Amir Abo-Shaeer Would Coach Our Robotics Team . . .

Bascomb, N. (2012). The new cool: A visionary teacher, his FIRST robotics team, and the ultimate battle of smarts . New York, NY: Broadway.

This is the first book I have written about for this blog that is a non-fiction narrative rather than a research piece. Based on a true story, it reads like a novel and is cinematic in the way it builds drama around a group os students preparing for the FIRST Robotics Competition. If not yet optioned for a movie, I see this as a likely candidate for the feel good education film of 2014.

The book follows a year in the life of the students taught by Amir Abo-Shaeer as they prepare to compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition, an international high school robotics competition organized by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). The competition requires students to design and build a 120 pound robot to compete in a new game challenge every year against other robots. Abo-Shaeer is a physics teacher and former mechanical engineer who established the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA) during his first year of teaching at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California. The Dos Pueblos students on the team come from diverse backgrounds and work tirelessly after school and into the night to design, build, and constantly reiterate versions of their robot.

The FIRST competition was founded by the genius inventor Dean Kamen (who counts the Segway as one of his many inventions) to elevate the emphasis and prestige of students pursuing science and technology innovation.

“We get what we celebrate,” Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST, said between matches. Given how American culture celebrates ballplayers, movie stars, and, until recently, Wall Street titans, it was no wonder to Dean that so few kids pursued studies and careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. At this world championship, and throughout the season, forty-two thousand high school students came together to celebrate something quite different. (p.3-4)

A key partner to Kamen in the development of the FIRST competition was MIT professor emeritus Woodie Flowers, who Bascomb also interviews for the book on the impact projects like the FIRST competition can have on the way we approach STEM education.

Why was FIRST working? Woodie Flowers understood it better than most. “1 think it’s time to shift away from the ‘Sage on the Stage,‘ ” he explained. “What do we do? Learn by doing. First, understand the phenomenon before we tackle the abstractions…. Second. learning with always trumps learning from.” For too long, Woodie believed, schools have focused on what he called “training” instead of education. In a speech at Olin University, he broke down the difference:

Training and education are very different. Training is a commodity. Education is the part that confers comparative advantage. Much of what we call engineering education is in fact training and poorly done. Learning calculus is training. Learning to think using calculus is education; Learning a CAD program is training. Learning to design is a much more complex, sophisticated thing . . . Once you could be trained to be a professional if you knew things, that was enough, but information is ubiquitous [now], you can’t have an advantage in society [just] because you know something. (p.18-19)

Bascomb’s narrative builds drama throughout the timeline of the diverse group of ten students struggling to refine a robot that will be able to compete for a championship. They work with Abo-Shaeer and another adult engineer who volunteers to help the team as a mentor. Throughout the breakthroughs and setbacks of the build process, Bascomb also makes you care about the team by providing rich backgrounds on these kids who have found this passion and joined the team from many different pathways: cut from the basketball team, theater production guru, concert pianist, and master mathematician. The students split up into “crews” who are accountable for key components of the robot (electrical system, drive train, programming, shooting mechanism).

The journey of the team is an inspiring example of what can happen when a teacher relentlessly embraces the constructivist “learn by doing” approach that Woodie Flowers describes. From the first stages of the build process when the students first learn of the game parameters, Abo-Shaeer makes it clear that the students are going to solve the problems themselves.

“This will be a crazy game, the hardest I’ve seen,” Amir said, chopping the air with his hands. They were rarely still when he spoke. “It’ll be chaotic, but let’s start to figure it out. The most important thing to do right now is understand the game and come up with a strategy.” He asked for volunteers to inventory the kit of parts to make sure everything was there. He wanted everyone else to break into teams of four to brainstorm ideas. “No idea is a stupid idea. One idea that might never work could lead someone to think of another that will.” (p.39)

The book is not subtle in its two big takeaways: 1. Great teaching is an inspiring thing to watch, and ultimately results in students becoming passionate about owning their own growth as a learner and “doer” 2. We need to elevate the emphasis on, and prestige allocated to students pursuing STEM education.

American universities graduated 70,000 engineers in 2004, while China graduated 500,000 and India 200,000. Only 32 percent of students in the United States graduated college with science or engineering degrees, while China boasted double that percentage. Overall, American students were failing to pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in great enough numbers. and the statistics were even more abysmal for women and minorities. (p.20)

I don’t want to spoil the dramatic narrative for you. But needless to say, it is an inspiring read for anyone who wants a glimpse of the passion and dedication to student learning our greatest teachers take into the classroom every day. I will leave with a rejoinder Abo-Shaeer fires at the adult mentor for the team when he presented a compelling argument that the design for the build the students had called for was too ambitious and that they would need to scale back the sophisticated design if the team had any hope of finishing on time.

“I’m doing this with the students,” Amir said. “We came to an agreement on the kind of robot we wanted to build. I can’t go to them and look them straight in the eye and say it’ll be okay to cut these things. I can’t sell this to them. It’s their project. It won’t be the same robot they signed up to build. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

I’ve never me Amir Abo-Shaeer, but you tell me if that doesn’t sound like a great teacher. In a perfect school he would coach our Robotics team because inspiring teachers not only change the lives of students, but serve as examples of how other classroom teachers can make the transition Woody Flowers calls for from “the sage on the stage” to “the guy on the side”.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .             Michael Fullan Would Be Our RTI Coordinator . . .