09:36 AM

UHCL alumna, former NASA engineer to lead Common Reader discussion

Lisa Spence
UHCL alumna, former NASA engineer and author Lisa Spence to lead the Common Reader discussion.

University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Common Reader Program is launching its first event of the semester titled “A Conversation with Spare Parts’ Lisa Spence and Special Guests” on March 3, 12-1:30 p.m., in the Forest Room. The book “Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream” by Joshua Davis, is this year’s Common Reader selection with the goal of creating community connections among students, as well as between them and their professors. The book was made into a movie, released in 2015.

“Every semester, we pool our ideas and vote on a book that is interdisciplinary and speaks to our identity as a Hispanic Serving Institution,” said Clinical Assistant Professor of First-Year Seminar and History Anne Gessler, who is also head of the 2019-2020 Common Reader Committee. “We evaluated how the different areas of the university could engage with the book, including the library, Hunter Hall, Orientation and New Student Programs, and the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership. We brainstormed ways to get students engaged in co-curricular events, and that is what drives our deliberation over the books.”

‘Spare Parts’ tells the story of four undocumented boys from Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix who found their way to a robotics club sponsored by a caring teacher. Together, the boys and their teacher created an underwater, remotely-operated robot and began entering competitions — and winning.

Lisa Spence, a triple-UHCL alumna who recently retired after a 32-year career at NASA, was a judge in the robotics contest in which the four teens competed back in 2004. The author included Spence’s experiences and insights on the competition in the book.

“I had run the regional robotics competition at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, from which winners go on to the international competition, but this was the first time I’d judged in an international competition,” said Spence. “The Explorer Class, which is the category that the Carl Hayden team competed in, usually only sees college students. That’s why I remember them — they clearly would not have had the same level of education that the college kids would have had.”

Spence explained that each team had to give a 15-minute technical presentation about their robot to the panel of three judges. “They had to tell us how their robot worked from a technical standpoint,” she said. “It had to be a team effort, so we had to make sure each person demonstrated they had this knowledge.”

In comparison to the other college teams’ expensively constructed robots, the Carl Hayden High School team’s robot was not considered “elegant.” “I had seen plenty of remotely operated vehicles like theirs, put together with PVC pipe, glue and zip ties, when I judged high school competitions,” she said.

The boys were aware their robot was not very pretty. In fact, their somewhat crudely made contraption emitted an unpleasant smell, causing them to nickname it “Stinky.” Stinky malfunctioned the night before the competition, causing the boys on the team to stay up all night rewiring and fixing it. “That part of the story is almost the same for every team,” Spence said. “The team from MIT had the same problem. Midnight engineering seems to be a rite of passage for this competition.”

The competition, said Spence, had three elements. “There was an in-water part, where the robot has to work under water. Another part is the presentation, and the third is to write a technical paper describing the robot,” she said. “The combination of scores from the written paper and the presentation was weighted equally with how the robot performed in the water.”

Ultimately, the judges were impressed with the boys’ presentation and they scored well. “It’s huge that they won the competition,” Spence said. “The fact that they were a high school team competing in that category is impressive in itself.”

Spence said that she had spent hours speaking with the book’s author, giving him plenty of context about the competition. “What I think is brilliant about this book choice for the Common Reader is that it touches on so much. My focus is on engineering and on the technical, because that’s my background, but there’s so much more going on here,” she said. “These boys were undocumented. What is the equitable way to treat children who were brought across the border by their parents? What are we doing with people on the border, and how can we make access to education equitable?”

Gessler said these and other questions would be addressed in the panel discussion. “The Common Reader is tied to the Learning Frameworks class, in which students speak about a different component of critical thinking each week,” she said. “The book discussions will focus on voice, marginality, citizenship and belonging.”

Learn more about the Common Reader online.