Event Summary: The New Cool

The following is an event summary from an event hosted bt the Program on America and the Global Economy.

On Wednesday, March 2nd, The Program on America and the Global Economy (PAGE) hosted author Neal Bascomb for a discussion of  his new book about a team of high school robot builders and their quest to win the ‘For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology’ (FIRST) robotics competition.  Bascomb is, a prolific and versatile author, having written books on a wide variety of subjects including Nazi-hunting in Argentina and the competition to build the world’s tallest skyscraper.  The New Cool follows a high school team of rookie robot builders from California over a period of six weeks as they build, wire, and program a machine to battle in a robotics competition with over 2,000 entrants.  Kent Hughes, director of PAGE, moderated the event.

Bascomb was motivated to write the book after hearing a vignette about FIRST founder Dean Kamen.  Kamen, inventor of the Segway, a portable dialysis machine, and a wheel chair that can climb stairs among other devices, founded the robotics competition to encourage high school students to consider pursue scientific careers.  Kamen decided to embarks on this quest after the unfortunate failure of a number of local schoolchildren to name a single living scientist.after realizing that most kids couldn’t name a living scientist  The object of the competition is to bring science and engineering a level of excitement and passion similar to school sports.  In the long run, Kamen hopes to add scientists and engineers to the pantheon of recognizable American heroes.  Bascomb originally intended to write a magazine article on the subject, but when he saw firsthand the potential to galvanize student interest nationwide in engineering, he decided a book was warranted.

A major theme of the book is the distinction between training and education.  Bascomb explained that in the age of Wikipedia, it is important to teach students in a “hands-on, project based manner” with information that cannot be found online.  He said that students should learn from an early age how math and science skills can be applied to real life, rather than solely as training to pass a test in what are often viewed as abstract, theoretical subjects.  In order to spur interest, the Bascomb said that training in fundamentals should be complemented with an exciting educative opportunity to engage in creative design.

Teacher and commentator Mark Hannum of Northern Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology said that FIRST is relevant to diverse groups of students including girls, low-income, and under-achieving students.  He explained that programs like FIRST are more effective in generating student interest in STEM than traditional science fairs.  Bascomb argued that programs like FIRST are changing the perception of science as not merely a “recipe to follow,” but an exciting, competitive achievement.  The excitement generated by the FIRST competition has caught on in the nation’s capital.  Almost every high school in Washington, DC currently has a FIRST team.

Hannum has mentored FIRST robotics teams for seven years, including an all girls team.  He said that FIRST increases expectations and generates excitement about learning by providing students with real life challenges.  In response to a question about the quality of robots produced by low-income students, he mentioned that “fielding any robot at all puts kids in the top 1% of the country.”  According to Hannum, the prospects of creating even a barely functioning robot boosts self-esteem, teaches entrepreneurial skills, and helps spread STEM knowledge.  Furthermore, he stressed that FIRST should be introduced not just to students interested in science but the overall populace in an effort to raise stem STEM literacy.  After FIRST concludes with its season ending competition, his students have used the engineering knowledge to fix things around campus.

Kent Hughes, PAGE director, mentioned the importance of “replicating STEM success” from a local to a national level.  In most cases, FIRST is a school club or, at times an outside activity.  Hughes noted that as a prime example of project based learning, FIRST has the potential to be a complement to in-classroom work.  With teams doing everything from building robots to seeking funding to adopting business plans, FIRST offers obvious opportunities for math and science classes but also to business students anxious to write a business plan for an actual organization and for English classes that might to hone their writing skills by preparing foundation applications or corporate presentations.

Hughes, with many years of involvement with FIRST and FIRST teams, also emphasized the role of FIRST in teaching a number of values starting with ‘gracious professionalism’ and the many benefits of teamwork.  He noted that the very top prize in FIRST goes not to the partnership that wins the robotics competition but to the winner of the Chairman’s award giving to the team that embraces the values of FIRST through bringing the competition to more students and making a commitment to community and school service.

Bascomb suggested that if FIRST keeps showing proven results, its value along with that of other project-based learning will become more widely recognized and more widely adopted.  In addition, Hannum stated that robots and other engineering projects should be publicly displayed to increase awareness.  Specifically, he mentioned that he has seen robots as props in school plays or in school parades as a way to garner attention.

Posted by: Jason Schall

Kent Hughes: Director, Program on America and the Global Economy


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