded a Presidential Scholarship that covers half of his tuition at USC, and he is enrolled in the Engineering Honors Program.
Alvarez leaves for USC Aug. 15. He will live in a dorm with two roommates, one from Hawaii, and one from North Carolina. They have been communicating via email and text.
Last week Alvarez and his family went shopping to stock up on dorm room necessities. He won’t have a car at college because he won’t need one. On the agenda for the first week of school is another firstL his first concert ever.
“I’m really looking forward to continuing my educational journey at the Viterbi School of Engineering,” said Alvarez. “I feel lucky to start my life as a Trojan in such a spirited, tight knit community.”
As a child, Alvarez wanted to be an inventor, and his first idea was to create a small solar-powered battery. He loved taking things apart and putting them back together.
When Alvarez was in eighth grade, his father showed him a couple of articles about DPEA’s robotics program. He also bought him The New Cool (a book by Neal Bascomb) documenting DPEA’s Team 1717 quest for victory at the First Robotics Championship Finals in Atlanta in 2009. Alvarez was hooked.
Alvarez applied to DPEA as an eighth grader and attended every open house that was offered just to see the facility again and again.
He combed the DPEA website and learned everything he could about the program before the start of school. When school started, he didn’t know anybody, but he wasn’t worried because, as he says, “I tend not to stress.”
Alvarez joined the track and field team and became captain. He ran for junior class president and won. In his senior year, he was voted ASB president and gained a broader view of education in the Santa Barbara/Goleta community.
He was president of the Letterman’s Club and in 2016 was voted Goleta Teen of the Year by the Rotary Club of Goleta Noontime.
Alvarez enjoyed his time at DPEA, particularly his senior year, which was focused on Mechatronics, a growing multidisciplinary field of engineering that includes a combination of systems engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, control engineering and computer engineering.
“It was challenging,” said Alvarez. “We were broken into teams of five or six, given a physics concept and asked to design, manufacture, assemble and program a museum quality interactive exhibit that teaches a unique concept while being fun, engaging and aesthetically pleasing.”
Alvarez and his team spent hours, days and months, alongside teachers and mentors brainstorming, problem solving, designing and redesigning renditions of their exhibit aptly titled “The Physics Arcade.” Thirteen other teams worked alongside them.
In May 2016, the entire senior class, along with a team of teachers, volunteers and mentors headed up to San Mateo for the 11th Annual Bay Area Maker Faire to showcase their senior capstone project: “The Physics Arcade.”
The project consisted of 14 interactive games called kiosks,” each very different, but no less complex. Feedback was tremendously positive, and DPEA was awarded four Editor’s Choice awards and Best in Class. Alvarez reflected on the Maker Faire experience:
“It was so much fun to showcase our project to the world even though we were not completely finished. I spent the first couple of days on the floor underneath my kiosk troubleshooting the mechanisms, drilling new holes and disassembling and reassembling my wheel of fortune game. While I did not have much time to explain my game to visitors those days because I was constantly working, they were intrigued watching what I was doing and impressed with my knowledge of the different mechanisms.”
By day three, his team’s kiosk was nearly complete.
“On the last day at the Maker Faire, we had a full demonstration cycle program, so people were able to see our entire program and were really entertained by it. The best part was hearing the same admiration coming from so many different people: teachers, professors, professionals, students, parents and children. Their reactions and awe made us even more grateful for the revolutionary education that we were a part of.”
Megan Handley knew that she wanted to be an engineer at a fairly young age. She learned of DPEA in fifth grade and applied in her eighth-grade year. As she heads off to Berkeley, she is confident that she is well-prepared for the rigorous program she faces.
“I learned more than I could have imagined,” she said of her time at DPEA. “Not just engineering but lifetime skills such as planning and collaboration. I got to know my teachers and mentors in a whole new way as we worked side by side to problem solve and share ideas. The connections that I have made through DPEA are invaluable. I truly had an amazing experience.”
Handley was accepted into UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering where she will major in bioengineering with an emphasis on pre-med and computer science. She hopes to attend medical school and specialize in neuroscience, specifically focusing on neural implants that can offer hope to people with Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, and a host of other medical conditions.
Handley will be entering UC Berkeley as a junior. During her time at DPEA she carried at least three Santa Barbara City College courses each semester, earning herself both an AA degree and a high school diploma.
While at DPEA, Handley discovered that she had a passion for computer programming. She started Dos Pueblos High School’s Women in Technology club and created a Girls Who Code club that taught programming to over 30 students at Goleta Valley Junior High School.
She also co-founded DP’s Writing Center, which provides free writing assistance to students, and was on the varsity track and field team.
During her senior year, Handley won a National Center for Women & Information Technology Aspirations in Computing Award, beating out over 3,000 nominees.
For her senior capstone project, Handley chose to be on the programing team that wrote code for all 14 of “The Physics Arcade” kiosks.
She worked long hours alongside her teammates to develop each kiosk’s user interface — the touch pad that allows users to control each component on a kiosk. At the 2016 Bay Area Maker Faire she saw firsthand how her hard work had paid off.
“It was amazing to see other people’s responses to ‘The Physics Arcade.’ It gave me a whole new perspective seeing how others reacted to our work. Visitors couldn’t believe that high school students could create such a complex product,” she said.
College admissions administrators have taken note of DPEA’s unique program. Last year a team from USC spent a day touring the Elings Center for Engineering Education, meeting with DPEA director Amir Abo-Shaeer and observing students engrossed in their hands-on curriculum. Visitors from Purdue University, known for its Computer Science program have also visited DPEA.
“College engineering programs actively seek out our students because they have seen the quality of our graduates and know they will be successful and bring creativity and problem-solving skills with them to college,” said Shaeer.
— Rebecca Summers is the executive director of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy Foundation.