As others who attended agree, Lajvardi was an outstanding speaker, weaving together a moving story about his journey as a high school science teacher with both humor and deep feeling. The facts of his story are summarized on the conference website as follows:
With countless hours spent after school, mentoring and investing in the underserved students at Carl Hayden Community High School, Lajvardi drew national attention in 2004, when he entered his diverse high school team in a university level national underwater robotics competition, where they not only proved their skills and ability to compete at that level, but they placed first, defeating leading universities, including MIT.While his students' monumental accomplishment failed to garner much attention at first, it eventually gained recognition after being featured in the Wired Magazine article "La Vida Robot." The story then went on to be retold in the documentary film Underwater Dreams, the Hollywood movie Spare Parts, and a book by the same name.
Without the privilege of having had formal experience and education with robotics, the success of Lajvardi's students could be attributed in part to the fact that they were not limited by having existing paradigms in place. He shared an example of how underwater robots at the time were built with heavy cabling that connected to batteries that floated on the surface to remain dry. Rather than accept this design standard as a given, his students came up with the idea of packing batteries with the robot, allowing the device to be more agile. All that they had to do was figure out how to keep the batteries dry, and they did by using tampons, a memorable piece of trivia that drew a lot of laughter from the crowd.
In the end, though, what touched me most was when Lajvardi talked about the moment when he and his high school team first found out that they had won the entire competition, including beating the prestigious MIT team. He shared how he told his wife about the team's victory over the phone, and her immediate response was: "But that's not possible" (or words to that effect).
The thing is, it wasn't just his wife. Part of the reason why it may have taken so long for the story to gain attention is because people simply could not comprehend what had happened since it defied their understanding of what is possible.
I consider myself to be a practical realist in many ways and instances, but Lajvardi's message reminded me to avoid being trapped by my assumptions, especially when it comes to setting the bar for what students are capable of achieving.
I have returned from the conference with some good career resources that I can share with my students, impressive branding models for improving marketing of our program, and ideas about starting up ePortoflios and advisory committees. All of this information is valuable and will undoubtedly help with our program improvement efforts; but, in my everyday work and life, it is Lajvardi's message that I have internalized and that I am inspired by. Whether "that's not possible" is verbalized explicitly or implied through actions and attitudes, I am motivated to question and defy these boundaries so that my students and I may realize our true potential.