July 6, 2014 -- “Underwater Dreams” is a very earnest documentary (to be released July 11 in New York and Los Angeles, July 19 elsewhere) about the vast potential which lies in many children, even among society's outcasts, even in a place which is dedicated to holding them down, even rejecting them and excluding them. It is a story about the flowering of this untapped potential, of oceanic underwater dreams realized in the deserts of Arizona.
In Arizona, where illegal aliens from south of the border and their children have become the modern equivalent of India's untouchable class, with angry protests being staged against their very existence, in Arizona's Carl T. Hayden High School, where 90 percent of the students are Hispanic, and 92 percent are from families under the poverty line, a first generation Iranian-American teacher, Fredi Lajvardi, and others at the school, somehow developed a nationally-recognized robotics program.
This documentary, narrated by Michael Peña (who is also an executive producer of the film, along with Jeb Bush, Jr.) tells the story of the first students who joined the school's robotics club, and how it inspired many others to follow in their footsteps to become engineers and scientists. Lajvardi thought it would be fun to build robots, so he put a robotics club signup sheet on the wall. Only a few students signed up for the club. Nobody knew where this would lead.
They decided to build an underwater robot to compete in the National ROV (remotely operated vehicle) Marine Advanced Technology Education competition at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2004. Lajvardi didn't think his team had a chance to win the high school competition, so he entered the college-level competiton, against the best engineering schools in the country, including the mighty Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lajvardi figured if his team got beat by the likes of MIT and Cal Tech, it would not be as disheartening as being beaten by high school teams.
Although the Carl Hayden students didn't raise much money for their project from various club fund-raisers, they made do with a lot of standard plumbing and building materials like PVC pipe. The strong-smelling PVC glue used to put their vehicle together inspired the name of their robot, “Stinky.” The students installed electric motors, adjustable propellers, circuit boards, cameras, and other equipment needed to remotely guide their robot underwater. They adjusted the buoyancy of the robot so it could both dive and surface, as well as move horizontally through the water. It was a formidable challenge for the students, but the project benefitted from Lajvardi's insistence that the craft be kept as simple as possible.
The students worked long hours on the project and they grew adept at solving engineering problems along the way. Although some students on the team were far better at systems design than others, they all knew the craft inside and out, and that stood them in good stead in the competition.
Upon arrival at the competition, their first pool test of Stinky was a disaster. The craft developed serious leaks, including leaks in the onboard control housing, but they developed a unique, and very funny solution to the problem of the leaking control module. The MIT team also experienced severe problems with their ROV after it was damaged during cross-country shipping to the competition.
Incredibly, the Carl Hayden team won the competition, narrowly beating MIT, although the judging was somewhat subjective, despite a large part of the overall score being derived from underwater ROV tests. Carl Hayden's great victory in the competition was not met by parades and ceremonies when they got home. After all, this isn't football, it's science, and in American education, science often takes a back seat to sports.
The victory by the Carl Hayden robotics team did have a big impact on the school in the long run, however. The school continues to compete successfully on the national level in robotics competitions, inspiring other Carl Hayden students to excel, like Dulce Matuz, named one of the world's most influential people by Time Magazine. As President of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition she is working towards immigration policy reform in the state and country. Quite a large portion of the film is about the failures of American immigration policy. One educator in the film is quoted as saying this policy looks as if it was crafted by terrorists intent on damaging the United States.
While this film is inspiring and educational in many ways, the structure of the film is awkward. All the parts are there, but the way the film is edited, the various themes of the films don't fit together very well. The timeline of the film is quite jagged, especially in the way it opens. The film attempts to show the untapped potential of many students, especially in the sciences, and to tie that specifically to immigration policy. In fact, the students in most of the country, no matter what the color of their skin, or ethnic background or immigration status, are not being well served by public educational institutions in general, especially in math and science.
This film gives the impression that this is a poor school on the edge of the desert, but it is actually a large (2,200 students) big city school, just west of downtown Phoenix, part of the Phoenix school system. The school has outstanding educational and sports programs. The school underwent a $22 million renovation six years ago. Its students benefit from an educational grant from The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and scholarships from the Maecenas Fund, no doubt in part due to the success of the school's robotics teams. A lot of U.S. students would benefit if they could go to a school this good.
The film's message about the educational failings of public schools in this country are universal, but they don't come across that way. The film's message about immigration reform is a powerful one, but it comes across as almost a separate movie from the robotic team segment about students inspired to do great things. This movie has it all, but the toughest thing to accomplish in a documentary film is in fitting all these unscripted scenes together into a cohesive whole, like a jigsaw puzzle, and in this area, the film falls short. Even so, it is a powerful, inspirational film which demonstrates there is a vast untapped reservoir of human potential in this country. This film rates a B.
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