By Linda Creighton
contest is giving engineering a boost in southern high schools and putting
it on an even playing field with football.
started in 1993 when two Texas Instruments engineers in Sherman, TexasSteve
Marum and Ted Mahlerhosted 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?
from Texas Instruments management, the two engineers created the first
BEST programBoosting Engineering, Science, and Technologyinitially
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
select their own teams and provide teacher coaches, administrative support,
classroom and shop access after school hours, and transportation to
the competition sites.
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.
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.
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.
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.
into the BEST scenario, each team must design and build and operate
a robot which can move around a fieldalso built by the teamsof
a nuclear reactor made from PVC pipe and coffee cans.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Vickersso
enthused that they started up the first robot-building contest for a
local elementary school.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
information on how to start a BEST in your school, go online to www.bestinc.org.
Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va. She can be reached