Young Immigrants Engineer Success

In La Vida Robot, Wired tells the story of a team of undocumented Mexican immigrants at a West Phoenix high school who competed in a contest to build an underwater robot that could survey a model of a sunken submarine: a second-floor windowless room, four students huddle around an odd, 3-foot-tall frame constructed of PVC pipe. They have equipped it with propellers, cameras, lights, a laser, depth detectors, pumps, an underwater microphone, and an articulated pincer. At the top sits a black, waterproof briefcase containing a nest of hacked processors, minuscule fans, and LEDs. It's a cheap but astoundingly functional underwater robot capable of recording sonar pings and retrieving objects 50 feet below the surface. The four teenagers who built it are all undocumented Mexican immigrants who came to this country through tunnels or hidden in the backseats of cars. They live in sheds and rooms without electricity. But over three days last summer, these kids from the desert proved they are among the smartest young underwater engineers in the country.

Teachers entered the team in "the expert-level Explorer class instead of the beginner Ranger class. They figured their students would lose anyway, and there was more honor in losing to the college kids in the Explorer division than to the high schoolers in Ranger."

With the help of some OB tampons to plug a last-minute leak, they went up against MIT -- and won.

Read the whole story. It's fantastic. Here's a link to contribute to the scholarship fund for the four team members, who aren't eligible for financial aid or in-state tuition because they're not legal residents.

Out of Tunes

Eastern High School is a low-performing D.C. high school that had an award-winning choir in the '80s and '90s. But the choir program has fallen victim to the "grating failure and corruption in the D.C. schools," writes Marc Fisher in the Washington Post.

Broke, desperate for new voices, buffeted by the chaos of a school that has seen seven principals in seven years, ground down by the petty battles of a system that eats its own, the Eastern choir is on life support. The chorus had to cancel its spring concert last year because there were no tenors. Barely a handful of male singers remain from what was once a refuge for boys seeking a place to thrive away from the pressures of the street.

Boys who might have sung in the choir have dropped out of school.

"The school is in such a state of decline," says Mary Ann Brownlow, who has served on the board for a decade. "There's been such turnover and turmoil. . . . Unfortunately, the choir has always been a source of resentment among Eastern's faculty, rather than seeing it as this school's jewel."

Students are fleeing to D.C. charter schools, writes Fisher, and the city's best general high school is considering converting to a charter school to gain control of its budget.

Drew vs. Damarcus

Teachers expect less from students with unusual or oddly punctuated names such as Da'Quan and LaQuisha, concludes economist David Figlio, a University of Florida professor. He compared school data on exotically named children with their conventionally named siblings, and discovered low expectations for children with names associated with low socio-economic status may become a "self-fulfilling prophesy."

From the Washington Post:

"Drews" are slightly more likely to be recommended for enrichment classes while "Damarcuses" are rejected, even when they have identical test scores.

Figlio used birth certificate data "to identify first names that had a high probability of being associated with a mother who was unmarried or a teenager at the time when her child was born, was a high school dropout and came from an impoverished family, independent of the mother's race." While blacks are most likely to pick these names, low-income whites and Hispanics also go for names like "Jazzmyn" and "Chlo'e."

. . . Figlio determined that children with names associated with low socioeconomic status scored lower on their reading and mathematics tests than their siblings with less race or class-identifiable names.

. . . Students with identifiable "Asian" first names were more likely to be recommended for special enrichment programs than siblings with more stereotypically American first names and similar test scores.

Of course, there’s always Condoleeza Rice.