Most people hear the word “robot” and think of R2D2 or Transformers, but at Dos Pueblos High School, robots are reality.
In his latest book, The New Cool, bestselling author Neal Bascomb follows the Dos Pueblos High School robotics team, also known as the D’Penguineers, on its 46-day quest to build the ultimate robot and win the national FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship. In this work of nonfiction, Bascomb brings to life the intensity of each competition and the grueling work that both the students and their mentors put into building a robot that could take them all the way to the final championship in Atlanta, Georgia.
In an interview with The Independent, Neal Bascomb, author of the international bestseller Hunting Eichmann, reveals how he wrote The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts. What follows is an edited version of our conversation, giving just a glimpse of what you can expect to read in The New Cool, which was released today.
Until recently, I had never heard of FIRST, and I think a lot of people still haven’t. How did you initially learn about the program?
I heard of FIRST initially through my nephew, who was one of those kids who was awkward and trying to find his place in high school, and FIRST kind of changed his life in that respect. So I was interested in it and thought, “Wow, I’ll write an article about this.” Then I went up to Manchester to meet with the folks and watch the kickoff. And I was sort of overwhelmed by the impact it was having on the wide range of students and I just thought it was a book.
So once you decided to write a book about the FIRST program, how did you come to select Dos Pueblos High School as a focus?
I talked to FIRST and they have over 2,000 teams, so selecting the teams was difficult. I was going to follow three teams initially, one in New York, one in Detroit, and then one in California. I did that, actually. I had reporters there for three teams, and I bounced between the three. I first came to [Dos Pueblos High Engineering Department Director Amir Abo-Shaeer] because I was talking to one of the FIRST directors and I said, you know, “I need an exceptional teacher. I’m looking for someone like Keating of Dead Poets Society for science and physics.” The regional director said, “There’s a guy named Amir down in Goleta, California,” which I had never heard of, and he said, “You’ve got to meet him and talk to him.” I spoke to Amir and it was pretty much done. I was like “Yup, I’ll follow your team.” I could just tell, over the phone actually, he was really rare and exceptional.
You mentioned that you were originally following three teams, yet you ultimately just picked one. Why Dos Pueblos?
They’re sort of a ragtag team, all working together. Amir’s a great teacher and they struggle long and hard to finish this robot on time. They lose their first competition and then make a comeback, and on a narrative level, it was ideal. Secondly, their story exemplifies what I was trying to tell with this story, which was that science and math are “cool,” and the way Amir was changing culture at Dos Pueblos was what the book was about, and that’s why I focused on it.
Is that where the book title came from?
The title I had basically from the first day I was up in Manchester, when I was up there originally to write an article. I followed these kids, and over breakfast they were talking about all kinds of principles and computer hardware and gear, and then they go to the kickoff super enthusiastic, and can’t wait to participate. I was just, like, this is something I’ve never seen. It has nothing to do with sports or throwing a ball or hitting an ice puck, but they were taking to it with equal vigor. I thought to myself, they are defining a new kind of cool — and there you go.
The dedication to your daughters certainly seems to echo that message, you write: “To my girls, Charlotte and Julia: Cool is what you make it.”
It’s connected with the title. This is my fifth book, and this is the first one I’ve dedicated to them, and it came from a conversation I had with one of the students in Goleta. I became friends with these kids, and we were talking like we always talk, and we were discussing whether or not what they were doing was cool. He said, “We’re all enthusiastic about it, we’ve worked really hard, put hours into this, we’re all working together, so to us it’s cool. We’re making it cool. If nobody else thinks it’s cool, that doesn’t really matter for us.” And I thought this was a great message. Whether it’s physics or theater, sports or medicine, if you work hard and you’re enthusiastic about it, then it’s cool. You define your own cool basically.
I heard that the book might be adapted into a film. How would you feel seeing actors playing these students you’ve come to know?
The book was optioned by Scott Rudin, who is the producer of The Social Network, True Grit, and a number of other movies. So I’m hoping. They’re developing it, that’s all I know. I think the team is excited about the idea. I’m less worried than they are about it. They all want to be, of course, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie.
So whether being told through print or film, what are you hoping the takeaway message of this story is?
I think the takeaway message is the dedication that I made for my daughters, that cool is what you make it. I think the other takeaway message is that education needs to be interactive, project-based, less learning from the textbook. I think students learn a lot more not only about the subject but also about how to be successful in life in general by participating in activities like FIRST or other similar ones.