Neal Bascomb: "The New Cool"

Author Neal Bascomb - Courtesy Random House

Author Neal Bascomb

Courtesy Random House

Neal Bascomb: "The New Cool"

What the world's fiercest robotics competition means for America's future. Best-selling author, Neal Bascomb, follows the story of a team of high school seniors and their mentors as they race to built a robot. How their success may herald a new kind of cool that rewards brains over brawn.

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.


Neal Bascomb

bestselling author of "The Perfect Mile" and contributor to "The New York Times".

Amir Abo-Shaeer

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.

Dean Kamen

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.

Couple things:

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 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:

  1. Our program requires an enormous amount of teacher dedication;
  2. Our program is NOT in the 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

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