Underdogs: Teacher proves ambition, inspiration pay off

Underdogs: Teacher proves ambition, inspiration pay off

Fredi Lajvardi, a retired teacher from Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, used his passion for technology to change the lives of inner-city students. He gave these teenagers something to look forward to, to be proud of, to learn creativity, to learn problem solving skills, to build teamwork, and to help them find their own passions and futures.

Lajvardi was the keynote speaker for the HYPE Career Ready® program Wednesday, speaking to Heidelberg students virtually about the possibilities in STEM fields.

The Road to Victory

Lajvardi was fresh out of college when he got a job at Carl Hayden High School. Like a majority of inner- city schools, Carl Hayden had low test scores, high crime, students from single-parent families, and who spoke English as their second language. As a new teacher, Lajvardi was ready to use his knowledge of technology to change and make the school and its students a better place overall. Nevertheless, the obligations that came with being a teacher did not allow Lajvardi to impact the school or students as he had first hoped. So he took matters into his own hands.

Lajvardi started an after-school club and shortly after, he and his students were taking field trips. One of the trips was to an event called the Solar and Electric 500, which got Lajvardi and his group of students into the world of robotics. One student had made a comment saying that it did not look difficult to construct and then asked if they were to build one, could they enter the race? Lajvardi said that if the student were to “find the race director and get a copy of the rule book” they could enter. It was not even 10 minutes later when the student disappeared and came back with a copy of the rule book and a note saying that the race director would waive the entry fee if they were to bring a car to race.

Long story short, Lajvardi and his students were able to build a car that had a top speed of 100 miles per hour that ran on acid batteries. The group was in search of another competition when they discovered FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. This competition gave them the opportunity to work on real-world problems, but the downfall was that the competition ranged from January to May. Thus yet again, Lajvardi and his students were on the hunt for another competition, which is where the underdog story begins.

Turn of Events

Lajvardi found a competition called MATE, or Marine Advanced Technology Education, which dealt with aquatic robots. Lajvardi and his students were at first uneasy about the competition but decided to dive in. 

When signing up for the competition there were two different levels, one level for high schools and the other level for colleges. Lajvardi and another teacher who helped lead the club decided that they wanted to sign up for the college category because they knew they could learn more from their anticipated failure their first year from the colleges than the other high schools. The group spent long hours preparing, researching, building, testing, and problem solving to make their aquatic robot. 

For the competition there were three aspects of judging: how the robot performed in the water; an essay that included all the details about the robot; and an oral presentation over the groups process and how the problems were solved throughout. 

When the award ceremony rolled around, Carl Hayden High School received the Judges Award, the Elegance and Design Award, and first place in technical writing. However, for Lajvardi and his students, it did not end there. When the final overall awards were handed out, in third place was a community college; in second place MIT; and excitingly enough, first place went to none other than Carl Hayden High School. 

Although the team was extremely excited, the community didn’t react the same when they returned home.

“There was no newspaper story, there's no interviews, nothing. Our press reviews weren’t answered and we were shocked,” Lajvardi said. Eight months passed, and Lajvardi received a call from a writer at Wired Magazine, Josh Davidson, who wanted to feature their unbelievable victory in an upcoming issue. 

Things took off from there. A movie, a documentary and a book were all produced around these high school students and their teacher, motivating and encouraging students to look further into STEM fields.

Since Carl Hayden

Lajvardi retired after 30 years as a teacher. Nevertheless, he still is helping teenagers discover and pursue their own passions through science and technology. Currently he is involved with a women’s study in STEM. Through his study he has found that STEM is generally male dominant, however, he has also found that it relates back to the lack of experience for these young women. Lajvardi has been taking all-girls teams to competitions, the most recent being in August 2020 which turned out to be all virtual due to COVID. Yet the team succeeded and placed seconded worldwide. His goal for next year is to help his team earn first place at the competition. 

Lajvardi left the Heidelberg students with this message:

“The talent from the United States can come from some of the most unlikely places. So you can never predict where that talent will come from, where the next Nobel Prize will be, where the next cure for cancer will be. The reason is because the more you can include the diversity of the population, the more approaches you have to solving the problem. There is no one approach that is the best approach. Your life experiences, your culture, your gender, everything plays into how you come up with solutions.”

story by Bailey Walter, '23

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