Model building has fascinated teens for generations. But in the 21st century, tinkering with machines has reached a whole new level. This year thousands of American students – boys and girls — will participate in the world’s premiere robotics competition. High school seniors and their mentors from across the country take part in the unusual sport – one that celebrates brains rather than brawn. Ambitious teams design and build robots from scratch. Those who advance to the finals compete before 40,000 screaming fans. What their drive for success could mean for sparking innovation in American education — and defining a new cool.
Bestselling author of "The Perfect Mile" and contributor to "The New York Times".
Director and Teacher of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy in Goleta, California. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010 for inspiring and preparing public high school students for careers in science and mathematics.
President of DEKA Research & Development Corporation. He founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology)in 1989, a program to promote student interest in science, technology, and engineering.
Author Extra: Neal Bascomb Answers Questions
Q:My son was involved in robotics and competed at FIRST for 3 years – I was extremely impressed with the wide range of talents and personalities involved. Like the team you followed our team was small, and not funded! The lack of funding was very apparent the first year. Could you please address some of the financial aspects of FIRST?
A: FIRST is a tremendous program, but yes, I totally understand the issues with finances. Running an FRC team is often an expensive proposition, even though the organization tries to help support teams in various ways financially.
a. There is also the FTC program, a less expensive/intensive program that FIRST runs, which is growing steadily.
b. I’d venture to say that the fundraising for FRC can/should be viewed as part of the learning process. Students engage in promotion, proposals, pitches, an experience that they will no doubt encounter in the working world.
Hope that illuminates…
Q:Are the robots true robots, that is they operate independently, or are they radio controlled with the students operating the radio controller? (Sam in Kansas)
A: Yes, the robot are true robots, though not of the anthropomorphic ideal that you would imagine. They are able to run autonomously, necessary for one aspect of the game, as well as be guided by pilots. Feedback from sensors is essential for both. My suggestion, come out and see a competition in your local area (go to usfirst.org) and I think you’ll be dutifully impressed!
Q:Listening with great interest this AM. Can Mr. Bascomb offer some practical ideas of how to nurture this love at a young age? My soon-to-be kindergardener LOVES all things mechanical. (Christopher in Indianapolis)
A: That’s a great question and points to the fastest growing part of the “FIRST Experience.” There are over 20,000 Junior Lego and Lego league teams where young students , kindergarten and beyond, can start experience the joys of robot building. They are tremendous fun, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Q:I am THRILLED with this program. I’m the Director of a hands-on science museum on Birmingham Alabama – McWane Science Center. We direct a state-wide year-long science competition called Celebrate Science. It really turns on kids and teachers. We’ve impacted thousands of kids, and it has been wonderful.
There are two big obstacles to widespread success:
Our program requires an enormous amount of teacher dedication;
Our program is NOT in the curriculum….it is extra work.
How can we create widespread acceptance of hands-on science learning given that it often requires superstar teachers? How can we drive this kind of pedagogy into the curriculum?
Thanks….Keep up the great work.* (Tim)
A: Appreciate the note and thank you for all your work to inspire students to STEM. To encourage the acceptance of hands-on science learning, I would point educators toward what Amir is doing in Goleta, CA (as featured in the book). His program fits in with the curriculum and he is now in the process of helping spread this curriculum to other schools in California (and hopefully soon, nationally). I’d encourage you to have FIRST mentors come in and talk to junior highs and high schools in your area (and make sure they bring members of their team). Best promotion comes through the students.
Related Video: Highlights from the FIRST 2009 Competition
Read an Excerpt
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama recently declared that America must out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world. Thousands of students around the country have a jumpstart on doing just that. A journalist and best-selling author followed a team of high school seniors through a season at the world's premiere robotics competition.
MS. DIANE REHMHis new book describes the challenges they faced building a robot from scratch and what their initiative could mean for the future of American education. His new book is titled, "The New Cool" and author Neal Bascomb joins me in the studio. I'd be interested to hear your questions and comments. Give us a call on 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to Neal, welcome.
MR. NEAL BASCOMBGood morning, Diane, thank you.
REHMAfter writing a book on hunting Eichmann, I would presume this was a pleasant shift for you.
BASCOMBYes, it absolutely was. I mean, "Hunting Eichmann" was a very strong, forceful story, a bit dark. And then, as you look at "The New Cool" and you have this inspiring story about these high school kids coming together to build this remarkable robot and being inspired by science and engineering. It was a pleasure.
REHMHow did you get on to it?
BASCOMBOriginally, my nephew actually participated at first and he was one of these kids who, you know, was a little bit having trouble finding his place in high school, very smart, but not interested in typical sports. And he joined a FIRST team at his high school and it, you know, it changed him and it gave him confidence.
REHMYou used the word FIRST?
BASCOMBFIRST is the organization that Dean Kamen started for the inspiration.
REHMSpell it out for us.
REHMAnd what do those letters mean?
BASCOMBIt's for the inspiration of science and technology.
REHMOkay, got ya.
BASCOMBAnd that is the robotics competition that Dean Kamen, the inventor, founded. His idea being that we get in this culture what we celebrate and if we celebrate athletes and movie stars, then that's what students will want to be. But if we celebrate scientists and inventors and engineers, then students will want to pursue those fields in the future.
REHMOkay, so your nephew got involved in this. In the beginning, how many kids were really interested?
BASCOMBI mean, in the beginning, 20 years ago, it was a very small competition. They had it in a high school gym. It was -- I believe 32 teens participated in the first competition. And what it is is these students have six weeks. They're given a game at the start of the season. They're given six weeks to build a robot to achieve the ends of that game and then they are in regional and national competitions.
BASCOMBAnd so it's this very intense build season that they have and they're instructed by mentors and helped by mentors. And it's pretty remarkable. And at the end of the day, when you actually go to the competitions, it is sport. I mean, I found myself as wrapped up into it and losing all...
REHMAs a basketball game...
BASCOMB...yeah, losing all journalistic integrity and really rooting for these kids.
REHMHow did you find and choose then a team to follow?
BASCOMBWhen I originally started the book, I was going to follow three teams, a team in New York, a team in Detroit and a team in Goleta, California, but I found myself sort of centering on the team in California because its educator, its teacher was just this remarkable, dynamic individual named Amir Abo-Shaeer.
REHMAnd we're going to talk with him in just a few moments. But what I want you to do is to describe this kind of robot-building effort. Most of us think of robots as being R2-D2, you know, this little figure who walks around and talks and that sort of thing. But this robot that was constructed was very different from that.
BASCOMBYes. I mean, when I originally thought about doing this book, I thought it was some anthropomorphic ideal of a robot...
BASCOMB...which, of course, you do and in some circumstances, they look like mailboxes on wheels. But that is to say that is to, I think, in some ways, denigrate what these robots are able to achieve. I mean, they're remarkably advanced.
BASCOMBIn six weeks, these students have to conceive of a design that achieves the ends of this game. They have to design it. They have to build it, machine it, program it and wire it. It's able to move autonomously on its own. It's able to move by a pilot's joystick. The game that -- the season that I followed, the robot was able to collect balls on a field of play and then shoot them into trailers that were moving around the field and, you know, with sort of guidance systems and all the like. I mean it's -- I feel like I was pretty smart in high school. I'm nothing compared to these students and it's incredible.
REHMAnd they were, for the most part, at the beginning of this effort, boys?
BASCOMBYes. I mean, I'll just give you an example of -- that I feature in the book and Amir's team. You know, when he first started his engineering academy, they only had just, I think, three girls participated on the team. In the span of a few short years, he has already 50 percent of the members of the team are female and they're just as enthusiastic and just as important a part of the new cool as anybody else.
REHMExplain to me this notion of designing a game because that's at the heart of it and yet to conceive of a game involving a robot rather technically is something that most adults couldn't do.
BASCOMBYes. I mean, if you look at the -- and the game changes every single year so every single year there's a new game that these students have to design for. And in order to put together whatever this game is, you know, they have to worry about the field that they're going to be playing in. They're playing across the country. They have to. They're concerned about what they're trying to teach the kids. You know, they want it to be able to, of course, move around the playing field, but they also want it to move autonomously. They want it to have arms to be able to achieve certain things. Sometimes they want it to shoot, sometimes to mount certain obstacles. So the game design is every bit as important as anything over this process.
REHMAnd then, after they design the game, then who creates the tools to create the game?
BASCOMBWell, the game is. They come up with a game and then it is presented to the students. The students are given what's called the kit of parts and the kit of parts is, you know, wheels and batteries and a control system and all that. But that's really only the starting point for what these students build so it's not like they're given a kit and are given instructions and, oh, they have to put this together. It's nothing like that.
BASCOMBThe kit is the beginning point of the design and then they create whatever robot they want. And at the end of the day, you know, when you come to competition, I think it's -- the differences between robots is profound.
REHMAnd each of the teams then, I would presume, breaks apart into smaller factions to work on one tiny part. Is that correct?
BASCOMBYes. I mean, you find that some students love programming, some students are gear-heads and they love working in the machine shop. Some students are wiring the robot and sometimes it has nothing to do with the robot. They're promoting the team. They're working with the finances. It's almost like running a small business.
REHMLike running a small business, we're talking about a book. It's titled, "The New Cool" by Neal Bascomb. It is subtitled, "A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts." You can join us 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com Join us on Facebook or Twitter. You clearly followed some particular students on this team and talk first about how this particular team came together.
BASCOMBI mean, what I found fascinating about this team was, one, they were all seniors so they were all rookies. Most teams across the country, you know, students have been on for one, two, three years. This team, they come together and as Amir often says, you know, they're basically coming together and they have to shoot to the moon over the course of six weeks. And he has to teach them how to get to the moon.
BASCOMBAnd what I loved about this team was that it was a bit of a ragtag "Bad News Bears" kind of team in the sense that, you know, there were surfers on the team, athletes, musicians, kids who loved theater. And they all sort of came together over this period and it's really about them forming as a team and being able to create this robot over such a short time.
REHMYou had a wonderful concert pianist who participated?
BASCOMBYes, I mean, and the kids would practice their cellos and piano over the course of building the robot.
REHMYou also had a Taekwondo champion?
BASCOMBYes, a Taekwondo champion, we had bikers, I mean, it's -- the range, it was fascinating.
REHMAnd somehow they all managed to cooperate. I mean, that's key.
BASCOMBI mean, I may have overstated it. In the beginning, they necessarily weren't cooperating that fantastically, but I think by the end of the three or four month season, though...
REHMIt takes a while.
BASCOMB...they had really come together as a team.
REHMNeal Bascomb, his book is titled, "The New Cool." We'll take a short break and when we come back, we will have some other guests join us. Your calls as well, stay with us.
REHMAnd joining us now from Goleta, California, is Amir Abo-Shaeer. He's a high school physics teacher, he's head of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy and he is the first public school teacher ever to win a MacArthur Genius Award, which he won this year. Good morning and congratulations to you, Amir.
MR. AMIR ABO-SHAEERGood morning. Thanks a lot for having me on the show.
REHMAbsolutely. Most schools, I gather, treat robotics as a club and your program is different. Tell me how you've set it up.
ABO-SHAEERWell, what we've done is we've really embedded the robotics into the curriculum. And really what that does is it gives buy-in in terms of the whole school because kids are getting -- you know, taking classes and getting grades as opposed to just kinda meeting at lunchtime or meeting after school. And what that does is then you have curriculum, the school board approves it, then the school board has buy-in and then the superintendent has buy-in. And basically, everybody understands that this is really an integral part of the school. When you make something a club, it just doesn't have the same level of acceptance.
REHMBut, you know, we keep hearing lots of complaints about the fact that teachers are overburdened and they've got to teach the basics and stay with the basics. How did you manage to convince your principal as well as the board that this was a great value?
ABO-SHAEERWell, one thing, I guess my strength, I would say, is the tenacity that I have. I just keep on pushing and keep on pushing so...
REHMGood for you.
ABO-SHAEER...until, you know, when people say no or they -- one of the things I say -- people say, how did you get these things done? And what I often find is people are unwilling to help if it's something outside the box, but they don't necessarily want to get in your way. So if you just politely ask them if you can go around them and try different things they're usually supportive. It's just a lot of people in education, especially in the administration are just -- they're overburdened themselves with so many things that when you come with a new idea, if you have the idea and you also have a solution of how to get it done then, you know, they're more receptive.
ABO-SHAEERIn the case of this program, it took some outside funding at the beginning and so I went to Industry Partners. I had worked in industry as an engineer and I went to some industry people I had worked with and said, can you help get this thing off the ground? And so we had companies like Raytheon help us out and provide some seed funding. And then once we had that seed funding and demonstrated the viability of the program, you know, then the district was able to say, okay we had -- it was like a no-stakes thing for the district. And once they saw it was working they were willing to really support it.
REHMYou mentioned an engineering company. You left that company to teach school.
ABO-SHAEERWell, a couple reasons. You know, I've been reflecting on this a lot 'cause people keep, you know, asking me this as I, you know, had more interviews, especially since the MacArthur Award and the book. And it's really two things as I've thought about it more. One is I had a very exceptional high school teacher, mentor. I was in the marching band and so I had this teacher Ike Jenkins who just really kind of demonstrated to me what an amazing high school teacher could provide for students. And then the other thing was when I was in graduate school, I was a teaching assistant and so I had experience teaching. And those two experiences really led me to believe that I could go and make a real impact in the secondary education with the high school students, that age group.
REHMSo what you're trying to do here is to teach in new ways that can inspire, encourage innovation.
ABO-SHAEERYes. And what I would say is this. I mean, I kinda came into this over time. I mean, when I started out, I was really thinking, I have an engineering degree. I'm gonna help students understand, you know, the world around them through a standard based curriculum, you know, where you would just kinda lecture and work and do some projects. And over time what happened is I was introduced to FIRST Robotics and started to incorporate that into the curriculum. And once I saw what was possible with the students, it just changed my entire educational outlook.
ABO-SHAEERSo even myself being in education I thought I was doing something innovative. And until I really brought FIRST Robotics into the school and really looked at it, it was not even -- I was not even aware of what was possible with the students. I mean, it's remarkable what students will be able to do if you challenge them and excite them. And so now what I'm doing is moving all my curriculum in the -- towards the same direction as the FIRST Robotics where it's not really about teaching content and then doing a project. But by giving students a project that's far more challenging than they can really even believe they could ever conceive of completing and then learning the content by necessity to complete the project. It's just a different way...
REHMGive me an example, if you would, outside of the building a robot.
ABO-SHAEEROkay. So what we're doing is we've developed all new curriculums for next year and it's actually an interesting kind of curriculum. We have a building that we've been building for the past couple years. We raised money for it and it's going to allow us to do this new kind of project-based learning. And so the idea would be -- we're mixing art, which I think people would find, you know, odd with engineering and with physics. And the reason we're doing that is because we believe that the art aspect is something that's important in engineering. It's a creative component to it. And then there's obviously the physics and engineering, which I think people really understand why that relates to that.
ABO-SHAEERSo the idea would be -- and this is going to be somewhat, you know, complicated for people if they haven't heard of some of this things, but I'll do my best -- is we have to teach students about things called vectors in physics. And it's kind of a mundane topic. And the idea also in the engineering, we have to teach students how to use a machine called a mill, which is able to produce parts. And the mill really fundamentally uses these things called vectors, but people don't really think about it. And so what we're going to do is develop a project that the students make on this machine but that they have to use the concept of vectors in order to understand how to actually make the product. And the product will actually be an artistic creation. So it's all of this put together.
ABO-SHAEERAnd, again, without kind of -- you know, on the radio without like visually kind of being able to show you what we're talking about, it's really about giving them this art project, saying you need to create it. And then the students say, well, wait a minute. We can't get these features on this art project with this machine without understanding how to do these things. And then you end up teaching them this concept that you would've taught them in a standard physics class to be able to achieve it.
REHMWell, we are going to provide our listeners an opportunity to see some of the work that these FIRST teams have accomplished. We'll put a few videos of FIRST teams on our website so listeners can see some of those robots in action.
ABO-SHAEERRight. And they're quite sophisticated, as Neal mentioned earlier on the show. I mean, they're just really -- we have people -- I mean, we're heavily sponsored by industry now because we've been so successful with the students in the Industry Partners. We live in, like, an area kind of like Silicon Valley where there's a lot of technology. And there's a lot of companies that really are hoping that the students can come and work for them so they're very supportive of what we're doing.
ABO-SHAEERAnd we have people come into our, you know, robotic shop all the time and look at the robots. And these are companies that have never -- you know, executives in companies who have never seen the FIRST Robotics competition. And they're always completely blown away that the kids are producing it. And the most common comment I get is, you built this in six weeks. Our company couldn't build this in a year. And that just shows you...
ABO-SHAEER...I mean, that really shows you...
ABO-SHAEER...what students are capable of. And I'd say that, you know, when you talked about, you know, the Obama Administration and what our goals should be and I would say this, I think we're setting our sights too low and I think we're aiming in the wrong direction. And I think what we really need to be doing is providing students with these exciting, challenging opportunities, not penting them up in a desk all day listening to lectures. So, you know, my hope is that people will read this book, anybody who's interested in educational reform, and really maybe rethink what we should be doing and rethink what the best way is to evaluate how students are doing and what we can provide students...
REHMAll right. Let me read to you an e-mail we've gotten from Charlotte in Greensboro, N.C. who says, "As a parent of a FIRST team member in high school, we learned what an engaging experience this was for all of us. Our son is now a college freshman in engineering and excited about launching a career in computer engineering. FIRST is worthy of our support and recognition as a pioneer in developing our future leaders." Neal Bascomb, how has this FIRST Program spread around the country?
BASCOMBI mean, it's spreading like wildfire now. I mean, you have all the way from kids who are five, six years old. There's almost 20,000 teams of FIRST Lego leagues and then you have all the way through up to Amir's level of high school. So you have over 2,000 teams across the country. You have teams in, I think, something like 17 countries as well. So it's building and growing, but as Amir is doing, I think the real growth for it -- it's only in like ten percent of high schools. In order to get it in 100 percent of high schools, you need to integrate it within your high school as part of the curriculum, I believe, and that's what Amir's doing.
REHMAnd Amir is doing that, but who else is doing it around the country? Does it start with a single teacher? Does it start with a math teacher, a physics teacher? How does it begin?
BASCOMBIt begins in a number of different ways, but, yes, you see a lot of times a physics teacher or math teacher hears about FIRST and wants to start a team and collects a group of students. But, you know, it takes a lot of time and the amount of mentorship is incredible. But I think the reward is worthy of it.
REHMAmir, before I open the phones and take calls from listeners, I'd like to hear about that first competition in which you and your team of students participated.
ABO-SHAEERWell, we participate every year and so my question would be are you looking for a single competition or just the general experience of the competition?
REHMWell, give me a general experience of that first time you went out there and put your creation before the world.
ABO-SHAEEROkay. Well, the first year, I mean, was pretty incredible. What happened is we went and the first thing I did is I went and just the year before I took a group of my juniors to a competition to show them what we were going to do the following year. And we all went there and we were completely just blown away that high school students were able to do this and totally overwhelmed. So that was our -- our introduction was, wow, we're going to do this next year. And, you know, how are we going to possibly do this, especially because at the beginning, as Neal said, it starts out with one teacher usually and you have no resources and you're about to just tackle, you know, this crazy problem.
ABO-SHAEERSo we got the challenge the following year and, you know, we got this kit of parts and I just remember it was just -- we were at school 'til -- this is what really kinda changed my whole thinking -- we were at school 'til first 9:00 in the night, you know, then 10:00 in the night. And then soon 1:00 in the morning became the new 9:00. And, you know, then it was 2:00 in the morning, 3:00 in the morning. And, I mean...
ABO-SHAEER...you know, for perspective I was there -- just so you understand, I was here 'til 3:00 in the morning even last night. We're working on the finishing touches for this robotic competition.
ABO-SHAEERAnd there are kids there. I had 20 kids with me last night. You know, the first season again we had all these kids there and I couldn't believe the difference in terms of their enthusiasm for being at school, not realizing that they were actually in school. They were thinking, hey, we're doing this fun thing outside of school, but the fact that they were also getting a better education and a higher quality education and were excited and passionate about it.
ABO-SHAEERYou know, I had always been one of these teachers that had been really successful with kids and had an enjoyable class teaching challenging stuff. But it never -- you could never take away from -- if you're teaching a fourth period class right before lunch, you can see kids constantly looking at the clock wondering when the class was going to be over. And so the transformation I saw was now kids were saying to me, we're not ready. We can't go home yet.
ABO-SHAEERYou know, it's 3:00 in the morning and they've got class at maybe 7:00 a.m., we can't go. We have to be successful. And so I would say what -- you know, who wouldn't want education to look like that?
ABO-SHAEERI mean, people think -- when you talk to people, I think the average person can relate to the idea that school can and maybe is supposed to be boring. And I don't believe that. I think kids want to learn. I think they're curious. I think they love being around each other and love really learning about new things. And I think if we can restructure education to look like this, I think we can really transform this country, you know, and its education really just overnight. It's just going to be a matter of people just realizing the really exciting things that are possible.
REHMAmir Abo-Shaeer. He's a high school physics teacher and head of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Pardon me. Amir, I'd be interested, considering all of the talk you've heard recently, I'm sure if you've been watching any television or listening to any radio, about teachers' salaries, collective bargaining and that sort of thing, I'm wondering what your reaction has been.
ABO-SHAEERWell, I mean, those topics are all -- I think they're all important topics, but I honestly think that the most -- what we should really be focusing on is what we're teaching. And then I think we can focus on who's teaching our kids, you know, and then how we kinda deal with that. But I would say in a nutshell teaching is a hard job and I think that people don’t really -- in our culture we value jobs based on how much we pay people. There's no way to change that. And so, you know, when you look at people becoming doctors and lawyers, those jobs are prestigious in large part because those professions are paid well. And I think when you don't pay people well you end up with, you know, a noncompetitive job situation.
ABO-SHAEERSo I think, you know, people, you know, think well teachers are low quality so we don't want to pay them well. And it's this circle that goes on forever...
ABO-SHAEER...and I think you have to fundamentally say, we value this and we want the best people in this job. And you have to kind of -- I think we just need to suck it up and say, let's just pay teachers more. Let's make it more competitive and let's get the best people in there.
REHMWhat kind of salary cut did you take to go from an engineering company to become a teacher?
ABO-SHAEERIt wasn't terribly significant because I hadn't worked as an engineer for enough years to have that separation in my salary, if that makes any sense. I'd only been an engineer for about four or five years, but -- which that leads to an interesting point that's really important. When I was able to make the decision to transition into teaching, it wasn't that hard because the pay cut, you know, was like 20, 25 percent. But had I stayed an engineer for maybe four or five years, I never would've been able to make that decision because I would've been in a different financial stage of my life.
ABO-SHAEERAnd the reason I say this is important is it's this nuance thing where we say we want people to come back and go into teaching. We want to encourage people who've had experience to go into teaching. But the system is fundamentally set up that you start out at the bottom pay scale when you become a teacher and none of your experience is credited. So let's say you work as an engineer for 15 years and you decide you want to be a teacher...
ABO-SHAEER...when you start out as a teacher you would start out at the bottom pay scale. Whereas if you were an engineer who taught for -- sorry, who worked for 15 years and you decided you wanted to go into management, they would actually incorporate all of your experience into your pay scale. So there's these fundamental subtleties built into the way teachers are paid and pay structures that don't encourage people to come in as a career change. And when we live in a society where people have, you know, five, ten different careers in a lifetime, what we're really doing by having this kind of pay structure is keeping people out that could come in and really make a huge impact on the schools because it's just financially untenable for them.
REHMSure. One caller, Sam in Wichita, Kansas, wants to know, "Are the robots true robots? Do they operate independently or are they radio controlled with the students operating the radio controller?" You've got about 30 seconds, Amir.
ABO-SHAEERAll right. So that's a really frequent question that people ask, and they do both. In one part of the competition, they're autonomist. They completely work on their own. They have to achieve a task. And in the second portion of the competition, they are operated by remote control, but the robots have sensors built into them which allow them to do complex tasks with simple input.
REHMI see. All right. We'll come back to that and more calls after a short break. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. Neal Bascomb is here in the studio. He's written a book called, "The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of the Smarts." And on the line with us is Amir Abo-Shaeer. He's a high school physics teacher. He has just been named the first public school teacher to win the MacArthur Genius Award. And we're going to go to the phones in one second, but first, Neal, I wanted to ask you about how many programs like Amir's are around the country.
BASCOMBThere's roughly 2,000 teams across the country and everywhere from Pennsylvania to New York to California.
REHMSo not just California.
BASCOMBNo, by no means is it just California.
REHMYeah. And it's because teachers have heard about the program or principals have heard and they've gotten their kids involved.
REHMOkay, let's go to the phones to Sylvia in Winston-Salem, N.C., good morning.
SYLVIAHi, I actually have a lot in common with what both of these speakers are talking about. In 2001, I was part of a team that was the first team from Kentucky. And we had P&G to help us out, but that was it. We actually built a robot in a garage. It was not glamorous. And we had this robot – we named it Cletus and I was a self-proclaimed math hater and there I was just working, like, so hard on this robot. And it was a great experience. And even the competition – we actually got to go to Florida the first year. Being around so many people it was -- I can't even describe how it felt -- the environment.
REHMSylvia, how do you think -- how do you think it's affected your ability to learn, your studies, your -- whatever it is you're doing now?
SYLVIAWell, I'm now a teacher and I teach Spanish, but I make sure everything I do is practical because I learned so much just from having an experience that was practical. I was using math so when my students use Spanish, I make sure that it's always in a situation that's meaningful. And I just -- that's one of my questions is how -- if testing isn't working, why not just make these practical experiences that are so meaningful? Why can't we just make that happen for more students?
REHMAmir. Amir, are you there? Oh, dear, I'm afraid we've lost him. Neal Bascomb.
BASCOMBYes, I mean, I think the standardized test serve a certain purpose but I totally agree with the caller that the dynamic inspiring method of FIRST or other programs like it where they can actually engage students. They're learning so much more than they are by rote learning or taking from a textbook. And Amir often says these kids can look this stuff up on Wikipedia." They can look it up online. They can't look up the experience and what they learn from this program anywhere else but doing it.
REHMAll right. To Kokomo, IN, good morning, Greg, you're on the air.
GREGMy daughter first got involved in the FIRST Robotics as a middle-schooler and they had a program called Lego Leagues and it was almost like a -- just a small arena that they used and they built their little robots out of these Lego kits and that really got her inspired to go on to the FIRST robotics competition.
REHMAnd what's she involved in now, Greg?
GREGWell, she is going to college for engineering right now. She's in her fourth year and she's going to go on to graduate school to get a degree in prosthetics.
REHMThat's terrific. Thank you so much for calling. Here is one e-mail from Brian in Cincinnati and I'd like each of your responses. Brian says, "As a former first participant, I can tell you it drastically changed my life. I'm now pursuing a career in software development personally." But here's a contrary comment from Larry who says, "As a parent who mentored FIRST one year," he says, "The other studies that the kids have suffer during the six-week build season and FIRST will not scale to every school because the winning teams have corporate sponsorship." Amir, can you respond?
ABO-SHAEERWell, I would say that I think it's definitely true that the intensity of the competition during the six weeks can affect the studies. And one of the things that we've done differently -- I can't really address, you know, how other teams do this, but because we have all seniors our students are in the last semester of their four years in high school and they've applied to college. And the – this was not intentionally done on my part. I incorporated it in my curriculum as a senior class and this was the secondary kind of affect that I didn't realize that was highly beneficial. Normally, kids in -- starting in January that are seniors get what's called "senioritis". I think everyone's familiar with it. And they're basically tuned out of school.
ABO-SHAEERAnd they tune out pretty much until they go to college the following year. And that's really, I think, a fundamentally, you know, terrible thing. We think about what happens during the three months of summer, but think about, you know, so the student basically says, oh, I've applied to college. All I need to do is maintain, you know, Bs and I can get into whatever college I get into.
ABO-SHAEERAnd so they end up, basically, taking not too many classes and being tuned out. Well, what we do is we engage them with the most intense experience of their high school career. They throw everything at it and, while it does impact their other classes, it doesn't end up – it's never caused a problem for us with our students being, you know, kept out of a college because they got a bad grade or something like that. And, again, they're engaged in the most intense experience. So that's the first thing. The second comment was the corporate sponsorship. And I would say this, I would say that our team has a lot of corporate sponsorship and it's because I am really good at public relations and I've worked with, you know, starting a non-profit foundation.
ABO-SHAEERAnd now I have people that work with me that are really good at going out and getting this funding because we're trying – we're trying to reform education, I mean, at heart. We're not just running a FIRST team. We're trying to transform culture and education through what we're doing. So our corporate sponsorship is used for multiple things. But there are plenty of teams, and I mean there are teams we compete against who have very limited funding.
ABO-SHAEERWho every year we go and see them and they are frighteningly good and we're always concerned that they're going to, you know, be able to beat us. And they're running on a budget that's, you know, one tenth what our budget is. You know, yes, for us we have a large budget, but my first year and my second year we were -- we were extremely competitive my second year. We had one of the best robots, you know, at the competition our second year. And our budget was $10,000. And $10,000 spread over 30 kids that's a pretty small amount, I think, if you look at how much money is spent on other things. So I think it's possible.
ABO-SHAEERI do understand why people go to these competitions and they get overwhelmed when they see the really flashy robots with the corporate sponsorship, but it's definitely possible...
REHMIt can be done.
ABO-SHAEERIt can be done. It absolutely can be done. And we've done it and I've seen other teams do it year after year.
REHMAll right, and joining us now, is Dean Kamen. He's the founder of the FIRST program. Dean Kamen, thanks for joining us.
MR. DEAN KAMENThanks for inviting us.
REHMTalk about why you created the FIRST program.
KAMENVery simple. I've been listening to some of these comments and when you hear people say it's changed their life or the life of their kids, I think that a lot of people focus on an issue in this country of education and think it's all about supply, like, we need more of everything and we've got to spend more. I think it's not about supply it's about a lack of demand among most kids, particularly, women and minorities because there's so much other noise in our culture that distracts them and gives them other kids of, frankly, I think, false expectations and false role models. Very few kids will become professional athletes, very few kids will become professional actors and actresses and, yet, Hollywood and the NBA consume a lot of their time because they're made to seem very fun and very exciting...
KAMEN...and very attractive. And we said if we could take science and technology and engineering and make it a sport like all the other sports, with cheerleaders and school bands and awards and recognitions, we would convince, again, particularly, women and minorities in this country, that the ultimate sport -- the ultimate human capability, thinking, problem solving, creating is just as much fun and way more accessible. And so using all the tools...
KAMEN...and attraction of sports, we said, let's go after the demand side of this issue and see if we can change the culture.
REHMDean Kamen, talk about your own experience as a student, in terms of science and math education.
KAMENWell, you know, even I would admit while there are a lot of good teachers out there in math and science their confined to do it in a way that is very regimented in a classroom and is, you know, give me the information and test me on the information. I don't think we put those kinds of structural demands on the football coach or the basketball coach or any after-school acting activities. So, again, I think kids do what's fun in our culture and my experience learning math, like most kids, it's hard and I'm not saying that FIRST makes it easy. FIRST is the hardest fun they'll ever have.
KAMENBut as you, you know, talk to Amir he'll tell you once kids want to do something; once they see the value in it and the point in it they will work so hard it's unbelievable. One of your comments -- one of the people was commenting there in the e-mail you read that they work so hard at first it pushes out some of their other studies for six weeks. And, to me, I'm not even sure I consider that a negative statement. If a kid is working so hard at math and science and developing those skills, that they don't have time for some of the other things at least for only six or eight weeks that might be a good thing.
REHMThat's interesting. All right, we're going to go back to the phones now to Ellicott City, Md., and to Bill, good morning.
BILLGood morning, thank you for taking my call.
BILLI wanted to congratulate Neal and Amir on their achievements and thank Dean for starting this FIRST robotics competition. I'm a rookie mentor and coach to a rookie team here in Ellicott City and we have just gotten through the most exhausting six weeks we've ever had. These kids worked so, so hard. We've got a very small team -- only about three or four kids and only two or three adults and they, you know, lifted that kit apart on January 8 and said how are we going to turn this bucket of bolts into a robot?
BILLAnd goodness, gracious, two hours before we had to ship that robot, we actually were able to successfully make the robot place a piece on the board, you know, to demonstrate how the game's going to work. These kids worked so hard and the sponsors at the school were very generous, you know, giving us access to the building and the time. My question is is there any way to integrate FIRST robotics with Project Lead The Way engineering curriculum in high schools in order to accelerate that pipeline of integrating it into a curriculum that lasts all year instead of just six weeks?
BASCOMBWell, I think, you know, I mean, if you look at what Amir's program's doing -- I mean, he's integrated engineering within his whole curriculum so throughout the year the students are doing it. In terms of Project Lead The Way, I'll maybe let Amir or Dean answer that.
ABO-SHAEERI'm familiar with Project Lead The Way, but I'm also just such a -- kind of an innovative person. I've just wanted to do it my own way. So I've really chosen to do that. But I do know that Project Lead The Way is working with other, you know, organizations and, I think, to some degree FIRST is going to, you know, maybe get involved with that. And, you know, you have talk to Dean about that. But in terms of -- it definitely is something that could work out because Project Lead The Way, which for your listeners is an engineering-based curriculum that spans over four years -- maybe three years, four years, I'm not sure. But that curriculum has basically been developed and is then embedded and then, you know, distributed to high schools.
ABO-SHAEERAnd I think maybe even junior highs, but, again, I'm not sure. But I definitely think that incorporating -- I think the fundamental need to incorporate it into the curriculum is the key thing. And then, obviously, if there are organizations that can put that curriculum out more quickly that could be an impact of -- but I just have chose to do that differently.
REHMOne word from a Durham, N.C. listener, Amir, who says, "It's a good thing you don't teach in Providence, Rhode Island, where all the teachers are fired by the mayor in that town."
ABO-SHAEERWell, I guess, that's a good thing. That's true.
REHMThat is a good thing. Let's go to Holland, Mich. Good morning, Gwynne and, by the way, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Gwynne, go right ahead.
GWYNNEHi, my son is a sophomore, second year in FIRST robotics and two things I haven't heard you discuss. The first one is the international aspect of the games. He was -- last year, you know, his comment coming back from nationals was, you know, he heard different languages spoken in the pits and that was just thrilling for him. You know, we can't afford to send him on trips and things globally so that was a lot of fun for him. And the other, I can't emphasize -- two things, the dedication of the teachers and the importance of the sponsorships. These trips are expensive. The nationals in St. Louis this year is $245. And that's a lot for us to be spending. This weekend, they're going to Traverse City and we have made him pay for most of the trips and that's quite a bit of money...
GWYNNE...For a (unintelligible) year old to come up with.
REHMDean Kamen, are there any thoughts of somehow getting government involved in this?
KAMENIn fact, there are. We think, as you just heard, that it's part of the game and part of life for kids to learn that they've got to earn money and things that are valuable to them should cost them something. But, on the other hand, we have a culture, again, that traditionally pays the football coach an extra stipend for staying after school and we pay all the other coaches, all the other teachers, as we should, for putting in the extra effort for these activities. So we think that we should get the government, not to pay the mentors, they don't want or need that kind of support. I've never had one of our corporate sponsors ask us for support.
KAMENWe think the kids ought to do something on their own, but we think it is appropriate for the public to support our public teachers and give them the same kind of recognition and financial reward as we give our other high school teachers...
KAMEN...for being coaches and we've asked our own senator to introduce a bill to help do that.
REHMAll right. We'll have to leave it right there. Dean Kamen, he's founder of the FIRST program. Neal Bascomb has written a book titled, "The New Cool." And Amir Abo-Shaeer, high school physics teacher, head of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, first public school teacher to win the MacArthur Genius Award. We've got a number of links on our drshow website. Go up there and feast your eyes on what these kids are doing. Thank you all so much for joining me. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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