ASEE Prism Magazine Online - December 2001
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- By Linda Creighton

A technology contest is giving engineering a boost in southern high schools and putting it on an even playing field with football.

It all started in 1993 when two Texas Instruments engineers in Sherman, Texas—Steve Marum and Ted Mahler—hosted Engineering Day for local high schoolers. After seeing the students' excited reaction to a video of freshmen building a robot at MIT, Marum and Mahler said, “Why don't we do this?”

With help from Texas Instruments management, the two engineers created the first BEST program—Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology—initially available to 14 schools and 221 students. Teams designed and built radio-controlled machines to accomplish a defined task. The brilliant stroke was to set the process up like a sports event, where the robots compete on a field for the chance to advance to finals.

“Look at your local high school,” says Ken Vickers, professor of physics at the University of Arkansas and one of the original organizers of BEST. “Very few academic contests have crowd participation. When you go to a BEST contest and you've got 24 groups of students from 24 different schools and they're yelling and screaming and they've got their cheerleaders and the band, and the gymnasium is going berserk because four robots are out on the floor competing against each other, it's that kind of public recognition of effort in technology that BEST brings to the table.”

From that one north Texas program, 20 sites, or “hubs” now involve 400 teams and thousands of students. Staffed entirely by volunteers and supported by a network of individuals and corporations, BEST has managed to give a large chunk of high school students the thrill and prestige of winning a competition outside normal high school activities like football.

“We disguise it as a technology contest, but it's really project management,” says Vickers. “Let's face it, it isn't real high-tech to take a radio controller and make the motors run backwards and forwards. What we gain is that the kids come out with a much higher level of confidence that they can succeed in something that doesn't have the answer in the back of a book.”

“They learn how to involve people,” he says. “We're emphasizing that in life everybody has skills that make the whole boat go forward.” It's a simple concept with humble beginnings, a box of junk, really, including motors originally designed for HARM missiles relegated to a Texas Instruments overstock shelf, built by kids into unique and functional devices. And, like most really good things, it has stayed simple. The students have six weeks to design and build a prototype. Unlike programs which are set up for students to observe engineers at work, BEST gives students raw materials with few guidelines and lets them make their own decisions about how to proceed. “You have to give them the freedom to fail,” says Vickers, who heads up the northwest Arkansas branch of the program. “It's better for students to go through the process than to observe the process.”

Schools select their own teams and provide teacher coaches, administrative support, classroom and shop access after school hours, and transportation to the competition sites.

The formal start of the competition, known as “Kickoff Day,” is a star-studded day of music, cheering, introductions, and instructions. Each team is given a box of odd parts, materials, motors, and a radio controller. Only these parts can be used to build the robot.

Kickoff climaxes with the unveiling of the game task, a closely guarded secret known only to a few BEST game designers. The students are whipped into a competitive engineering frenzy by the challenge of solving a societal problem with their creation.

In past years, games have included rescuing alien cultures from a planet that was about to explode by capturing and placing alien pods (fuzzy balls) onto a velcro-covered rocket, recovering dynamite out of a mine and placing it into a bucket, and extinguishing a fire while rescuing Einstein's possessions at the Smithsonian Institution.

The 2001 task, unveiled in September, was a challenge called Rad to the Core, a nightmare scenario of an emergency at a nuclear power plant where visiting students are asked to head off a catastrophe. The students must maneuver their homemade robots to hit the emergency cooling switch, remove nuclear fuel rods and put them in a multi-tube containment vessel.

Translated into the BEST scenario, each team must design and build and operate a robot which can move around a field—also built by the teams—of a nuclear reactor made from PVC pipe and coffee cans.

The box each team receives is the usual stuff with which to save the world: duct tape, string, woodscrews, five-foot sections of PVC pipe, two-by-four sheets of plywood, paint trays, screened-door springs, hinges, typewriter rollers, and four motors, among other things.

The rules are typical to most engineering competitions: no welding, no velcro, and no using extra parts. Energy sources must come from the provided battery pack, springs, gravity or stretched rubber from an inner tube provided. The size and weight of the robots are strictly enforced at 24 inches on a side, 24 pounds maximum.

The most successful teams make a concerted effort to involve their schools and towns, setting up booths with their robots at school functions, staging pep rallies for the robots before game day, and including them in homecoming parades.

In the six- to eight-week period between kickoff and competition in the fall, teams can expect to devote three to five days a week, three to six hours a day, brainstorming, building, practicing, and repairing. Adult coaches mentor and guide, but the students do all the work.

About four weeks into the process, each hub sponsors a “mall day,” a chance to meet at a local shopping mall and give its prototype a trial run. The event often gets a lot of attention from shoppers and gives students a chance to get public recognition and some feedback, not to mention getting them the benefits of industrial spying and the ploy of entering a red herring machine to fool the competition.

Weeks of hard work culminate in a daylong competition of remote- controlled robot maneuvering by sweating, focused kids battling it out for supremacy in front of a techno-gladiator-mad mob.

First through fourth place awards are given for performance to the winners of the game. But there is also a separate award category, the BEST awards, for the teams who have most involved the entire school and community in raising the awareness of engineering, science, and technology. When each local hub sends its team to the regional contest, which is sponsored by Texas A&M and Texas Instruments, the first team sent is the BEST winner. “You can come in last place from a performance standpoint and still win the BEST award if your whole community is behind you,” Vickers points out.

Though there is not yet a formal process within BEST for tracking the number of students involved in BEST who pursue careers in technology and engineering, anecdotal evidence suggests the positive influence. Gunter High School in north Texas gets so caught up in the BEST contest that “they just about shut the town down and turn out the lights,” says Vickers—so enthused that they started up the first robot-building contest for a local elementary school.

And in Alma, Ark., a high school averaging 20 to 25 students enrolled in physics won a BEST competition and made it to the regionals in the first year. The following year, more than 60 kids enrolled in the physics class because of the excitement generated by the program. “It can have significant impact within individual schools,” says Vickers. “It certainly has huge impact on individual students.”

“You don't have to be an academic giant to be successful in BEST,” Vickers points out. “In fact, the small schools from the rural communities routinely are the top-placing schools above the big urban schools, because the kids with mechanical skills get together with kids with academic skills in groups that typically have not formed up together and find they both bring a lot of value to the team. Once they learn to communicate, they make the best machines.”

There is no entry fee for schools who participate in BEST. The local hub committee, made up of about 40 volunteers, takes on the financial responsibility of raising funds, buying the parts, creating the game, and publicizing and coordinating the events. Funding comes from an assortment of individual and corporate sponsors.

But Vickers stresses that whatever level of resources a community may have, the important thing is to get kids involved. “Anybody that's not doing something to promote interest in science and technology in their community is leaving part of their societal obligation on the table. It can be individual mentorship of a class or creating a local contest. But all of us should be doing something, both in academics and industry.”

“BEST is not the only dog on the porch,” says Vickers. “But if we don't get kids excited early in their lives about the possibilities of science and technology in the same way that we put effort into athletics, then we as technologists are not fulfilling our responsibility as a society as well as we should.”

For more information on how to start a BEST in your school, go online to www.bestinc.org.

 

Linda Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va. She can be reached at lcreighton@asee.org.

 


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