The book opens at the 2004 MATE underwater-robotics competition, where Oscar Vazquez, Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan, and Luis Aranda are giving their technical presentation about the robot they’ve built. The judges, Tom Swean and Lisa Spence, are impressed that these high school students from a poor neighborhood in Phoenix have built a robot that can compete with schools like MIT. The team answers the judges’ questions about their robot well.
Davis then gives background on each of the characters, all of whom were born in Mexico and were brought to the United States by their parents in the hopes of finding better work and providing their kids better opportunity. Each of the kids also becomes an outsider, however. Lorenzo is mocked in school for his odd-shaped head and mullet; subsequently, he spends a lot of time helping his godfather Hugo in his makeshift auto repair shop, learning how he comes up with creative solutions to different car troubles. Cristian is a skinny kid who has a hard time in school in America at first because he doesn’t speak English, but gradually rises to the top of his class. He also watches a home improvement show and is fascinated by the power tools. When he starts high school, his friend Michael Hanck introduces him to Fredi Lajvardi, the marine science teacher who also runs the robotics club. Oscar also feels like an outcast in the U.S. until he joins the ROTC. With the help of Major Glenn Goins, the group’s instructor, Oscar becomes a real leader. But, he realizes that because he is undocumented, he cannot enlist in the army. Luis also has few friends in school because he is 250 pounds, six feet, and very quiet, and so other students are intimidated by him.
Davis also describes the rough climate in Arizona surrounding immigration around this time. Police raids are constant, catching 432 undocumented immigrants in one sweep in a Phoenix suburb in 1997. They pull family members out of their homes in the middle of the night, often targeting Hispanic people specifically. Joe Arpaio, the sheriff or Phoenix’s county, believes that immigrants are a drain on resources and that they only bring a culture of “gangs, crime, drugs, and violence.”
Fredi has his own immigration story: he was born in Iran and then moved to the United States, gaining citizenship at nineteen years old. Fredi’s classroom philosophy is one of getting the kids excited about learning through hands-on activities. He starts a robotics club at Carl Hayden and recruits another teacher, Allan Cameron, to help. Cristian and Lorenzo arrive at the club around the same time, in May 2003. Fredi gets Cristian excited about the pumpkin-launching trebuchet they are going to build the following school year, and takes Lorenzo under his wing, trying to provide him with some direction. In the fall of 2003, Lorenzo, Cristian, and Michael Hanck start work on the trebuchet. Fredi sees that the young students need direction, and so he asks Oscar to join the club to serve as a leader figure. The four students build a catapult together, but they realize it might be helpful to have someone strong on the team who can help with some of the labor tasks. Fredi offers Luis, who is in his Marine Science Seminar, the chance to work on the robotics club for his class project.
After the students complete the catapult project, they get started on preparing for the 2004 MATE underwater robotics competition. They must design a robot that completes a variety of difficult tasks, like measuring the length of a submarine, testing water temperature, retrieving objects, and extracting a liquid sample underwater. The students raise $900 for the robot from various friends and local businesses. They create a model for their ROV and start to test different mechanisms to complete the tasks. Lorenzo comes up with the idea to use a tape measure to calculate the submarine’s length, but they need another strategy to calculate depth. They call Greg De Trey, who sells laser tape measures. When they ask him for advice, he agrees to loan them one of his devices. The same thing happens when they ask other companies about a device that measures temperature and a pincer that can complete their retrieval tasks. The students then start to assemble their robot, buying PVC pipe and testing different ways to ensure the ROV won’t be too light.
The team offers the students a sense of belonging, to the point where Lorenzo spends most of his time working in the robotics closet instead of doing his homework. Fredi tells Lorenzo has to get his grades up in order to remain in the club, and Lorenzo starts studying harder and sitting in the front of the class. Inspired by his dedication, the other students follow suit.
Lorenzo comes up with a plan for the ROV’s hardest task: extracting a liquid sample from a barrel. He decides to use a simple balloon, a sump pump, copper tubing, and a milk carton to hold the balloon. Both Lorenzo and Fredi are really proud of the ingenious solution he creates. Oscar and Luis also test various motor placements to see which configuration would give them the most power and mobility.
While Lorenzo, Cristian, Oscar, and Luis are working on the MATE competition, the larger Carl Hayden robotics club is also participating in another competition (called the FIRST competition). They must create a robot that collects basketballs and, for bonus points, does a pull-up. They decide to create one that only does a pull-up, which would gain them as many points as collecting ten basketballs. They end up winning 21st place out of 36 teams, but they also win the Engineering Inspiration award. They then travel to Atlanta for the regional championship, where they place 39th out of 73 teams.
After Atlanta, the kids have ten weeks until the MATE competition. The four students have grown to be good friends, and Oscar and Luis graduate from high school. But, they still have to complete the final steps to prepare for the competition. The first is to glue the robot together, which they must do quickly because the glue dries fast. They encounter an issue when the PVC pipes don’t line up with the briefcase housing the robot’s battery, but Lorenzo has the idea to use a heat gun to bend the pipes, which works perfectly. They dub the robot “Stinky” because of how bad the glue smells.
The four students take Stinky to a nearby Scuba facility to practice. Michael Hanck is also there to help pilot the robot. They practice controlling it and make sure that its buoyancy and balance is right. The team starts to get hopeful about their chances as they become more comfortable completing the various tasks. The day before their departure, however, Fredi and Allan say that Michael cannot join them, as he hasn’t gotten his grades up enough to stay in the club. Oscar will pilot the robot instead. Oscar and Cristian are able to practice together for a small amount of time that day.
The next day, the students leave at 4 a.m. for California, where the competition is held. When they test their robot in the pool, they discover a leak. They complete their oral technical presentation and then work on fixing the leak. Lorenzo comes up with the idea to use tampons to absorb excess water, and then Lorenzo and Oscar stay up all night re-soldering the connections to the controls.
At the competition, the students are able to complete many of the tasks, including the water sampling task, which even MIT isn’t able to complete. They gain a total of thirty-two points, placing them in third behind MIT and Cape Fear Community College. The final standings will be determined by these scores and the technical presentation evaluation. At the awards ceremony, the Carl Hayden students pull an amazing upset, winning an award for special achievement, the Design Award, the Technical Writing Award, and Overall Winner—beating out MIT. The rest of the participants roar with applause, and the kids are giddy with happiness.
Davis spends the rest of the book tracking the characters after their success: Lorenzo and Luis go on to culinary programs, start a catering business together, and work odd jobs in order to pay the bills. Lorenzo and his family are evicted from their home in 2009.
Cristian graduates and goes on to Arizona State University, but because Arizona passes a bill that prohibits undocumented youths from qualifying for in-state tuition, Cristian’s tuition quadruples between his freshman and sophomore year and he is forced to drop out. He then works at Home Depot and creates inventions in his room at night.
Oscar also goes to ASU and distinguishes himself as a leader there. When he experiences the same tuition increase that Cristian does after his sophomore year, the school works to help him pay for his tuition. He graduates in 2009, also newly married and with a daughter on the way. But he realizes that his job prospects are dismal without a green card, and he decides to deport himself. Back in Mexico, he applies for residency in the U.S. but is denied.
Meanwhile, Senator Dick Durbin introduces the DREAM Act in 2010 to make it easier for people like Oscar who have lived in the U.S. for five years and attended college to get citizenship, bringing up Oscar’s story specifically in the Senate. The bill fails, but Durbin asks U.S. Immigration to reconsider their stance on Oscar’s application. He is then approved for his green card, returns to the U.S., and is able to enlist in the Army. When he returns from his tour in Afghanistan, Oscar works for a train company.
Davis ends his book by comparing the real-life story to the movie that was made about the students in 2013, which ended with the awards at the MATE competition. He notes that the movie allows them a happy ending, an ending that “continues to elude some of the individuals portrayed in the story” because of the laws and the immigration policies in the United States.