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More Than Mentors

A conversation with Fazlul “Fuzz” Zubair and Fatima Iqbal-Zubair as seen in “More Than Robots” 

We had the opportunity to sit down with husband-and-wife team Fazlul “Fuzz” Zubair and Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, mentors of FIRST® Robotics Competition Teams 4201 “The Vitruvian Bots” and 6904 “TeraWatts" respectively. Fatima and Fuzz appear along with their teams in the original documentary “More Than Robots,” now streaming on Disney+, and embody the ethos of FIRST in their commitment to building a better future.  

 

Given that you’re mentors of competing teams, what does Gracious Professionalism® mean to your family? 

Fuzz: I think the best thing about FIRST is that there really is no such thing as “competing” teams. At an event there will be some matches where we work together and some matches where we are opposed, but it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that each robot is performing to their potential. So, Gracious Professionalism means being sincerely happy for each other’s successes and sharing in the disappointment when one of our teams come up short. We are all part of the same community and the students from both teams are our future. I want every one of them to learn, grow, and succeed. We have big problems in this world, and they will be the ones finding the solutions! 

We heard that the TeraWatts lost their build space this season.  How did the spirit of Coopertition®  help keep the team on track? 

Fuzz: Sadly, this isn’t the first time a team has lost their build space in our history. In 2018, the Beach Bots (FIRST Robotics Competition Team 330) also lost their space and we were happy to host them at our site. We had no hesitation to do this again for the TeraWatts and we are happy to help out wherever we can. 

Fatima: The TeraWatts have never had a stable, consistent build space. Even when we started, we were in the back room of an auditorium with bad lighting and a leaky room. Since then, we've built in hallways, our house's backyard, and in the Vitruvian Bots space.  The goal of the TeraWatts is to eventually be able to get our own space, but with the current inequity we see in our education system, this is a bigger and longer fight. This is why we are grateful that FIRST focuses on the value of Coopertition — we can challenge each other but work together at the same time towards a larger goal. We are so grateful that the Vitruvian Bots is sharing in their space and resources.  In fact, it is the reason we've been able to build this season! This is truly the spirit of FIRST and what we need to see more of in a world – it's not us versus them, it's "we," and what can we can accomplish together, as a whole, as a collective. 

What has the impact of FIRST been on the community of Watts -  a historically underserved, minority community? 

Fatima: The impact has been SO HUGE! To get the full picture, you'll have to read our first full Chairman's submission at the LA Regional, but I'll try to summarize here! Watts has a 5 percent rate of college grads in the community, yet the TeraWatts has a 100 percent college acceptance rate. Watts has one of the highest crime rates in all of Los Angeles. Almost all the students in our school are mostly first generation. We have always had underfunded schools and a lack of afterschool programs and opportunities that are meaningful to inspire our children. Our robotics team has given our students and our community a place to be after school that is inspirational, hopeful, fun, safe and vibrant. We've had young elementary school students hang out with us at our meetings as well. Our program focuses a lot on outreach and connecting with our community, so it has allowed our members to grow in their leadership skills, their communication skills and their confidence.  Robotics has provided them with a space to grow these skills, which they wouldn't have had otherwise. Our students have a huge reason to come to school and they have a reason to feel hopeful for their futures. It's really hard to describe in words, because the impact is so powerful. This is why you'll see me emotional in "More than Robots." 

TeraWatts and Vitruvian Bots are both featured in the “More Than Robots” documentary, but they are just two of the tens of thousands of FIRST teams around the world. FIRST is a unifying experience that builds global citizens that are equipped to tackle real-world problems – why is that important to you as mentors? 

Fuzz: For me personally, I see the major problems in this world that need breakthrough innovative solutions. Everything from hunger, homelessness, racial equity, and environmental justice are big issues in society. For many of these problems, new technology is vital to creating the solution. FIRST sets students up for success by challenging them to think, build, and work together to solve problems. It forms the pathways in students’ minds that will last a lifetime and does so in an environment that is low risk – allowing students to learn through failure. I always tell my students, “I’d rather you fail on a $5,000 robot, than on a billion-dollar satellite.” 

Fatima: I second everything Fazlul said. The unifying experience of FIRST matters so much to my South-central students.  Without FIRST, they wouldn't have the opportunity to connect with students from other communities around the world. Remember, traveling and the ability to take outings are privileges that many don't have. According to my kids, this has been so helpful as it allows courageous conversations, and it breaks barriers of discomfort, class, race and privilege. Because of this, they are able to enter life after high school with less intimidation at the world and differences in people and class around them and instead with confidence and an ability to work with many different types of people. On the other hand, my students have found commonalities with teams from similar backgrounds in FIRST and this has also helped them form unique connections through language and culture as well. In the end it all comes back to the point that in order to solve the world's biggest problems from climate change to hate, oppression and even war, what we need are our youth to grow into individuals that are global citizens that have the ability to listen with empathy, speak their truth and work effectively with someone with a completely different background – for the greater good of humanity.  

 

Fuzz, you’ve personally hired 15 FIRST alumni at Raytheon Technologies. What skills, qualities and attributes make FIRST alumni the best candidates for careers in STEM and beyond? 

Fuzz: In school, your success is mostly measured by your individual performance. Your test scores, your papers, your projects…even group projects are sized so that one or two people can mostly accomplish the tasks by themselves. What FIRST shows is that you HAVE to work in a team to solve complex problems. There is no one person that can fully design, manufacture, assembly, code, test, and drive a robot all by themselves. You learn to not only work on a team, but TRUST your team members to do their job. You hold each other accountable, and you learn how to manage your own time and schedule. The FIRST students that come and work at Raytheon Technologies quickly excel past their peers because they have been working with us engineers for years already! 

 

The Vitruvian Bots just qualified for FIRST Championship by winning the Chairman’s Award at the Orange County Regional Event.  What does this mean to the team after such a long, disruptive period during the pandemic? 

Fuzz: We were surprised and honored to be presented with the Chairman’s Award this weekend. I have always been proud of how the team promoted the mission of FIRST as we work to increase the STEM pipeline in our community. As a hiring manager at Raytheon Technologies, we are starving for strong STEM talent. We are constantly looking for people all over the country, but many of them find it difficult to relocate to California. I am proud that my team is trying to increase the STEM talent in our community so all the great companies in our area will have access to this amazing talent pool. Winning Chairman’s helped reaffirm that we are on the right track and we hope that in time we can grow both the percentage of women and underrepresented groups in STEM fields and staff the innovative technology companies in our backyard. 

In addition, as with most teams, 70 percent of our students had never been to a real FIRST competition before this weekend. So, we went from teaching kids what a competition was and what to expect, to now having to get them ready for a whole new level of excitement at World Championships. It was amazing to see the students feel the energy of the room and dive into the competition from scouting, to robot matches, to making new friends! The team is very energized after the win and has grand ideas on what they want to do to prepare for our next event! 

“More Than Robots” is available for streaming exclusively on Disney+. 

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