The New Cool
Can 31 high school seniors build a world-class robot – and help to fix public education?
(Page 2 of 2)
For two pages, Bascomb describes how Amir teaches friction. For another two, he explains how students create sketches in computer-aided design program SolidWorks. We’re taught torque, the logic of coding, and how a lathe works. The first half of the book is filled with these dry topics while we’re left to wonder who exactly the D’Penguineers and Amir are.Skip to next paragraph
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A few students do stand out. There’s Gabe, the talented-beyond-his-years programmer who loves theater and has a father diagnosed with leukemia. There's the robot’s eventual driver, Chase, who struggles with a learning disability and who has finally found a home in Amir’s program. And there’s Turk, the die-hard sports fan who hopes to become the team’s shooter in the FIRST competition.
But you never hear enough from these students and you find yourself wishing Bascomb had asked harder questions: How does Gabe cope with his father’s illness and the responsibility of FIRST? How does it feel for Chase to deal with a learning disability while designing a robot? And what do they really think of their teacher, Amir, whom we never really understand?
Equally frustrating is that we don’t get to know the 28 other students on the team who pop in and out with just a sentence or two of explanation. With so little connection to the students, it's hard to be impressed when the group ultimately comes together as a team.
Bascomb originally intended to follow three FIRST teams for the book, but ultimately decided to tell just the D’Penguineer’s story. Nevertheless, he does pen two chapters about the other two teams, one of which is called 2Train. 2Train member Gabe Ruiz has a story begging to be told. He’s from the South Bronx, desperate to escape, and looking at FIRST as his ticket out. As the short chapter about Gabe comes to a close, it's hard not to think about how much better the book would have been if 2Train had been the focus.
The pace of "The New Cool" picks up slightly at the regional and championship competitions as the D’Penguineers' hard work begins to pay off, but by then it's too late and too little.
Despite the important message contained in “The New Cool” the book fails to resonate. There’s no question but that the kind of robots created in the FIRST competition are impressive. And there’s no denying that the students who make them learn invaluable lessons. Amir’s academy is the kind of solution that could fix public education; Kamen’s vision might save the nation.
Which is why it’s such a shame that this book doesn't do any of it justice.
Kate Vander Wiede is the managing editor of The South End News in Boston.