Steve Zylius / UC Irvine “For too long, we have taught students how to memorize, how to master standardized tests,” says Said Shokair, founding director of UROP. “I want to help them go from dependent learners to independent learners.”

Outside the box

Director of UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program prods students to learn from the world beyond the classroom

Said Shokair was supposed to be a doctor. His high school test scores qualified him for medical school, which he entered at age 17 in his native Syria. Six months later, though, after chatting with an uncle who was a pediatric cardiologist at UCLA, he opted to come to Southern California to complete his studies.

Several thousand UC Irvine students and alumni have good reason to celebrate that seemingly serendipitous about-face: Shokair exposed them to an education they might not otherwise have experienced.

After trading medical school for a UCI double major in electrical engineering and biology, Shokair graduated in 1990 and began to work with students at his alma mater. At first, he was a math counselor, a mentor for underrepresented students and a grant writer/curriculum developer.

Then, in 1994, he helped craft the proposal that redirected his career and, possibly, the careers of thousands of UCI students who learned that the best education often is found in the world outside their textbooks.

Shokair became the founding director of what is now UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), where he has spent nearly 20 years designing and directing collaborations that get his young charges out of the classroom and into the laboratory or field.

Two of those efforts were created in partnership with the California Institute for Telecommunications & Information Technology at UCI. The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Information Technology (SURF-IT) and the Multidisciplinary Design Program – each of which pairs students with faculty mentors and emphasizes cross-disciplinary teamwork – give students the chance to participate in applied research, present their results and learn a little something about the real world in the process.

Shokair is unswervingly committed to cultivating a new breed of student. With his no-holds-barred, in-your-face style and enough infectious energy to power a moon shot, he prods and chastises, praises and challenges, sometimes embarrasses but never demeans. He makes students laugh, and he makes them groan. But there’s no mistaking his message:

“I’m going to engage your mind and your energy. If you’ve been approaching your education as a robot, stop it. The purpose of this program is to transform you, to expand your knowledge and develop the skills to make you more competitive in whatever you decide to do in the future.”

And always, Shokair strives to shake up students’ ideas about their education.

“For too long, we have taught students how to memorize, how to master standardized tests. We condition them to focus on the process, to wait to be taught,” he says. “I want to help students go from dependent learners to independent learners.”

Psychology & social behavior professor Wendy Goldberg was on the UROP faculty advisory board with Shokair and has served as a Multidisciplinary Design Program mentor. “I can’t think of anyone on campus who has done more to promote research opportunities for undergraduates from all disciplines,” she says. “His vision and his leadership have inspired thousands of UCI students over the years to get involved in designing and conducting innovative, important studies, and he has motivated faculty to … get involved mentoring these students.”

Shokair first met G.P. Li, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications & Information Technology, when he was an undergraduate in Li’s microelectronics class. (He remembers getting an A … or was it a B+?) Ten years later, Shokair solicited Li’s help as a principal investigator when he submitted a proposal for a micro/nanotechnology summer research program funded by the National Science Foundation. The two have been collaborators and cohorts ever since, sharing a deep devotion to multidisciplinary research and a mutual appreciation of a room-shaking belly laugh.

“At Calit2, we focus on research and development of various technologies, with an emphasis on hands-on training, but typically, R&D happens at a more advanced level,” Li says. “Said is the bridge between advanced research and hands-on learning experiences for undergraduate students. Over the years, we’ve developed such a strong … relationship that we can finish each other’s sentences without thinking.”

“It’s been a wonderful partnership,” Shokair says. “When G.P. and I get together, there’s always laughter involved. But we’re always so productive. UROP and Calit2 are similar in the sense that we both touch and work with many different disciplines. When we focus on helping people identify their interests and turn those interests into a passion within that collaborative framework, it becomes a perfect marriage.”

And that microelectronics grade that Shokair claims to have received? Li lets loose a thunderous guffaw. “I don’t think so,” he chortles, then admits: “He was a really good student.”

“Every point of view, every discipline, every major, is as valuable as yours. Your job is to listen, figure out how to engage and come up with a win-win situation.”

 For students in Shokair’s research programs, academic silos are verboten; collaboration is key. He urges them to get acquainted, become familiar with each other’s lexicons and keep their biases at bay.

Practicing personal responsibility, exceeding expectations, taking the initiative and learning from failure are Shokair’s mantras. “Teaching students these real-world values is extremely important,” he states.

Johnway Yih was a SURF-IT Fellow in 2010, went on to earn a master’s degree in engineering management and now works as a manufacturing engineer. “What I remember most … was [Shokair’s] insistence that as students and researchers we would only be able to get out of the programs what we put into them,” Yih says. “This give-to-get mentality is something that I have carried with me, and it has pushed me to learn and do more in education as well as my current career.”

“I’m cousin Said; we’re all part of the family, so nobody should be shy. Just stand up and say how you feel about being part of the program. If no one volunteers, I will call on you anyway.”

Telling students they are family is the highest possible compliment from the devoted family man. Shokair’s face lights up as he describes playing on the floor at home with 3½-year-old daughter Yara or taking a Sunday nap with son Omar, who is almost 1.

He and his wife, Rasha, have opened their home over the years to a continual stream of family – sponsoring his parents, his brother and his sister in the U.S. and helping them get established. “It’s family; it’s what you do,” he shrugs.

UCI biomedical engineering professor Abe Lee, who has worked with Shokair to develop research programs, says: “He’s passionate about everything he does, and most of all, he’s passionate about people. He always wears his affable smile and is always offering to help. He cares deeply about the students he touches.”

And they’re appreciative. Jordan Sinclair, a 2008 SURF-IT Fellow, remembers Shokair’s patience and persistence as Sinclair waffled about a career in research. “He asked me the right questions, the hard questions. He saw right through the BS, forcing some serious introspection,” says Sinclair, who ultimately decided on a non-research career in health information technology.

Wherever their futures take them, Shokair believes student researchers are likely to be successful after they graduate. “These programs have shortened their learning curve and helped them engage the world outside academia in a more productive way,” he says.

His role is to ensure that students have considered their options. He likes to ask them if they know the proper angle for launching a rocket to get maximum range. “If you launch it at 0 degrees, it will blow your foot off. If you launch it at 90 degrees, it will come down on your head,” he tells them, usually to peals of laughter. “The optimum angle is 45 degrees.

“Your job is to set up the optimum launching angle for your career. If you haven’t done that already, start now.”

 Shokair estimates that about 2,000 students a year participate in one UROP program or another, and he’s proud of that. “We’re helping students develop the skills, expand their knowledge and enhance their own values so they’re better prepared for the next phase, no matter the decision they make about the future,” he says. “Our goal is molding students into people who can go out and change the world in a positive way.”

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