Everyone loves a good underdog story, but Joshua Davis isn’t going to give us one. His new book Spare Parts, released this Tuesday, profiles four Mexican American teenagers who won a national robotics competition with a machine made from garbage and donated parts. More than a feel-good narrative of overcoming adversity, Spare Parts explores the consequences of the boys’ success and the systemic problems behind them. Read the excerpt after the jump!
Back in their dorm room, Fredi and Allan [the team’s mentors] were worried. The robot wasn’t working, and the kids were scheduled to go in front of the NASA and Navy experts within hours. Stinky was turning out to be a failure from the outset. The kids felt defeated before the competition had even begun.
Oscar wasn’t ready to give up. “Let’s take it apart now,” he argued. “We can fix it.”
Fredi didn’t want the kids preoccupied when they presented themselves to the experts. They had to be mentally ready for what would likely be an intense grilling. “Look, don’t worry about the robot right now,” he said. “We’ve got all night to fix it.”
“It’s more important to get ready for the review,” Allan said. The kids had limited experience talking in front of imposing professionals. Raising money and competing in the FIRST program had helped, but talking to an audience was still a novel experience. That, coupled with their shaken confidence, could undermine everything they’d accomplished so far. They might leave Santa Barbara convinced that the whole thing was a mistake, that it wasn’t their lot to be ambitious.
They needed to be jolted into a better frame of mind, so Allan decided on a gamble. “Everybody come with me,” he commanded. The team followed him out of the dorm to a bridge. Though it was summertime, there was still a steady flow of pedestrians.
“I want you guys to hang out here and talk to anybody who comes by,” Allan said.
“What do you want us to talk about?” Oscar asked.
“Say, ‘Hi, would you like to hear about our thrusters?’ ” Allan prompted.
Lorenzo snickered. “I don’t think nobody is going to talk to us if we say that.”
“Tell them you built a robot,” Allan persevered. “They’ll want to hear about it.”
Fredi and Allan walked off and watched from a distance. The locals might ignore the kids or think that they were panhandling. That could further undermine their already fragile state of mind. Allan was hoping that wouldn’t happen. He was banking on the kindness of strangers.
The kids were bashful at first and let a handful of people walk by. Oscar gripped a white, plastic, three-ring binder that contained drawings of Stinky’s innovations.
Finally Lorenzo mustered up the courage to talk to a man who looked like a professor. “Hi, we’re high school students from Phoenix, and we’re here to compete in an underwater-robotics contest. Do you want to hear about it?”
The man laughed. “Okay. What does your robot do?”
Oscar stepped forward with his three-ring binder and flipped to the first page, which displayed a photo of Stinky. “It’s an ROV. That means ‘remotely operated vehicle.’ ” He explained that Stinky was designed to retrieve underwater objects, record video, sample fluid, measure distances, and locate sounds.
“It can do all that?” the man said.
“When it’s working, yeah,” Oscar said. “Right now it’s kind of messed up.”
“Well, I’ll be rooting for you,” the man said, and, after wishing them luck, headed away.
After that, the team stopped a variety of people and explained why their robot was so cool, even if it was on life support. Cristian talked about applying the index of refraction to their laser range findings, and Lorenzo bragged about his “ghetto” liquid sampling tool. The people they talked to seemed impressed by the ragtag group of teens, and the reaction they got gave them a boost. It reminded them that they were doing something they had never done before. In Phoenix, they were called illegal aliens and pegged as criminals. They were alternately viewed as American, Mexican, or neither. Now, for a moment, they were simply teenagers at a robotics competition by the ocean.