Join Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy for an in-depth discussion in this video Lars Bildsten: Parent and former DPEA Foundation board member, part of Project-Based Learning: STEM to STEAM.
Lars Bildsten: So, I'm Lars Bildsten, Professor in the physics department at UC Santa Barbara, as well as director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the university. I became engaged with the engineering academy via my eldest daughter, Erica. Who, was an early adopter in the program and since then has gone on and continued to do engineering and my middle daughter, Marilyn, is also in the academy and is presently a jazz trombone player in New York City.
Lars Bildsten: Transformative, for both of them, in very different ways, but in both cases remarkable outcomes. So, our oldest daughter, Erica was always very math and science oriented, and the Engineer Academy really provided her contacts to blossom as a leader. And so she really, played a key role especially in the senior year when they're doing robotics, in the construction, and design, and, of course, the reality of competition. And it really gave her an environment in which she could blossom as a leader with the students, and that's carried through to her college and her work experience.
Lars Bildsten: Yeah, so the other, other daughter has always been a much more sort of art oriented and as I said before she's a jazz trombone player presently in New York City at the New School. Her background was indeed sort of very different, very different personality. So for her, a large part of it was the teamwork aspect of the engineering academy, and, and probably more importantly, the opportunity for many presentations. She was very involved in the presentation team at that time, and that allowed her to really go and present, which needless to say, as a musician, as also something she does very differently, usually improvising, and so this was following the script, which is not jazz of course.
Lars Bildsten: Well, as, as, as, it's very different for each one. So as I said, I think for the eldest daughter it really was, much more pulling her out of the more traditional mold of sort of solid student, excellent student doing more book work, really to building and doing things directly, but also, having some leadership opportunities. My, my wife's an architect and so there's also a fair amount of sort of building always going on in the house. Of course, very different than robotics, but it's, but it translates into projects, and so there has always been that tradition sort of within the day to day life of a family.
For the middle daughter, I said the transformation was really, I think she didn't expect to really be an engineer. She never had that ambition, but for her it was the opportunity for working as a team and really getting things accomplished, and that's a very common thing the students rarely get otherwise in a high school context that's not athletics. Lars Bildsten: I think they, you know, both are extremely confident young women now and there's no doubt that, that arose, and they grew up in this environment, this very supportive, but also really allowing them to become their own person.
And there's no doubt that that, contributed to their self esteem. Lars Bildsten: I think the biggest surprise in the program is, is bringing, well let me take a step back. So I, I am a practicing physics professor, so I think I know how to educate of course, but, the context here is so different than what you typically experience in educational environment. The ability to really define and do a project at this early stage in life is not typically offered. So, what we do in PhD programs is how we actually train scientists and engineers in this country.
It's called a PhD program, that's when you finally get to do that, and so, I think we all know what it is, but the notion of allowing for that creativity, and freedom of thought at such an earlier stage in someone's life. It is what really makes this a special environment. Lars Bildsten: Yeah, I, I, I think that you need to provide these different contexts and this is a very different context than the normal classroom environment. It's fantastic that it's, it's only part of the day and so they get both, they get both aspects of it, more traditional classroom but also this and then that really does allow for students, some will respond differently to different environments and so that is really what the academy is allowed for is, students who gravitate towards this environment then can really blossom.
Lars Bildsten: Well like I said, I, I you know, I do the traditional classroom teaching. And I think you know, my direct work with Amir as well much you know, during the whole process of expanding the academy. Certainly forced me to question some of the ways I was doing classroom teaching. it's, it's so easy to be in the rut of doing the normal teaching of students in front of you giving a lecture, yes, you ask questions, and so I, I had started to do more, project based learning for undergraduate courses, one under, undergraduate course in particular. But it certainly made it much harder for me psychologically to be up there giving a normal lecture, saying to myself, is this really the right things to be doing? So the innovations in, that are going on here are going on in many places in the university environments.
It's a much more intensive, hands-on learning experience. So large part of that challenge, and the normal university environment is having the facilities and the resources to actually do something that's much more intensive. Classrooms are relatively cheap, what your seeing here really is, you know requires a whole different level of resources, its the right thing to do however. Lars Bildsten: Oh, most certainly, the, you know, I was very involved working with Sandy Seal who is the, and still is the president of the foundation, another parents to bring this to the level you see today.
We got involved very early in the expansion it was in more or less the closet here at the highschool. Many of us got very engaged and put up a lot of our energy and time into the expansion. The reason for that is really the belief that this provides a new environment for learning, and it's an opportunity to give back. I think all of us in science and engineering have an experience of a teacher that really made a difference. Of course, that teacher, today, for me is, is long gone, and there's no way to give back there. And so when these contacts arrive, where people can give back, I think that's why a lot of the parents really step up and put in their time.
Lars Bildsten: You know, near start of the program, with the robotics being the Capstone project, and I think when, he clearly understood that with the class size he had at that time, which was roughly 30 students, that would work as a senior Capstone project. And of course the real challenge at the very beginning was that the first three years of the program, the freshman, sophomore, junior year equivalent, were things that really had to work within the normal system. And so, for example, the students needed to take AP physics as a junior, now, I'm a physicist, so of course I believe everybody should take AP physics in their life.
But, however, there is a reality that not all students, that's not the answer for everybody. And so, at the expansion moment of going from 32 to what we're at now, which is over 100 students, per cla, per year. There really was a need to revisit the curriculum, freshman, sophomore, junior, and to me, what has been remarkable to see is how well that transition has worked, so that the hands on ability to do project based learning is now all the way down for the young freshmen.
And I think we could always imagine it for the seniors I think many of us, I certainly didn't imagine how that would translate going all the way down to the freshmen and seeing that play out has been, you know, really a fantastic surprise. And for me an affirmation that we did the right thing to really expand the facility and support Amir. Lars Bildsten: Yeah, very much so. So Amir, as you know received this grant from the state of California for the facility. The grant was a matching grant, which required the other half of the resource to be raised in the community and I got engaged at that point because he had a parent meeting where he wanted to announce the news that he'd received this grant.
But also announce the need for the parents to get engaged to help him raise $3 million and at that point I think, we, the, you know we were a little unclear of what the deadline was but let's call it one year. That's the moment for me when I really decided to get engaged, Sandy Seal stood up at that meeting thankfully. And said she was willing to lead the effort, and so a number of us rallied around and and that then started for me, lets say four or five years of, of being a, a part time fundraiser, building manager, a project manager for the, for each piece of the construction.
So the, it's a very unusual project, most campus projects in the public school system, I don't have a private foundation engagement, we at the time, and all the way through have always gone as a full partner with the Santa Barbara School District, that really has worked extremely well for us. It's allowed us to get ahead sometimes because the district would be able to do things that we couldn't and vice versa, and so that partnership I would say is much more of an opportunity then a challenge.
I think the prime challenge for us was starting a capital campaign in fall 2008. You may remember that at that moment that was not the best time for the stock market, that was not an easy time to begin fundraising and so we definitely had challenges, in getting the fundraising going and of course in the end we succeeded, we get to live in the building today. One of the prime challenges was Amir's creativity. I've done two projects prior to this a campus buildings, so I have some experience on what it means to get a project from the beginning to the end, and part of, what it means, is to stop innovating at some point and get the job done.
That's not how Amir works, he works in a different mold of constantly thinking of how to change something. For those who have done projects, changing things, late in the game, cost more than early. And so that my job to for the last one year of building was containing his creativity as best as possible, so as to get the job done. And I think what you see in the building the result of that tension, which was a very positive tension was a building designed in the end with flexibility. The notion being that at any one moment you might think you know how you need to use the facility.
But in the end, because of the curriculum changes, because of how different students will, will work differently within the building, there really wasn't one answer. And so that whole notion of, of designing and building a building that had permanent flexibility, really prove to be a very different model and something that, that you know I think we have achieved and you know, we have testimonies of how rooms are not being used in the way that they were planned to be used but there, but that's the best use. And so that, that was a definite challenge in the project was finishing it, at some point you have to finish the reality is you're never done with Amir.
Lars Bildsten: The big question is, can you do this everywhere, and that's something I've struggled with and you know, we as the Board, when I was on the Foundation Board, struggled with. Which is, how to do this in such a way that you could imagine standing it up elsewhere, and that is something we've always viewed as an, as a very important component when we're designing how we do things. Is to set it up with the notion being that we should set up structures, and the way we engage with the public school district, with the school board, in such a way that you could do this same thing elsewhere.
And and so I think the challenge, remaining challenge, is how to take this as a notion as I, I sort of hesitate to use the word model, primarily because there's a strong belief that it really depends on the creativity of the teachers at another school, who will come at this problem differently. But many of the structures that we set up, things as concrete and as needed as, relationships, established relationships between a non-profit foundation, and a school board, and a school district, so that there's mutual partnership and trust in how you manage a facility and manage your curriculum.
That one would like to be able to translate, this, the outcomes here have been so fantastic that there's no doubt that we found a, a very excellent model for bringing, science and engineering education very early into children's lives and with fantastic outcomes, and so you'd like to imagine that this can happen elsewhere. Now, with that being said this would not have happened without a number of parents getting very engaged, putting time in, and non-profit foundations, putting resources in, and a district that allowed it to happen.
Those conditions aren't everywhere. Having a university adjacent really helps, many of our volunteers are connected to the university in some way, but there are many communities still that don't have this, that have many of pieces in hand. And we have our you know, done our best to try to convince people to do this but now the problem for us is this looks like such a big leap from where you might si, may sit today that it's a sort of hard to swallow and so now it's, it's a bigger challenge to exp, explain to someone because this took, 10 years to get to what you see today.
When you're done watching the documentary, make sure to check out the bonus conversations in the Interviews chapter.