Account/Log In

Book Review

The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts

That Monday morning in 2009, in high schools gyms across the country, kids were battling for the kind of glory American culture seems to prize most highly: sports glory. But at the engineering academy at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California, in a gear-cluttered classroom, a different type of “cool” was brewing. A physics teacher with a dream—the first high school teacher ever to win a MacArthur genius award—had rounded up a bandof high-I.Q. students who wanted to put their technical know-how to work. If you asked these brainiacs what the stakes were that first week of their project, they would have told you it was all about winning a robotics competition: building the ultimate robot and prevailing in a machine-to-machine contest in front of twenty-five thousand screaming fans at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.

For their mentor, Amir Abo-Shaeer, much more hung in the balance. He had a vision for education that was based not on rote learning—on absorbing facts and figures—but on active creation. In his mind’s eye, he saw an even more robust academy at Dos Pueblos that would make science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) cool again, and he knew he was poised to make that dream a reality. To get the necessary funding all he needed was one flashy win—a triumph that would firmly put his engineering academy on the map. He imagined that one day there would be a nation filled with such academies, and a new popular veneration for STEM—“a new cool”—that would focus America’s technical and science education around innovation.

It was a dream shared by Dean Kamen, a modern-day inventing wizard—often called “the Edison of his time”—who had concocted the FIRST Robots Competition that had lured the kids at Dos Pueblos. Kamen had created FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) nearly twenty years earlier, and now, with an alumni base of one million participants, he felt that awareness was about to hit critical mass.

But before the Dos Pueblos D’Pengineers could do their part in bringing a new cool to America, they would have to vanquish an intimidating lineup of “supercams”—high technology goliaths that hailed from engineering hot spots like Silicon Valley, Massachusetts’s Route 128 technology corridor, and Michigan’s auto-design belt. Some of these teams were so good that winning wasn’t just hoped for, it was expected.

In this book, Neal Bascomb manages to make even those know little about—or are vaguely suspicious of—technology care about a team of kids questing after a different kind of glory. In these kids’ heartaches and headaches, we glimpse the path not just to a new way of educating our youth, but of honoring crucial skills our society needs.