The New Cool

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The Book of the Week is “The New Cool, A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts” by Neal Bascomb, published in 2011.

In the single-digit 2000’s, Amir Abo-Shaeer taught robotics in a “STEM” (four subjects that would help the United States remain economically dominant in the world: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program at Dos Pueblos high school in Goleta, California (a western suburb of Santa Barbara). If he was able to raise $3 million, he would receive matching funds from the state of California to start to build STEM academies all over the state. Dean Kamen’s goal was to have a robotics team in every school in the country.

Kamen was gravely concerned that the United States education system was falling woefully behind that of other countries. He might best be remembered as the inventor of the Segway, but at the dawn of the 1990’s, he also began to change the world in a much more impactful way.

Kamen and Woodie Flowers’ goal was to spark students’ interest in STEM. They wanted to give young people hands-on, real-world skills, not just convey knowledge. In 1992, they co-founded an annual program of STEM competitions for American students called FIRST. About a decade into the program, there were hundreds of thousands of students of different age groups competing in different events.

Elementary schoolers built structures out of LEGO. Each high school team was required to build a robot, and then in the competition, form alliances with other teams in playing a complicated physical game that differed every year, against another alliance.

In January 2009, the aforementioned Shaeer and his robotics team (consisting of high school seniors he taught) attended the briefing that Kamen, Flowers and NASA simulcast– of the terms and conditions of the robotics competitions to take place in the next three months. If their team emerged ultimate winners, they could win scholarships and might be more motivated to pursue a STEM career.

Read the book to learn of Shaeer’s students’ extremely hard work in preparing their contest entry (the robot), and the suspenseful story of how the team performed with its alliances in its very emotionally charged matches against other alliances, and whether Shaeer got the funding for his schools.