It’s the stuff Hollywood movies are made of: an unlikely team of high school misfits beats the odds and triumphs over adversity to win the biggest game of their lives. That’s the story told in Spare Parts, a major motion picture starring George Lopez, Jamie Lee Curtis, Carlos Pena, and Marisa Tomei. What makes this movie stand out from the typical high school sports story is that the teenagers are undocumented immigrants, and the big game is a NASA-sponsored marine robotics competition. Like many other Hollywood movies, however, Spare Parts only tells part of the story. What the film shows -- and doesn’t show -- raises important issues affecting STEM education in the United States.
Spare Parts is based on a book of the same title by Joshua Davis, a contributing editor for Wired magazine. Davis tells how a team from an inner-city Phoenix high school beat teams from MIT and other top universities in the Marine Advanced Technology and Education (MATE) robotics competition. He tells the stories of Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan, Oscar Vazquez, and Luis Aranda, the members of Carl Hayden High School’s 2004 underwater robotics team -- before and after their inspiring victory. He also tells the stories of Fredi Lajvardi and Allan Cameron, the team’s mentors (combined in the movie into a single character, played by Lopez).
All of the team’s four members immigrated to the United States at a young age: Oscar at the age of 11, Cristian and Luis at age 5, and Lorenzo at 9 months. Of the four, only Luis had a green card at the time of the competition. The other three, like an estimated 360,000 high school students in the US, were undocumented.
Each of the four students came into the robotics club in a different way. Cristian was a born engineer: he disassembled his parents’ radio at age 4, and decided he wanted to build robots at age 5, while attending a kindergarten in Mexicali built from discarded shipping pallets. After coming to the US, he learned English by watching Bob Vila’s home improvement shows on TV, and quickly became a straight-A student. In contrast, Lorenzo’s grades weren’t so great, but not because he wasn’t smart: he taught himself difficult piano pieces by composers like Debussy, Satie, and Chopin on a Salvation Army piano that was missing a few keys. He became interested in engineering by watching his godfather and brother fix cars as driveway mechanics. Oscar, who grew up in a tiny town in the Sierra Madre mountains, was an outstanding cadet in the school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) unit and was inspired by the words of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution to serve his adopted country. Heartbroken that his legal status would prevent him from enlisting in the US armed forces after graduation, he joined the robotics team, looking for a place to fit in. Luis was a big, quiet kid with a passion for cooking; Oscar recruited him to join the robotics team in order to have someone strong enough to do the heavy lifting.
The team was guided by teachers Fredi Lajvardi and Allan Cameron. Lajvardi, an Iranian-American who grew up in Phoenix, had built a hovercraft from balsa wood, notebook paper, and a small electric motor in eighth grade. Encouraged by a teacher, he continued to develop the design through his high school years, eventually building a fiberglass hovercraft with a 60 HP snowmobile engine that won awards at the state science fair:
This experience eventually led him into teaching and inspiring students to develop their own creations. Cameron, a Vietnam veteran, went into teaching after leaving the military and eventually earned a PhD in elementary education. Although his advanced degree could have opened up many activities for him, he found that teaching inner-city students was the most rewarding.
This is a really good article that takes a look at the myth of the "Hollywood Ending" and something that is a very real issue in the United States. You make a good point about visas, Dave. It's unfortunate these kids couldn't get through school to share their talent with the world because of immigration laws that don't really suit the reality of the country, in my opinion. I don't want to get too political about it here but I think it's outrageous that there isn't more opportunity for kids like this. It also shows how tough it can be to become an engineer and get through school even if you are a talented youngster. Thanks for writing this; I hope the right people are paying attention and can work to remedy this situation.
@Elizabeth M: Thanks! Most people in the U.S. would like to believe that the doors of success are open to anyone who is talented and willing to work hard. However, some people face much bigger obstacles than others. Hopefully, politicians can get past their differences in order to find a solution that will ensure that this country can benefit from the creativity and innovation of students like Cristian, Oscar, Lorenzo, and Luis.
You said that well, Dave. I actually lived in the Phoenix, Arizona, area for five years about 15 years ago and really sympathized with the plight of undocumented workers there, especially Mexican immigrants. They do many of the jobs Americans don't want to do and still they don't get a lot of respect, nor do they enjoy the same benefits that American citizens do, including--as your article points out--educational benefits. I really hope this changes and politicians who are still fighting on what I believe is the wrong side of immigration law remember that it's immigration on which our country was founded and on which it still continues to flourish.
Not only it is a political issue, more importantly this is an educational problem.
This group of young engineers are the perfect example for future generations, at the time, the country wasted the opportunity to pitch up STEM, we engineers go to schools to motivate and volunteer, but this kids were the perfect example, just winning against MIT coming from high school is an astonishing engineering work.
Also, it makes it clear that the right combination of mentors are very important.
I actually mentor robotics and innovation voluntarily at local k-8 and high school, creating and mentoring solar projects, wind turbines, earth quake simmulators, integrated GPS into scavenger hunt activities in kayak and made a micro satellite..yet, most of the kids work is way too much for the average teacher and my self ended up expending hours and hours explaining concepts to teachers so they can add the activites to the curriculum...the point is the kids can do it, they just need the right motivation and support from the engineering community to make this nation even better, but for politicians education is a very complex "thing".
The movie is a great human and educational history, struggle and amazing effort are a real life example.
"Illegal immigration is a controversial issue that often provokes strong reactions. That being said, most engineers recognize that our profession and our country are better off when talented young people are able to contribute to the best of their abilities. If the US can provide 65,000 H-1B visas for foreign engineers and other skilled workers, why can't we find a place for talented and hard-working immigrant students who grew up in this country?"
I'm wondering when and why DN became the purveyor of leftist talking points and ideology. This is one of about 10 recent stories that seem to be pushing the mems of the left in ways that I don't remember seeing on this site prior to now.
I totally believe in legal immigration, but think that open borders that allow who-knows-who to enter the country are completely wrong headed.
Plenty of gang members and drug runners enter illegally. Human traffickers treat people like cattle and some of those coming here end up in servitude or worse. The best way to stop these negatives of illegal immigration is to enforce our immigration laws. Make illegal immigration unattractive.
It is well documented that there are many serious crimes being committed by illegal aliens and that offsets the few that show the level of promise of these guys in the story. BTW... the story told here ends with most of the group underperforming their promise by a significant degree.
Legal immigration makes America strong; illegal immigration makes her disjointed and divided.
Good for Oscar for doing a touch back and getting back in. Senator Dick Durbin did the right thing in getting his application pushed through. I don't know why he was rejected but at this point it looks all good for him.
There are trades that have suffered from too many people being willing to take lower wages to do that work. Once the BIG CORPs bring in enough engineers expect that to happen there too.
One last thought. I'm repeating this to answer the broader range of questions posed at the end there...
The best way to stop these negatives of illegal immigration is to enforce our immigration laws. Make illegal immigration unattractive.
And seek and train American and legal immigrant children to be the answer to those questions.
A program to educate kids about the science and technology of plastics as well how they can have future careers in the field has received a $200,000 funding boost from the National Plastics Center to expand
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