Homewood Middle wizards take on big kids with robots

Published: Sep 26, 2007 1:00:00 AM
Media Contact: Tiffany Ray,
Kim Bryan,

Source: The Birmingham News

Building a moving, maneuverable robot from a box of seemingly unrelated objects may sound like a daunting task for a middle-schooler - or almost anyone, for that matter - but Christopher Campbell is unfazed.

"It's not a challenge," said Campbell, a seventh-grader. "It's just an exercise in critical thinking."

Campbell is part of a team of students at Homewood Middle School participating for the first time this year in BEST, also known as Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology, a robotics competition designed to teach middle and high school students to use technology and solve problems.

 For the six-week contest, held at sites around the country, schools receive a box of supplies from which they must build a robot to complete a predetermined task.

This year's contest kicked off Aug. 25, when the Homewood team trekked to a contest site in Decatur to pick up their supplies and witness the unveiling of the playing field their robot will be required to traverse.

It culminates Oct. 6, when the team returns to Decatur to compete with the robot they have devised during a daylong event at Calhoun Community College.

Four at a time, teams will send their robots up a ramp to retrieve a set of items and place them in designated boxes, said Mary Binkley, a science and math enrichment teacher at the middle school. Points are awarded based on the number and types of items retrieved in three minutes.

This year's theme, "2021: A Robot Odyssey," is based on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission, said George Blanks, director of K-12 engineering outreach in the Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University, which is also a contest hub.

The idea is that the robots will be sent from their base on Mars to a supply ship that has landed in order to pick up fuel, food and medical supplies and return with them to the base, Blanks said. Because conditions are harsh, the robot will have only three minutes to complete the mission.

As part of the project, students have learned to cut metal, use saws and drills, do electrical wiring and other skills.

 It's a huge commitment for the students. During the six weeks of the contest, Homewood kids are working Monday through Thursday from 3 to 5 p.m. and then putting in one eight-hour day each weekend. Some students are finding spare time during the school day for additional work, Binkley said.

"It's tough for middle school kids," Binkley said, "but the thinking that's going on is just amazing." Binkley said she began recruiting students from all class levels for the program as soon as the school year began. About 10 students show up consistently, and a few others come and go.

Abby Noble, a seventh-grader who is part of the team, said girls don't usually think they're good at this kind of stuff, but she thinks they should try it more. "I'm unusually mechanically inclined," she said. "I've always liked to build, to put things together."

 Engineers from Gallet & Associates are acting as mentors for the team, but their role is strictly advisory, Binkley said. Mentors may pose questions to keep students thinking, but "these kids are having to do everything themselves," she said.

The BEST Robotics program got its start in Texas in 1993 with a single 14-school competition. This year, more than 10,000 students from about 700 schools will compete in locations around the country.

Alabama's three contest sites are in Auburn, Decatur and Mobile. A fourth is slated to start next year at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Blanks said.

Younger competitors:

Homewood is among a growing number of middle schools taking part in the program. In its early years BEST was the exclusive domain of high school students; today, middle schools represent 15 of Alabama's 69 competing teams.

Blanks said BEST is a lot more than a robotics competition; it's also a vital K-12 workforce development program. Introducing students to applied science, math and engineering at an early age will make them more prepared for the requirements of such careers later on, he said.

"You've got to catch them at the middle-school level to start planting those seeds," Blanks said. With so much high-tech industry coming into Alabama, it's important that the state have a technologically literate workforce, he said. "We're really not prepared for it."

Blanks said the program, which is free to schools, increases students' self-confidence and competence.

A lot of students leave kickoff day in open-mouthed shock, he said. But six weeks later, they return with a machine that works. "It's absolutely amazing what they do," he said.