FIRST Newsletter - January, 2011
An Interview with Neal Bascomb, Author of "THE NEW COOL"
A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts
Bascomb at the 2011 FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Kickoff: "FIRST is about daring yourself to be exceptional." Photo by Lipofsky.com
Below is an interview with internationally-acclaimed author Neal Bascomb, whose soon-to-be-released book, THE NEW COOL: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts, offers an in-depth look into the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), particularly through the experience of Team 1717 "D'Penguineers" and their Mentor, Amir Abo-Shaeer. In THE NEW COOL, Bascomb tells the story of "what it means to be immersed in a real-life engineering project, complete with its conflicting constraints, limited budgets, and imminent deadlines." The hardcover book launches on March 1.
Unlike many other FRC teams, all 32 members of Team 1717 are high-school seniors. Since its Rookie year in 2006, Team 1717 has won numerous awards, including the Quality Award sponsored by Motorola for the best-made robot at the 2009 and 2010 FIRST Championships. Their lead Mentor, Amir Abo-Shaeer, is a physics teacher at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California. He was recently named one of 23 recipients of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellowship and the first-ever public school teacher to win the award. After becoming a teacher at Dos Pueblos in 2001, Amir created the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA) within the high school, which features a rigorous applied science curriculum across physics, engineering, and mathematics - culminating in the design and construction of an FRC robot and competition as the senior class project.
A former journalist in London and Dublin, and editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York, Bascomb became a full-time writer in 2000 and has since published four books: Higher; Perfect Mile; Red Mutiny; and Hunting Eichmann. Bascomb's books have ranked on a number of bestseller lists, been optioned for film, featured in several documentaries, and translated in over 10 languages. He has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times.
Feedback from early readers of the book:
"Outstanding.THE NEW COOL is a book that will make you feel good about America’s ability to innovate solutions to its most pervasive problems. If you’re sick of hearing about our impending doom, read this, and meet a generation of kids who could change not just the nation but the world. THE NEW COOL is, on its simplest level, the story of a robotics competition-but once you realize the immensity of what’s at stake, you’ll be as nervously anticipatory as the competitors themselves. Neal Bascomb has penned an indelible portrait of a team on a mission that may ultimately be reckoned one of the defining books of the decade."
-Dean Kamen, Founder of FIRST
"THE NEW COOL is a prodigious true story and I loved it! It is heartening to know that there are still dedicated teachers like my Miss Riley and kids like my Rocket Boys who take up the challenge of science beneath the American sky. THE NEW COOL is fast-paced, absorbing, and suspenseful. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know teacher Amir Abo-Shaeer and his hard-working students. Even though their chosen field is robotics, they are all true Rocket Boys and Rocket Girls!"
-Homer H. Hickam, author of the New York Times bestseller Rocket Boys
"While THE NEW COOL takes the reader inside a season, limns a team and coaching staff, and masterfully recounts a gripping competition, this is anything but your conventional sports book. And not simply because the ‘big game’ is. a curious robotics contest. Like the kids he vividly captures, Neal Bascomb has himself performed a masterful bit of engineering here."
-L. Jon Wertheim, senior writer, Sports Illustrated
FIRST: What prompted you to write "THE NEW COOL" about FRC Team 1717 "D'Penguineers?"
Neal: When I first began this project, my intention was to follow three teams and interweave their stories over the course of a season. I was looking for one team within the technology industry from the West Coast; another in the Rust Belt to show the stark contrast between the promise of these students and the current state of affairs in manufacturing; and an East Coast team. I spoke with several FIRST Regional Directors, who suggested teams to me. West Coast Director Jim Beck suggested a few in California, and said I had to speak with Amir Abo-Shaeer (pictured, right, at the 2011 FRC Kickoff) ? Mentor for Team 1717 D’Penguineers ? who was doing some interesting things in Goleta, California.
As soon as I spoke to Amir, I knew I wanted to follow him. His energy, zeal, and passion for his academy (Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA) at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California) and how he wanted to revolutionize education ? not just in Goleta, but across America ? really struck me. For the book, I wanted a teacher of science and physics ? someone like the Peter Keating character in the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society. I felt Amir was that individual. Over the course of the writing of the book, it made more sense to focus on one team, versus three. Given the season that Team 1717 had, as well as the message of how we change education across the board, made the team an obvious fit. That said, my experience with all the teams I interviewed over the course of my season with FIRST informed the book.
FIRST: How did you come up with the title of the book?
Neal: When I was growing up, sports was the big thing. I once was very interested in computers and programming ? even in machine-language ? but this was frowned upon by my peers. And, to be honest, I think my parents even found it odd. So I abandoned that interest; something I’ve always felt a tinge of regret about.
When I heard about FIRST and what it was doing, the book title came to me. It was a "thunderbolt" kind of moment, and I thought this focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) could and should be the new kind of cool.
FIRST: You decided to dedicate THE NEW COOL to your daughters, a "first" for you. Why?
Neal: I want my daughters to pursue whatever excites and interests them, no matter what other people think about it. "Cool is what you make it" is my dedication in the book. And, in a big way, I hope my daughters are fortunate enough to have a teacher like Amir or Mentors like Paul Copioli from Team 217, "ThunderChickens" of Sterling Heights, Michigan, or Bob Stark from Team 395, "2TrainRobotics" of Bronx, New York, the right teacher or Mentor can positively change your life. What’s fantastic about FIRST is the availability for students to work so closely with these Mentors.
FIRST: Do you have a background in engineering, robotics? A passion for the field?
Neal: Aside from my early interest in programming, I have no background in engineering and robotics. As a writer, I write very different kinds of books. My previous books have focused on architecture, running, Russian history, and Nazi hunting. But they are all stories with strong narratives that have something important to say ? either about our past or future. And, they also have strong characters. FIRST had all of those things, too. I feel our country so badly needs inventors and engineers to move us forward, and I thought this topic was perfect. That said, it was a huge learning curve for me ? from electronics to programming the robot to the speed, torque, and gear reductions. Thankfully, I had some very patient Mentors who could walk me through every aspect of the robot design and execution. I hope that comes across for readers.
FIRST: What makes this FIRST team so different from other FIRST teams? Had Amir already won the MacArthur award when you met him?
Neal: A few things distinguish Team 1717. First, they are comprised only of senior-grade students. The majority of FRC teams have students ranging from ninth to twelfth grades. During their time on the team, students amass a lot of experience ? it’s almost a training ground ? so that by the time a student is a senior, he or she knows a lot about robotics. As a Mentor, Amir has to teach the team members how to conceive, design, machine, build, wire, and program a robot, not to mention how to drive, scout, and work as a team at competition. As Amir said, it’s like doing a moon launch every year with people who’ve never been astronauts.
The second distinguishing factor for members of Team 1717 is that robotics is a required subject. Their involvement on the FIRST team as part of the DPEA at Dos Pueblos High School is worth class credit for graduation.
Finally, another reason I choose Amir’s team was because of the high stakes of the competition season. While I was researching the book, Amir was trying to expand the Academy and needed to raise $3 million. The more successful his team, the better proof that what he was doing was working. So, there was a lot on the line for Amir and Team 1717 in building a competitive robot. Also, it was incredible that Amir won the MacArthur award, particularly since he’s the first public school teacher to do so. Did I imagine he would win it when I first chose his team? No. I had no idea, but I’m so happy for the recognition he’s received.
FIRST: What kinds of things did you learn about FIRST, the organization, while you were researching and writing the book?
Neal: The most important thing I discovered about FIRST was the passion and enthusiasm that everyone brings to the organization. That’s what makes it so alive, both in terms of educational value, as well as the sheer fun of it all. I never ceased to be amazed by the level of involvement of the Mentors, many of whom often sacrificed time away from their jobs and family.
I also want to give a shout out to Dean (Kamen), who really is the wellspring of much of that enthusiasm. He gives so much to the organization that one senses everybody else feels like they should step up to the plate as well.
Finally, the work that FIRST is doing is important. Behind all the individual transformation and fun, America-and the world-needs people who are impassioned by science, technology, engineering, and math. I truly believe that one day many of these students will be leading the charge to reinvigorate our economy and solve its future problems.
FIRST: What did you discover about the teammates on D’Penguineers?
Neal: Foremost, how smart they are, which I will say about many of the kids I met while following all three teams. As a student, I did very well in school: straight As, honors courses, AP classes. But, I felt I paled in comparison to what these students knew and were able to execute, not only in terms of robotics, but simply in the diversity of their "smarts." Originally, I thought I would meet kids who were solely focused on programming and physics. However, on the Dos Pueblos team, there were theater junkies, musicians, surfers, gear-heads, football players, popular kids, and shy ones. It truly was a mixed bag, and one of Amir’s greatest challenges was his ability to form a team out of this medley of students over the course of such a short season.
Finally, I discovered how much work went into building PenguinBot. This is no simple afterschool club. Most of the team members were clocking seven to eight hours a day; sometimes six, and often seven days a week. In addition, there were many long nights ? several until 3 AM, not to mention the famous "overnighter" on the final day before shipment. Kids were falling asleep at their desks, on the floor, and even once on an exercise ball. They were so exhausted. At the end of the day, they learned what it takes to do something exceptional. In a way, building a robot was second or third on the list of what they learned.
FIRST: Please share your thoughts about working with Mentor Amir Abo-Shaeer and Team 1717.
Neal: Amir’s level of commitment to the team was outstanding. He has a full slate of classes to teach, an academy to run, and eight hours a night devoted to building the robot, not to mention class preparation and addressing professional correspondence. He doesn’t sleep. The way Amir engages with students and gets the best out of them is incredible. He is truly the "Peter Keating" of science and physics. It was interesting to watch the dynamic of Amir as teacher, versus Amir as coach. Often, they required two different courses of action and balancing them was fascinating to watch.
Also, it was fascinating to watch how Amir engaged the students, not only in building the robot, but also in helping him run the academy as a business: incorporating the various aspects of a business such as marketing, accounting, public relations, and presentations. Every student practically comes out prepared to run their own entrepreneurial company.
Finally, the time and commitment of his wife, Emily, helped to make everything work, not only with the academy, but also the team. She is his sounding board ? and a very good one at that.
FIRST: How did you hear about FIRST?
Neal: My nephew was one of those students who needed to find his place in high school. FIRST gave him that home and, in many ways, changed his life. It convinced him to pursue engineering in college, a discipline to which he is perfectly suited. My nephew is the kind of kid who has a tattoo on his arm that says "Carpe Diem" and is written in binary code. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his contribution to my involvement in this story. He’s another case of the transformative effect of FIRST ? both in terms of one’s directions, but perhaps more importantly, in terms of one’s self-confidence.
To start reading THE NEW COOL, go to www.scribd.com/doc/45000956/The-New-Cool-by-Neal-Bascomb-Excerpt or scan here: