The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts by Neal Bascomb

Written by Neal Bascomb and Narrated by Kirby Heyborne the audiobook version of The New Cool from Audible is absolutely incredible. After a number of books that fell flat for various reasons this one really came through as a great listen.

Over the last few years I have been getting into electronics, micro-controlers, and robotics and in 2010 my wife and I were able to catch the very end of the FIRST championship at the Georgia Dome. We didn’t really get to see much and what I saw didn’t make a lot of sense to me, after listening to this book it does now.

This book is the story of a school in California and its FIRST robotics team made up of rookie high-school seniors competing in the annual FIRST competition. If you don’t know about FIRST check out http://www.usfirst.org/

I really like the mission statement of FIRST found on the web site:

Our mission is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.

I hope that stories like the ones told in this book are being repeated all over the country and that by reading this book will encourage more people to get involved. I hope that I can work in time to volunteer for some FIRST activities this year even if it is just a couple hours taking pictures or helping to setup.

Publisher’s Summary

That Monday afternoon, in high-school gyms across America, kids were battling for the only glory American culture seems to want to dispense to the young these days: sports glory. But at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California, in a gear-cluttered classroom, a different type of “cool” was brewing. A physics teacher with a dream – the first public high-school teacher ever to win a MacArthur Genius Award — had rounded up a band of high-I.Q. students who wanted to put their technical know-how to work. If you asked these brainiacs what the stakes were that first week of their project, they’d have told you it was all about winning a robotics competition – building the ultimate robot and prevailing in a machine-to-machine contest in front of 25,000 screaming fans at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.

But for their mentor, Amir Abo-Shaeer, much more hung in the balance.

The fact was, Amir had in mind a different vision for education, one based not on rote learning — on absorbing facts and figures — but on active creation. In his mind’s eye, he saw an even more robust academy within Dos Pueblos that would make science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) cool again, and he knew he was poised on the edge of making that dream a reality. All he needed to get the necessary funding was one flashy win – a triumph that would firmly put his Engineering Academy at Dos Pueblos on the map. He imagined that one day there would be a nation filled with such academies, and a new popular veneration for STEM – a “new cool” – that would return America to its former innovative glory.

It was a dream shared by Dean Kamen, a modern-day inventing wizard – often-called “the Edison of his time” – who’d concocted the very same FIRST Robotics Competition that had lured the kids at Dos Pueblos. Kamen had created FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) nearly twenty years prior. And now, with a participant alumni base approaching a million strong, he felt that awareness was about to hit critical mass.

In The New Cool, Neal Bascomb manages to make even those who know little about – or are vaguely suspicious of – technology care passionately about a team of kids questing after a different kind of glory. In these kids’ heartaches and headaches – and yes, high-five triumphs — we glimpse the path not just to a new way of educating our youth but of honoring the crucial skills a society needs to prosper. A new cool.

I rate this book a 10 out of 10 and recommend it for anyone and everyone.