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The New Cool

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FIRST isn’t a show-and-tell kind of competition; it’s an all-out war. Robots, created all across the country during a six-week building period, come together in regional and national battles. In the end, one team and one robot triumphs over all others. If the D‘Penguineers win the world championship competition, or if they gain publicity, Amir might just be able to raise the $3 million he needs to construct a building for his growing academy.

The stakes in this competition – for the D’Penguineers, for Amir, and for the country at large – seem high. The competition seems fierce. The robot challenge sometimes seems impossible.

But as you read “The New Cool,” none of this excitement comes through. As we follow the process of creating a robot, the book drags, focusing little on the students themselves.

For two pages, Bascomb describes how Amir teaches friction. For another two, he explains how students create sketches in computer-aided design program SolidWorks. We’re taught torque, the logic of coding, and how a lathe works. The first half of the book is filled with these dry topics while we’re left to wonder who exactly the D’Penguineers and Amir are.

A few students do stand out. There’s Gabe, the talented-beyond-his-years programmer who loves theater and has a father diagnosed with leukemia. There's the robot’s eventual driver, Chase, who struggles with a learning disability and who has finally found a home in Amir’s program. And there’s Turk, the die-hard sports fan who hopes to become the team’s shooter in the FIRST competition.

But you never hear enough from these students and you find yourself wishing Bascomb had asked harder questions: How does Gabe cope with his father’s illness and the responsibility of FIRST? How does it feel for Chase to deal with a learning disability while designing a robot? And what do they really think of their teacher, Amir, whom we never really understand?

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