Four Hispanic high school students form a robotics club. With no experience, 800 bucks and a dream, this rag tag team goes up against the country’s reigning robotics champion, MIT.

This sounds like the pitch of a feel good movie and for good reason. It is. And not a great one I’ll admit it. Spare Parts was released in the US last January starring George Lopez, Carlos Peña, Jamie Lee Curtis and Marisa Tomei. Although the movie is not the best, the story is so compelling I had to share it with you. Because this movie was based on a true story. Oscar Vazquez, Lorenzo Santillan, Cristian Arcega and Luis Aranda really competed in an underwater robotics contest sponsored by NASA and the U.S. Navy in 2004.

And I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a thing for underdogs. I love the idea of someone no one saw coming doing incredible things. Joshua Davis, a contributing editor for Wired Magazine stumbled upon the press release about these kids and wrote a great article that was the base for the scenario. And their story is so inspiring, I wanted to share with you the 7 lessons I want to remember from this story.

Picture via Flickr

1. Find someone to believe in you

If it weren’t for their teachers, Oscar, Luis, Lorenzo and Cristian wouldn’t have even thought about competing. In the movie they changed that part, but in real life, it is the teachers who decided to compete and convinced the kids it was worth trying. Of course the odds were against them. After all they didn’t have the skills and resources that MIT or Stanford had, but the learning experience would be great. The teachers real goal was to show the students that there were opportunities outside West Phoenix. The teachers wanted to give their kids hope. And they knew how to push them to do better than they believed they could.

For you it might not be a teacher, but it can be a mentor, a partner, a friend or a family member. Anyone that can help you go one step further than you’d naturally do. And with the support of these people, you’ll do great things. As Lorenzo says : “We were told throughout our whole life that we were losers and we couldn’t do things and here we were proving many people wrong”


2. Your breadth of experience is a force not a flaw

When deciding to go into another field (again), not having the standard background is more of a chance than a flaw. While working their way through this competition, it is their diverse experience and background that allowed the 4 kids to do things the way they did. The fact that they were Mexican immigrants made them more comfortable with the metric system than their american competition. Lorenzo’s mechanical experience was for sure a great asset.

You have acquired many skills from your many different interests, and some of them can be useful now, maybe in unexpected ways.


3. Play to your strengths and team up

None of the kids could have made it alone because none had all the resources and talents to do everything that was needed. Each one of them had some strengths to bring to the team, Oscar being the leader, Cristian the brains, Lorenzo the mechanic and Luis the tether man.

In any of your own projects, odds are pretty good you won’t have all the skills to do everything by yourself. Even if you are a natural learner, it is a huge time and energy drain to do something that could be done faster and better by someone who already knows how to do it. Know your strengths and use them. For the rest, ask for help.

I for example could have done this blog by myself. I’m really good at researching, I learn fast, and I love to write. However, if my boyfriend hadn’t been there, I could have spent hours trying to figure out the technical aspects and it would most certainly not look the way it does now. Not that I’m not tech savvy, but he is better. It saved me a lot of time and energy.


4. Ask for help

When the team ran into problems, the teachers declined to solve them. “Call an expert,” they said. They made calls and soon learned that experts are often eager to give free advice — and sometimes free equipment — to high school kids eager to learn.

The same thing can apply to you and can even bring unexpected results. When I decided to become a psychologist I spent some time meeting professionals to learn more about what it really was about. And one of them became a friend and a mentor. We’ve been working together ever since on several projects. He’s shown me the ropes, shared his knowledge and network, and allowed me to do things I wouldn’t have thought I was capable of.


5. Get creative

The team persuaded a handful of local businesses to donate money to the team. They however didn’t manage to raise much more than 800$. This obviously wouldn’t be enough to build a regular ROV. But they got creative. Instead of glass syntactic flotation foam or metal frames, they used PVC. If they couldn’t afford something they came up with a cheap solution using real out of the box thinking (tampons to waterproof the briefcase, really ? ).


6. Show up and do the work

“It would have been very easy for me, Lorenzo, Oscar or Luis to just say ‘you know, I don’t feel like doing this and just not show up.’ We started with seven members only four of us were there,” said Cristian Arcega, a member of the team.

After all they had many other problems, being teenage illegal immigrants and all, but they did it anyway. We all have reasons not to do things, we may think we are not capable of doing something, but more often than not it is not true, and if you don’t try, you’ll never know.


7. Inspire people by doing something incredible

Great talks are not enough to inspire people. Doing great things, especially when you’re coming from an unexpected background is what really gives people hope and allows them to dream bigger. What these kids did didn’t get any form of recognition for a whole year after they came back in their hometown. The teachers sent press releases to all major media outlets in the United States and only Joshua Davis got interested in it and did something about it. Following the publication of this story in April, 2005, WIRED readers contributed more than $90,000 in scholarships for Vazquez, Arcega, Aranda, and Santillan.

But more importantly this inspired many kids, including other students at Carl Hayden High School. This is shown in the documentary “Underwater dreams” that was released last year.

“Part of the documentary has to do with how the kids got together and worked to beat MIT,” Fred Lajvardi, one of teacher said. “The other part has to do with how those kids opened the doors for all the other kids to follow behind in their footsteps in the robotics program.”

“It made it impossible for any other student to have any other excuses, because these kids had so much against them. So any kid that comes in and says ‘we can’t do that,’ I just point to the kids that did it before and say, ‘really?’”


What about ? What does this story inspires you to do ? What do you want to remember ?


You can read the original article here:

If you want to know what happened to the team members:

Joshua Davis wrote a whole book (2014) about this story, the questions it raises and what happened to the team afterwards : Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream

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