One of the questions that Davis investigates in Spare Parts is the continued issue of how to keep kids invested in school—particularly in math and science—regardless of socioeconomic status. The story focuses on the idea that finding ways to make science fun can get kids excited about intellectual pursuits; the fact that the robotics team is hands-on and creative is a huge part of why the Carl Hayden students become so invested in their project. Davis demonstrates how the sciences can be just as engaging as any other pursuit by harnessing a child’s curiosity, allowing them to flex their creativity, and instilling projects with a sense of adventure.
The students easily become hooked on scientific exploration when they find early outlets for their curiosity. Lorenzo’s godfather Hugo fixes cars in a driveway near his house; even though Hugo doesn’t allow him to help, Lorenzo is curious about how his godfather, who doesn’t have a lot of tools or money, comes up with new ideas and adapts to the problems in front of him. This sparks Lorenzo’s interest in constructing things and using power tools. Cristian’s curiosity is even more apparent than Lorenzo’s. At four years old, he takes apart the family radio and plugs it back into the wall to see what might happen. He shorts the power in the house, and inspired by this unexpected result, begins to experiment with his toys and take apart anything he can. He also watches a home improvement show on TV and is instantly smitten by tools like the circular saw and the cement mixer. In both instances, an early interest in machines and building things is what leads them to Fredi’s class and the robotics club.
Still, curiosity in and of itself only sparks interest. Fredi then takes this initial desire to learn more about the world and gives the boys the ability to actually be creative themselves. Fredi tries to make his classroom a center for creativity in order to get kids excited about the work they’re doing, by playing electronic music and sending students on individual assignments to solve by the end of the period. In doing so, Fredi presents science as almost game-like, and encourages a sense of personal investment that builds up his students’ self-worth. Armed with this notion of science as a creative pursuit, when the students are building their robot they trust in their ability to come up with inventive solutions to problems. For example, Cristian suggests they put the battery on board the robot to stabilize it, reduce voltage loss, and lessen the number of cables needed, setting them apart from many of their peers in the competition. Lorenzo also comes up with a low-tech solution of a balloon and a milk carton to sample liquid from a barrel. He even comes up with the idea of using tampons to soak up liquid when they discover a leak inside their robot. Finding these creative solutions gives the students an immense sense of pride in their work, which spurs them on even more.
The competitions themselves find ways to capture an adventurous spirit as well, linking a sense of fun to engineering and scientific problem-solving. Dean Kamen starts the FIRST competition, a smaller robotics competition in which the students also compete. The year that Carl Hayden competes, the students must build a robot that collects basketballs and does a pullup, because Kamen realizes that kids are losing interest in sciences in comparison with other pursuits like sports and entertainment. The MATE underwater-robotics competition in which the Carl Hayden students compete also keys in to a sense of adventure. They create scenarios and stories for their competitions to make the kids feel like they’re completing a mission: exploring and rescuing a sunken U-boat. And while the competition day creates a sense of excitement, even creating the robot itself is not without its thrilling moments, like when the students must glue it together under a tight timeframe, inadvertently getting high from the fumes in the robotics closet.
It’s one thing for a student like Cristian, who has a natural aptitude for science, to become interested in robotics and engineering. But the competitions also engage Oscar, Lorenzo, and even Luis, who may not otherwise have had that interest and learned information needed to compete. In a country that is quickly being outpaced in math and science, the book provides a good guide as to how to ensure that kids continue to be engaged in those subjects.
Curiosity, Creativity, and Adventure ThemeTracker
Curiosity, Creativity, and Adventure Quotes in Spare Parts
The chief lesson Lorenzo learned was that it was important to be creative. Hugo wasn’t running a normal mechanic’s shop, with a wall full of tools and shelves filled with supplies. He had little money, a small set of hand tools, and his ingenuity. To survive, he had to come up with fresh ideas and adapt.
The music was part of his educational philosophy. Fredi had always focused on getting kids excited to learn.
I've got to create something that doesn't compete with other science centers; it's got to compete with the World Series and the Super Bowl. I’ve got to find a way to make science and technology cool.
Fredi was impressed. It was a practical, cheap, and ingenious solution. […]
“You did it,” Fredi said, clapping Lorenzo on the shoulder.
Lorenzo responded with a big smile. “I did it.”