Lajvardi Recounts Underdog Robots Team Story

Arizona educator Fredi Lajvardi spoke at the Education Technology Luncheon at NSBA’s Annual Conference in Boston on Sunday, April 10.

Lajvardi’s high school robotics team was the inspiration for the movie, “Spare Parts.” It told the underdog story of the team from Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix that won first place in a collegiate underwater robotics competition, beating out elite engineering colleges such as MIT.

When Lajvardi was first hired at Carl Hayden, he said, he wanted to make his students excited about science. The task proved difficult. Carl Hayden is a school of poverty where 98 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. The student population is 98 percent Hispanic, with a significant number of undocumented students.

“The second something got difficult, they shut down. And I had no wiggle room to be creative,” he said. “Kids were not having fun in a class. I wasn’t having fun either.” He started an after-school science program hoping to show his students how fun science could be.

At first, Lajvardi and his students participated in science fairs. Hoping to attract more students, he started a program to design, build, and race electric cars. Now he had the science student and the students in the auto shop program showing up.

Then he and the students got involved with Dean Kamen’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a STEM engagement program that introduces students to robotics.

In 2004, Lajvardi entered his team in national underwater robotics competition. He purposely chose to have his high school students compete at the college level. “Kids weren’t afraid. We were going to get killed anyway, so they took risks.” He humorously told the audience how the team ingeniously used tampons as absorbent material to protect the robot from leakage.

The team finished third in the next year’s competition and second in the year after that, all three years beating MIT. “We proved it wasn’t a fluke,” he said. “It became impossible for kids to come into our classroom and say, ‘it won’t succeed because we’re from Mexico, or we’re poor.’ I say, ‘you’re the only one who decides if you will be successful. It’s all under your control. You might have to work harder than someone else, but it’s under your control.’”

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