GeekDad Book Review: The New Cool

Geek Culture

From 2007 to 2010, I was fortunate enough, living in Atlanta, to be able to attend the FIRST Championship (sometimes called WorldFest) that brings robot-building teams of kids from all over the world to compete against one another. This event is the culmination of months of preparation by these kids that includes building, programming, presenting, and sharing their work. Kids between ages 6 and 18 (having already won local and regional competitions to get to the Championship) show up with their teammates and coaches, ready for a few last days of competition against the best-of-the-best. There are four different competitions, including Jr. FIRST LEGO League (ages 6 to 9), FIRST LEGO League (ages 9 to 13), FIRST Tech Challenge (ages 14 to 18) and FIRST Robotics Competition (ages 14 to 18) — each with their own games and rules. (GeekDad Dave Banks just posted earlier this week about the 2011 FIRST Championship.)

I was at these events as a guest of LEGO and although much of my time was spent visiting with those kids involved in JFLL and FLL, I couldn’t help but occasionally wander off to go visit the pits where the older kids were working on robots that were often taller than me… and a lot scarier looking with hooks and grabbers and other tool attachments. FIRST Robotics Competition, or FRC, is the culmination of the FIRST organization’s desire to instill an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in students of all ages.

I enjoyed visiting with kids of all ages as they shared with me their robots, showed me what the robots could do, and explained a bit about programming and the troubleshooting skills they’d picked up. You simply cannot attend without a big grin forming on your face as you watch these kids do amazing stuff. But even while seeing all these robots and teams working together, I realized that I was missing the part that I most enjoy… the “getting from A to B to C…”

All of the teams had reached this point with hard work and long hours, but that’s really not visible at this level of the competition. Teams are still working on their robots in the pits, fixing programming bugs, and running tests, but the long months where they start from scratch, receiving the upcoming year’s rules and challenge description, and then the brainstorming and prototyping and sweat and tears… I want to hear those stories. But most teams are simply too busy during the few days of competition to really sit down and share the good stuff.

That’s why I love The New Cool by Neal Bascomb. The title is a bit misleading — yes, this increased interest by students in all things STEM is definitely “cool” — but that’s not really what the book is about. In a nutshell, this book is about the hard work, the sweat and the tears, the stress, and the jubilation experienced by one FIRST Robotics team as they design, program, and test their competition robot.

I have to be careful because there are just too many things I can write that border on spoilers. The few safe things I can tell you are that the book’s primary focus is on The D’Penguineers, a team from Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California. (There are other teams that get a good bit of attention in the book, but the author fortunately avoids covering multiple teams too thinly and instead chooses to follow The D’Penguineers throughout the season.)

It’s the true story of how this team handled itself during the regional competitions and the Championship. Okay, that’s a spoiler, but really… the book would be like 60 pages if the team didn’t actually make it to the final event, right?

But really… it’s not about whether they win or lose at the Championship — the book is about the journey. These are real kids with real-life stresses and demands. And did I mention that most of them had never built a robot in their lives, let alone program or cut sheet metal or rivet or solder… the list goes on. The book does a great job of introducing you to this group, and you really start to feel for these kids as they endure long nights and illnesses and homework… again, the list goes on.

And they’ve got an amazing coach, Amir Abo-Shaeer, the founder of the school’s engineering academy, who also has his own issues throughout the season. The book clearly shows how Amir doesn’t pull any punches with his team — he’s honest with them, brutally honest in many instances. But you’ll learn as the book progresses that his goals for the team (and his school) ultimately extend way beyond this robotics competition.

I loved this book. Frequently it made me feel like I was sitting in the room with the team as they played, bickered, cried, yelled, slept, and learned. For 300+ pages, I got to go along for the ride and get a good look at what it must be like for many teams that participate in FRC. The great times and the the not-so-good times are all here in this book… and everything in-between. It makes me (almost) wish I was in high school again.

I want my sons to one day read The New Cool if they should show interest in this kind of competition. I think it’s an authentic record of not only what The D’Penguineers experienced but also what many teams go through when they sign up to participate in FRC. Any students or adults considering jumping into FRC for the first time should read this book. I also think the parents of these kids should read it as well as it provides a good glimpse of the reality these kids will experience from Day 1.

Any weaknesses or faults? Not really, but the book did leave me with other questions (maybe only important to me) that don’t really affect the point of the story: How did the kids handle their other schoolwork? What kinds of tools did they learn to use and who taught them? How are the kids doing now? (They were all seniors in high school.)

A good read for all geek dads, for sure, especially those who have participated in FRC or will do so in the future.

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