It’s been called a sporting competition for the geek set, the Super Bowl for nerds. Inventor and science advocate Dean Kamen launched the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition in a moderately sized New Hampshire high school gymnasium in 1992. Two decades later, the competition is packing arenas across the country and drawing upward of 250,000 participants. Armed with only a supply kit and their science smarts, teams compete to build structurally sound and strategically engineered robots to undertake a final series of challenges—winners qualify for college scholarships and bragging rights.

Acclaimed nonfiction author Neal Bascomb investigates the “varsity sport for the mind” in his captivating, jauntily-paced release, The New Cool. In it, Bascomb follows revolutionary educator Amir Abo-Shaeer, the head of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy in Goleta, Calif., and his team of next generation scientists and engineers as they gear up for the 2008-09 FIRST Robotics season. Bascomb spoke with Kirkus about how his nephew got him into robotics, how FIRST is changing science education in America and how he found the physics version of Peter Keating. 

How’d you first learn about the competition?

I first heard about it from my nephew. He was on a team at his school in New Jersey. Here was a kid who didn’t have his place in high school, was struggling to find himself—which he did once he joined this team. It was a very positive experience for him.

He told me to check it out. So I went to their headquarters for the kickoff of the new season with the intention of writing a newspaper article or a magazine story. But as I was watching the kickoff, I was blown away. It was so colorful, this whole original world that I’d never seen before. This wasn’t the science fair I had known growing up, which was my original instinct.

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Let’s talk about Amir Abo-Shaeer and how he’s changing the way we educate our children.

I was first introduced to him when I was out looking for teams. I originally wanted to follow three teams for the book, and I wanted one of the teams to be education-focused. Amir’s like the Peter Keating, Dead Poets Society of science and physics. On one level, he’s just a dynamic individual—alive and passionate, open and just a terrific guy. That alone would have made him an incredible teacher.

What he’s doing with the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy is really trying to push aside [the current methods of education]—where you’re teaching students a bunch of equations, have them memorize different books and then testing them on it. He’s really trying to bring a sort of hands-on, innovative, project-based approach to science, with robotics as the top tier of the program. What he’s trying to provide is something more dynamic, collaborative, integrated within the school curriculum, the California stands.  The robotics project isn’t some club they participate in after school, it’s part of what they learn and how they learn.

That, and the face that he’s been able to bring in more than 50 percent women to the program—more girls apply than boys. When he first started the academy six years ago, only two girls applied. Now he’s getting more female applicants than male.

There are more than 2,000 teams competing in FIRST Robotics, all with five or six mentors apiece. I was just lucky enough to pick the one who won the MacArthur Award.

Are competitions like Dean Kamen’s FIRST truly engaging American youth? And if so, how do we broaden their success?

There was a study that was done by Brandeis University on kids who participated in FIRST and what they went on to study versus kids in their peer groups, at the same academic level and standing. A dramatically overwhelming number went on to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and received post-secondary degrees.

Even talking to MIT professors anecdotally, the kids who come in having participated in the FIRST Robotics program are far more advanced than their peers. Even at engineering firms, when they’re hiring, they’ll look for applicants who’ve done FIRST.

But I think that’s what [we’re all trying to figure out]. It’s another reason I chose Amir. You have all these kids that are interested in participating in this program, but it’s hard to sustain. It’s an extremely expensive, very intense program. Which is OK if the teachers are being paid and the students are getting credit. If FIRST can [embed in more] high schools across the country, it would be more sustainable [and have a greater impact on students.]

Pub info:

The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Teams, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts

Neal Bascomb

Crown / March 1, 2011 / 9780307588890 / $25.00