On June 25, 2004, Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan, Oscar Vazquez, and Luis Aranda stand in a classroom at the University of California, Santa Barbara, presenting their project for the third annual Marine Advanced Technology Education Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) competition. The MATE competition is an event sponsored by NASA and the Navy to identify the country’s top engineering talent. Other teams in the competition come from colleges across the country, including MIT; these four students are from Carl Hayden Community High School in West Phoenix, Arizona.
In the introduction of the book, Davis explains the circumstances of the MATE competition to set up the underdog status of the four central characters: Cristian, Lorenzo, Oscar, and Luis. In pointing out that they are from a high school in Phoenix going up against schools like MIT, Davis immediately implies that these students will have serious odds to overcome in the competition.
One of the competitions judges, Tom Swean (who runs the Navy’s Ocean Engineering and Marine Systems program), questions the four students about their robot, asking how they made the laser work. Cristian, the team’s science wizard, answers the questions rapidly and impressively.
Though the students are underdogs, Davis also makes it immediately clear that they belong in the competition. Cristian’s knowledge in particular reveals that there are clearly a number of factors that have made them successful up to this point.
Another judge, Lisa Spence (the flight lead at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory), had majored in engineering at Arizona State University and knows the area where these kids lived. She’s surprised that such an impressive underwater-robotics team has emerged from the neighborhood, considering that it is relatively poor—and there are no oceans nearby.
Davis hammers home the idea that the students are underdogs with these thoughts from Spence—not only are they from a poor neighborhood, but they don’t even have a nearby ocean in which to practice.
While other teams had arrived with robots made with budgets of more than ten thousand dollars, these students have a plastic robot partially assembled from scrap parts, which they had dubbed Stinky because it smelled so bad when they glued it together. The students are first time competitors who had entered at the highest level, and their presence in the competition almost seems like a mistake. But Lorenzo, another team member, is proud of what they’ve built.
The team’s robot, Stinky, itself becomes a symbol of their underdog status. It appears that it might not even belong in the competition, compared to the robots of other teams. Yet its simplistic, practical, and inexpensive design is exactly what impresses the judges.
Swean asks a question about signal interference, which Oscar answers as the team’s de facto leader. Oscar is seventeen (two years older than Cristian and Lorenzo) and has been serving in Carl Hayden’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) throughout high school, eventually becoming the group’s executive officer. He dreams of being a soldier.
Davis starts to introduce some of the unique qualities of each of the boys, and to show how they each bring something different to the team. Oscar not only serves as the group’s de facto leader, but he also serves as the others’ primary motivator throughout the book.
Though Oscar wants to enlist in the Army and has been living in America for six years, his parents snuck him into Arizona when he was twelve; therefore, he cannot not enlist as a person living in the country illegally. When he realized this during his senior year, he searched for another field in which to distinguish himself.
In telling Oscar’s story, Davis also sets up another important idea: these kids are undocumented immigrants, but they also clearly have a lot that they can contribute to the country. In Oscar’s case, he wants to do so most directly in becoming a soldier.
Cristian answers most of Swean and Spence’s questions, but Spence also notes that Lorenzo and Oscar are able to speak intelligently about their robot’s mechanical and electronic components. About half of their overall score will come from this technical evaluation, and it is important that all members can answer questions.
In evaluating the entire team’s ability to answer the questions, the judges highlight the importance of teamwork as a whole. The students have motivated each other to do well and to learn the science behind their project, and here that motivation pays off.
Spence then turns to Luis (who is seventeen, six feet tall, and 250 pounds), who hasn’t said anything yet. The other boys had recruited Luis because they needed someone strong enough to lift the robot in and out of the pool. Spence asks Luis specifically about how they employed PWM. Luis explains that PWM means pulse-width modulation, and it is a technique that allows them to control the robot digitally. Cristian is amazed that Luis answered the question right.
Even though Luis had been recruited for his strength and size, the fact that he is able to answer the question right proves how, given the right circumstances, any child can learn and be successful. In a way, it serves as confirmation of the underlying concepts of the American Dream—that every person deserves equal opportunity for success.
Spence is also impressed. As a NASA employee, she has become accustomed to working with engineers who conform to a certain type: white, well-educated, conservative clothes. She is amazed to see the four students in front of her, signaling that the future might look different.
Even though Spence views the students hopefully, as Davis goes on to prove, the kids have a difficult time overcoming prejudice in their lives because they do not conform to the “certain type” that she describes.