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Portrait of High School, Brought to You by Robot(ic)s

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A boy takes time away from the bandsaw to practice cello in the middle of the machine shop. Teenagers stay up all night coding, pound some sodas, and stay up for a few hours more. A short girl alternates between machining custom parts and helping test a robot chassis by standing on it. A class cheers as a longshot design fix miraculously works.

Such scenes pepper the pages of The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts (Crown, 2011), journalist Neal Bascomb's profile of a Dos Pueblos High School team's quest for victory at the 2009 FIRST Robotics Championship. The team was drawn from the senior class of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, brainchild of teacher and FIRST mentor Amir Abo-Shaeer. As the push continues to raise engineering's profile among the STEM subjects, Bascomb's book offers a look at an established program for engineering education.

FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway (among other devices and technologies). Following the January announcement of a year's challenge, FIRST teams are given a kit of parts and four months to build robots that will compete head-to-head or in "alliances" in multipart sports-based trials.

The 2009 game, Lunacy, incorporated basketball-like elements—download animations of the game from the FIRST online archives to see more. Education Week bloggers profiled the 2010 and 2012 iterations of the FIRST competition: robot approximations of soccer and basketball, respectively. The 2013 competition required students to build robots capable of hitting targets with frisbees.

Bascomb sets up a "ragtag band of misfits" narrative in The New Cool early on: "The group had a 'bad spirit' about them," he writes. He is careful to emphasize the diversity in personalities and talents among the students on the Dos Pueblos team, but manages to elide the fact that the D'Penguineers (as the team dubs itself) were one of the more affluent teams competing in the 2009 FIRST challenge. The contrast between the money, supplies, and services available to them and those accessible to some of the other teams profiled in the book can be jarring.

Reviewing The New Cool in the Christian Science Monitor, Kate Vander Wiede wrote, "Amir's academy is the kind of solution that could fix public education; Kamen's vision might save the nation." Never mind that money for FIRST teams and their space and equipment has to come from somewhere. While FIRST provides a kit of parts to each participating team, the more affluent teams have the money and tools to grow their projects far beyond the basics.

FIRST figures in the STEM AmericCorps initiative announced in April, which may at least help alleviate the gap in advisor expertise between FIRST teams. Growing attention to—and outside funding for—STEM projects may encourage schools to found their own robotics or engineering challenges, as 2013 National Teacher of the Year Jeffrey Charbonneau did.

While The New Cool has been described as a "feel-good story," it actually illustrates how difficult it can be to balance different definitions of success: Is it possible to win and to learn? For a team to be inclusive and competitive? Amir Abo-Shaeer offers his students this nugget of wisdom about what their collective goals should be: "It's more important we build something cool than win the game."

His attitude echoes what school technology specialist Laura Reasoner Jones wrote in a 2009 essay about her after-school robotics program:

How can I allow them to fail? ...I want each child to learn from mistakes, to take risks and experience the consequences of risk-taking. I don't want to rescue kids. I want them to learn to rescue themselves.

In the initial meeting of the new Dos Pueblos High School team, organized to hash out first priorities and a work plan, Bascomb observes:

At the end of the strategy session, Amir made two other additions to the first column. The first: 'fit and finish.' He wanted their robot to look professionally made—even beautiful—not a machine that looked cobbled together in the dark.

Abo-Shaeer values craftsmanship but, more than that, he does not want a final product with its guts showing. The scene reminds us that FIRST is no homegrown Maker project; it's sponsored by major corporations and a kit of parts is provided. Funding for Abo-Shaeer's Engineering Academy at Dos Pueblos hangs on the D'Penguineers' success; all the more reason their robot needs to look good.

The tone Abo-Shaeer sets for his team is halfway between "fail quickly"—an entrepreneurial standard—and "measure twice, cut once" common sense. As a former architecture student with plenty of model-building experience, I found myself nodding in recognition at the machine-shop scenes, shaking my head at every instance of careless planning. Bascomb aims for balanced descriptions of the design-build process for a general audience—neither too detailed nor vague—and mostly succeeds. Abo-Shaeer has an engaging way of breaking down physics concepts, and Bascomb does a good job of documenting his explanations as well.

One of the best scenes in the book comes early on, when the challenge kickoff event has ended and students rush the pit to rifle through supplies and wildly imagine robot designs. Lest we forget—what with their talents and professionalism—they're kids at play.

More than a book about robotics, business involvement in education, or the perils of coding while sleepy, The New Cool's greatest appeal for teen readers may lie in how it completely throws out the antiquated jock/nerd dichotomy. Bascomb recognizes that high school is often organized and experienced more through networks and multiple, overlapping associations than through cliques or hierarchies, and has produced a positive portrait of such dynamics in action.

Read an excerpt from The New Cool below (posted by Crown Publishing Group on Scribd):

The New Cool by Neal Bascomb - Excerpt by Crown Publishing Group

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