In Neal Bascomb's quest to pen a text on the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship, a prestigious robotics competition for grade schoolers, he stumbled upon an underdog team nicknamed the D'Penguineers out of Goleta, California. Under the direction of their physics instructor and mentor Amir Abo-Shaeer, the group of students from the engineering academy at Dos Pueblos High School fought tooth and nail against students from prestigious engineering academy "superteams" from across the United States. In the process, they proved that science, technology, engineering, and math is not only hard work, but cool – representing The New Cool in terms of how education is viewed amongst students.
Inc.'s Lauren Cannon spoke to Bascomb, author of The New Cool, about the D'Penguineers team, lessons on teaching learned from Abo-Shaeer, and what businesses can do to reach out to and benefit from high school engineering programs and competitions.
Tell me about the FIRST Robotics Competition.
Every January, teams are presented with a new competition objective and every year it changes. The year that I followed the students, the game was basically robot tag meets basketball. The students have six weeks to design a prototype, build, assemble, machine wire, program, and test a robot of their making to compete in this game. They're not given any set of instructions. They're given a kit of parts, but that's only a starting point. They come up with their own robot design to compete in three-on-three robot matches. If they win one of the regional competitions, they compete in the national competitions. In 2009, the national competition was at the Georgia Dome and there were 30,000 people there. There are about 2,000 teams in FIRST at this level.
Why did you decide to focus on the D'Penguineers team?
I initially reported on three teams. I had a team in New York, which was kind of a societal story. It was this Bronx team from Morris High School in the poorest district in New York City, who were paired with these very rich private school kids. And then I followed a team in Detroit. I was going to tell a different angle of the story about where society is in terms of manufacturing and industrialization and recruiting new engineers. And with the third story, I wanted to focus on an education angle.
I met Amir Abo-Shaeer who's the teacher and mentor of the D'Penguineers team. The best way to describe him is, he's the John Keating of Dead Poet's Society of high school physics. He's an incredible educator and he's trying to change the face of education by implementing interactive project-based education. The more reporting I did, I found myself leaning towards that story. They were the underdog team, a rag tag group of kids, all rookies working out of a closet to build their robot and they just made for a great story.
What initially inspired you to report on FIRST?
I chose to write about Amir's team because what FIRST is doing, and why I think FIRST is important, is it's taking education out of a classroom. And they learn, not only the physics and the math and the programming that's necessary to build these robots, but it's tremendously empowering for the students in terms of confidence, critical decision-making, leadership, and teamwork, elements that you don't typically learn in a classroom. I would say the vast majority of these students, this will be the most formative experience they have in high school. And I think the story is much larger than just a great narrative. It's a story about education and how we inspire kids in science and math and technology.
Should colleges restructure their curriculum to emulate these advanced high school programs?
I think there has to be a reorientation of how we're engaging students and how we're approaching students, both at the high school level and on the collegiate level. What FIRST has proven and what I teach in the book is students can be much more in charge of their education. They need professors and teachers to be working side by side with them, helping them and guiding them. That it's just not an information dump. I think particularly at the college level where there is so much more room for divergent curriculums, that it's an opportunity being lost. So I think a college can certainly look at what Amir is doing and say, I can do that on a greater scale and keep kids interested in these fields.
What do businesses gain from sponsoring teams at the FIRST competition?
What you find with FIRST and Amir's program in California is that all of these robotics teams are sponsored. Amir's team has 10 or so technology companies from around Goleta, California. And FIRST teams across the country have sponsors as big as NASA and Time Warner, but also local companies. What's happening is these companies are basically creating a employee feeder line and you find that some of these kids go to college and graduate from engineering or math and science programs, then go to work for these same companies that once sponsored them as FIRST teams. So if you look at what companies pay to recruit people and the enormous costs of getting the best talent, a lot of these sponsors are getting that for much less.
What is the direct benefit for companies in the immediate future?
I think it's two things. I think that big companies know that they need to create a pool of talent, regardless of if that person comes and works for them. It's philanthropic aligned with their corporate interests.
But secondly, you do find situations where there is that personal connection with these students, and some of these students then go and intern with these companies while they're in college, these same companies that sponsored their high school robotics team. And then after college, they go work for them.
Have you followed up with any of the kids on the D'Penguineers team?
I reported on the students and Amir for a year and a half and I became relatively close with them. I still speak with Amir weekly and I keep up with a handful of the students. And I think the other point of the book is that this has redefined what the students expect out of themselves, and how much hard work it takes to be exceptional at something. I think that's what Amir taught them and they're carrying that into college. I think it's pretty cool to see.
What do you think an aspiring or established teacher can do to implement the kind of teaching that Amir Abo-Shaeer has?
Much like Amir did when he decided to start the engineering academy, there are a lot of different programs, not just FIRST. I think FIRST is a great organization, but there are many organizations and opportunities for teachers to expand out of the classroom. That's going to take some pushing against the school system, some pursuit to move outside of just the classroom-based curriculum. But I think it's something they will find tremendously rewarding, not only for themselves but also for the students. So I think they just need to investigate the opportunities. If they're a physics teacher, go to a FIRST competition or go to a VEX Robotics competition. When they see it for themselves, I think they'll be converted.