An Interview with Neal Bascomb: What is “The New Cool”?

Michael F. Shaughnessy – The New Cool is a story about science, education, and how we inspire students to embrace their passions, no matter what others think.

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)      Neal, what exactly is “ The New Cool “?

The New Cool is a story about science, education, and how we inspire students to embrace their passions, no matter what others think.

More specifically, the book follows one remarkable mentor and his students over the course of a season in robotics. It’s a sports story, but one about brains, rather than brawn.

2)      How did this come about?

I first came to the story of the FIRST Robotics Competition, the program in which my team was enrolled, through my nephew. He was an awkward kid in high school, very bright, but never really had his place and was not interested in traditional sports. He joined a FIRST team at his high school, and it changed his life, not only in terms of career direction, also in his sense of confidence. Knowing its impact on him, I traveled to Manchester, NH for the FIRST kickoff, where 2,000 teams watch what the new game of the season will be. I was overwhelmed by how excited everybody was, how much they gained from the experience, and I had to write this book. Honestly, I’d say I underestimated how important this story truly is in how we educate our kids, how project-based, interactive learning inspires and compels.

3)      Many years ago, Nile Stanley and I actually did a presentation at a conference about robotics- What have been the major innovations in robotics in the last ten years.

I would not dare pass myself off as a robotics expert to remark on major innovations. That said, the growth in robotics programs in this country—and around the world—have been nothing short of remarkable. When FIRST started, there were only 32 high school teams. There are now 2,000, and more outstanding, there are over 20,000 Lego League teams for young kids, age 5-9. This is basically a feeder system that I believe will reinvigorate this country’s STEM focus.

And these are just FIRST related programs. There are scores of others, and it goes to prove what a draw robotics can be to our young.

4)      You have some internet and You Tube links…What are they and what would we see there?

On my website,, people can find interviews with Amir Abo-Shaeer, the mentor and lead character of THE NEW COOL, who recently won a MacArthur Genius Award, the first publicity school teacher to win that honor. He is the Peter Keating, of Dead Poets Society fame, of physics and math. Truly. Also, there are some inspiring videos of the students I followed, not to mention reviews and links to excerpts of the book.

5)      Tell us about this robotics competition.

In January, teams are presented with the new challenge. In my book, I cover the season of 2009, where the game was something like the mix of robot tag and basketball, with 3-on-3 matches. Once the game is announced, teams have six weeks to conceive, design, prototype, machine, assemble, build, wire, and program their robot. It must be able to move autonomously, as well as by remote pilot control. These are very sophisticated machines. At the end of six weeks, after many long, endless nights, the robots are shipped to regional competitions. There, teams compete against one another in seeding matches, then tournament play, to see the dominant team. What is amazing is how much like a sports competition these events feel like. They are every bit of exciting, and that’s coming from a long-time hockey fan.

6)      You have been featured in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (The Times has not covered this). What have they had to s ay about you and your mentor?

There are a number of reviews on my website that readers can see. The Wall Street Journal was very kind, as have been a number of other reviewers, publications.

7)      Tell us about your mentor and his place in your success?

In the season that I followed Amir, he was struggling to raise $3 million to finance the expansion of his Engineering Academy within Dos Pueblos High School. This added another dimension of narrative to his story, as the success of the team in many ways would reflect their ability to raise funds.

In the end, they reached their goal, and the Academy is now expanding, reaching more students, and soon to bring in teachers from around California and the country to learn about what they are doing. Amir’s ambition is to change the face of education in this country, and he’s on his way.

8)      Now, the book- when will it appear, who publishes it, and who should read it and profit by it or from it?

THE NEW COOL was published by Crown (Random House) on March 1st. Armchair engineers, technology fanatics, teachers, educators, and anybody interested in a unique, epic sports narrative, should find the book of interest.

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March 13th, 2011

Michael F. Shaughnessy Senior Columnist

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