The team rolls into Santa Barbara and unloads everything into the dorm that they have been assigned. They spend the night making sure that everything still works, but when they turn the power on, the robot’s thrusters refuse to reverse. After an hour, the controls mysteriously start working again. The boys grow more and more nervous and decide to go to sleep early to get ready for the competition.
Even with their extensive testing, the adventure of the competition gets the students both excited and nervous about their trip. They have prepared well, but the teams against which they are competing could blow them out of the water.
At nine the next morning, the team brings Stinky to a practice pool. The other teams’ robots look like works of art, with machined metal and elaborate control panels. But the other teams have struggled to build their robots, too. MIT had a team of twelve undergraduates and a ten-thousand-dollar grant from ExxonMobil, but two weeks before the competition, their control system overheated and melted. Their team has then rebuilt the controls in a week.
Here Davis also makes the argument for why some of the other schools’ seeming advantages are actually disadvantages. The complex machined metal and control panels actually make their systems more prone to issues like overheating.
When Lorenzo sees MIT’s expensive robot, predominantly white team, and matching shirts, they look like the embodiment of power. Oscar tells him to focus as they practice. Their presentation is later in the afternoon and the underwater portion is the next day. When they turn on the controls, Stinky starts turning involuntarily, and Luis quickly pulls the robot out. They open up the briefcase and find water in the bottom. It’s fortunate that it didn’t short, but now the cables need to be re-soldered and there’s a leak.
The students’ trial run in the pool exposes some of the reasons that they are underdogs—not only because of the issues with their equipment, but also because of the inherent inequality between them and the other teams, and the obstacles and prejudice they have already faced in getting to the competition.
Back in the dorm room, morale is low. Fredi tells them they should get ready for their presentation and then they will have all night to fix Stinky. Allan takes them out to a bridge and instructs them to talk to anyone who walks by about their robot.
Fredi and Allan again try to place an emphasis on boosting the students’ confidence as they work to take their mind off of the leaky robot and instead make sure that they can lead their presentation.
The kids are shy at first, but then Lorenzo approaches a man who looks like a professor, asking if he would like to hear about their robot. He describes what it can do, and the man is impressed. He wishes them luck and says he’ll be rooting for them. Other people they stop are also in awe of what their robot is able to do. It reminds the students that they are doing something that they’ve never done before.
As the students chat with average bystanders, they start to be reminded of why they are in the competition in the first place, including their excitement and enthusiasm about the impressive ROV that they have created.
While the students complete their technical presentation, Allan and Fredi wait outside. Other students are in for at least forty-five minutes, and so when they come out after only twenty-five, Allan and Fredi see it as a bad sign. But Oscar tells them that they did great, answering the judges’ questions perfectly. Allan and Fredi assume that they’re simply being overconfident. Either way, now the team has to repair the robot.
Davis then provides the opposite perspective from his introduction: that of Allan and Fredi, waiting outside as the students give their presentation. This signals a shift, as the students become even more confident than their teachers about their abilities, and paves the way for what they’re able to accomplish throughout the competition.
Before they start their repairs, the team grabs some dinner. On the way to dinner, Oscar leads a brainstorming session. They need something that’s small and superabsorbent to soak up the moisture. Lorenzo thinks about possible options and suggests a tampon. Fredi says it’s a perfect idea.
After the presentation, Oscar once again steps in to motivate the team, as they work together to come up with more creative, practical solutions on how to improve their robot’s design.
After dinner, Oscar pushes Lorenzo into a grocery store to buy the tampons. He approaches a woman, who at first seems apprehensive that he is talking to her. But when he explains that he’s building an underwater robot and needs tampons to soak up water, she laughs and directs him toward the best ones to buy.
Lorenzo’s interaction with the woman in the store serves as a small example of the kind of everyday prejudice that he and the others face. Even though he is simply asking her where to buy the tampons, her apprehensions reveal her negative stereotypes of kids like him.
Back in the dorm room, the students need to pull all of the joystick wires and reconnect them, which will take hours. Oscar volunteers to stay up and do it, and Lorenzo offers to join him. Oscar feels real respect for Lorenzo. They have to take the sixty-four hair-sized wires and meticulously solder them into small holes. It is delicate, nerve-wracking work. If Oscar hits the wire with the soldering iron, the wire will melt and disappear, and they’ll have to start over.
Lorenzo’s offer to join Oscar signals a turning point in their friendship, as the support that Lorenzo provides him becomes crucial in helping Oscar to stay up and complete the re-soldering work.
By the time Oscar and Lorenzo have completed fifty wires, it is two in the morning. They take a quick break, and Oscar thanks Lorenzo for staying up with him. Lorenzo smiles and jokes that Oscar would probably screw it up if he weren’t watching. Lorenzo positions the final set of wires, and they finish at 2:30 a.m. They turn the power on and test it. Stinky works.
After he missed the pumpkin hurling contest, Lorenzo has slowly had to regain the trust of his teammates. This offer reassures Oscar of Lorenzo’s dedication as he gains a lot of respect for his friend.
The next morning, at the underwater portion of the competition, Monterey Peninsula College has three ROVs working together and a fifteen-person team. Still, they only get 30 out of 110 points in their 30-minute run. Cape Fear Community College has a slightly more successful run: their robot garners forty points.
Davis then sets up the odds that the Carl Hayden students are facing: even with far more resources, teams still struggle to get a majority of the points in the competition.
There are eleven teams in the Explorer class, and all of them post at least five points. Still, some experience early catastrophic failures and sink to the bottom, unresponsive. This worries the Carl Hayden students, but also provides them with a glimmer of hope: if they can complete a single task, they won’t finish last.
This passage recalls the students’ earlier motto, “don’t finish last.” In a way, these low expectations actually free the students to do as well as they can without added pressure.
MIT’s robot piles up points quickly during its run, speeding around the pool. But it isn’t able to complete the fluid sampling task: their sampling tube is too large for the opening in the barrel. Still, MIT amasses 48 points, putting them in first place.
These daunting odds make the eventual success of the team even more remarkable, as they go on to complete tasks that MIT cannot and eventually win the overall competition.
When Carl Hayden’s turn arrives, they have five minutes to set up inside their shack and complete a safety check. They burst into action, coordinating their setup and plugging everything in. Stinky is operational. Lisa Herbert, one of the judges, checks a box on the score sheet that says Team is ready for the mission. Their thirty minutes in the pool begin.
Oscar’s ROTC training comes in handy in this portion of the competition, and so does the team’s discipline and coordination as they work together to set up for their run.
Luis stays by the pool while Cristian, Oscar and Lorenzo monitor Stinky on their video screens from the control tent. Cristian notes a mockup of a piece of equipment. Seeing it is worth five points: they are now tied with last. They try to retrieve it, but Cristian and Oscar have trouble coordinating. They decide to come back to it, not wanting to waste too much time.
Oscar and Cristian feel their loss of a team member—Michael Hanck—most strongly here, but they are still able to sync up and coordinate their movements after getting over these early nerves—emphasizing the strength of their bond as teammates.
Oscar and Cristian move on to measuring the submarine. They are able to hook the tape measure onto the submarine and spool it out, but the screen showing the measurement is pure white. They had set the camera’s exposure based on the day before, which had been hazy. Now the sun is shining, and the light is too much for the camera. Still, they get five points for measuring. The same thing happens with the depth measurement. They get five points for taking it but can’t report it.
Over the early part of their run, the students start to become excited as they gain more and more points, exceeding their expectations and giving them confidence. Even though they have camera issues, their simple solutions to solve the tasks have begun to work.
Most of the remaining tasks involve entering the submarine, and so Oscar suggests they check the barrel for the liquid sample, even though he had suggested doing it last. They steer Stinky over to the “barrel”—a one-gallon paint can—and Oscar and Cristian are able to get their sampling pipe into the can. Lorenzo can’t believe it, and he flips the switch to pump the liquid out. They pilot Stinky back to the surface and Luis pulls it out of the pool.
Armed with a new confidence and the assurance that they will not finish last—and perhaps because of Oscar’s regained trust in Lorenzo’s capabilities—Oscar decides to go for the liquid sample. It takes coordination from Oscar, Lorenzo, and Cristian, but they are able to work together as a team to extract the sample.
The balloon is sitting in the milk carton, full of liquid. Oscar removes it and they measure the fluid. Their sample is slightly diluted, but they receive a massive twelve points for collecting it. That brings them to 27 points, more than most of the other teams. They give a short cheer before returning to the mission. They have ten more minutes.
Lorenzo’s creativity is rewarded, as his unique method of problem solving pays off. The adventure from the competition sets in, and the students let their excitement fuel the final minutes of their underwater run.
With Stinky back in the water, they move into the interior of the submarine. They steer inside and, in the last minute, are able to find the captain’s bell for five points, giving them a total of 32 points: third place behind MIT and Cape Fear Community College. Now, everything will be determined by the scores they receive on their engineering review. Fredi and Allan can’t believe it, and they rush over to the kids, congratulating them.
The success that the students are able to achieve in the underwater portion comes from a large number of factors: people rooting for them as underdogs, the bond they have built as a team, and mentors who care about them and have encouraged their accomplishments.
The awards ceremony takes place over dinner, and is hosted by Bryce Merrill, a recruiting manager for an industrial ROV firm. Fredi and Allan try to temper the boys’ expectations. They expect that they’ll be in the middle of the pack, or lucky to get fourth or fifth. They each hope privately that the team will hold on to third. No matter what, the whole team is proud of what they have accomplished.
Even though Fredi and Allan try not to keep the students’ hopes up, the students’ joint sense of accomplishment proves how much they have already exceeded expectations and proven themselves capable of achieving more as a team than they ever thought possible.
The first award is a surprise: a special award not listed in the program. The judges have created the award to honor special achievement, and they announce that the award is going to Carl Hayden. The kids head up to the stage, forcing smiles. They think that this award had been given to them as a consolation prize—an award “considering where they came from.” It signals to them that they did not get third. Fredi and Allan congratulate them, trying to look on the bright side.
The students at first view this award as a way of pitying them—in consideration of the odds that they have already overcome simply by taking part in the competition. But they soon come to realize that it is actually in extra recognition of their achievement—not less.
A few small prizes are handed out, and then Merrill moves on to the final awards: Design Elegance, Technical Report, and Overall Winner. MIT, Cape Fear, and Monterey Peninsula (who had gotten fourth behind Carl Hayden in the underwater trials) eagerly await the results. It will all come down to how the judges graded the teams’ oral and written presentations.
Even the anticipation of the awards at this moment demonstrates an inequality amongst the teams. While the Carl Hayden students had hoped that they might hold onto third, the other teams seem almost entitled to winning the awards.
Just as the Carl Hayden kids wonder whether they can get more cake before the ceremony finishes, Merrill announces that Stinky has captured the design award. They’re stunned. It turns out that Stinky’s low-tech approach is what impressed the judges. Lisa Spence, the NASA judge, says she believes that there is no reason to come up with a complex solution when a simple one will work. She feels that Carl Hayden’s robot is “conceptually similar” to machines she works with at NASA.
Spence’s explanation for why the students have won the award makes it clear that their lack of resources—but also their innovations as a result of that lack—in fact made their design simpler, sleeker, and more cost-effective, all of which would give them a leg up not only in the competition but also if they were designing for a real ROV company.
The boys are in shock, realizing now that the special prize wasn’t a consolation. They are actually being given real recognition. After thanking Merrill and collecting their award, they start to leave the stage. But Merrill stops them: they have also won the Technical Writing Award. Even Cristian is surprised. In his mind, there was no possibility that a bunch of ESL students could have produced a better written report than kids from MIT.
Their winning the Technical Writing Award also proves their dedication as a team to the competition. None of them learned English as a first language, and yet their motivation and hard work allowed them to surpass even top engineering colleges in explaining their ideas and designs.
Merrill then starts to announce the top three finishers. Third place goes to Cape Fear. The Carl Hayden kids are surprised; they had assumed that Cape Fear would get second. But they are really shocked when Merrill announces that MIT got second place. Fredi realizes that something amazing is about to happen. Merrill then announces that Carl Hayden has won first place.
Carl Hayden’s triumph in the competition proves that the students had been able to overcome tremendous odds—not in spite of the obstacles they had to overcome, but because those obstacles led them to work harder and come up with more creative solutions in designing their robot.
By the time the Carl Hayden team gets to the podium, the entire room is on its feet. Nine months earlier the students didn’t know what an ROV was. Now they have won the 2004 Marine Advanced Technology and Education Explorer class ROV championship. The audience roars in support of the kids from the desert.
The fact that they are cheered on without hesitation by the other teams in the competition also demonstrates that the other teams acknowledge the odds and obstacles that those students have had to overcome to win.
After the ceremony, the kids hike a mile down the beach. They yell out into the ocean that they beat MIT. Allan tells them how proud he is. Fredi says that they are true “badasses.” The boys have never been happier. They take pictures on the beach together.
It is easy to see how the adventure and thrill of the competition might have spurred the students to follow their passions for science in college and beyond, were it not for their limited education and job prospects.
The moment is bittersweet for Oscar. His eighteenth birthday is days away, whereupon his legal status in the United States will change. If he is caught and deported after he turns eighteen and a half, he will be barred from returning to the U.S. for three years. If he is nineteen and a half or older, the ban will be ten years. The law is meant to incentivize immigrant teens to return to the country in which they were born. But Oscar has little to go back to, and fundamentally he views himself as an American. The boys take a final picture.
Davis notes that the film version of Spare Parts ends at the awards ceremony, but he makes it clear that there is more to the story. Even though the boys have accomplished something truly great and would unquestionably make strong contributions to the country and the sciences, they still have to contend with the fact that the United States policies make it nearly impossible for them to follow that potential.