BEST Robotics and IEEE: Inspiring Tomorrow's Technology Professionals Today

Published: Nov 27, 2009 1:00:00 AM
Media Contact: Mark D. Conner,

The Need to Have an Impact

As an engineer and a high school teacher, I can tell you that the two professions have one major thing in common - both impact a lot of people on a daily basis. Unfortunately for most engineers and for far too many teachers, that daily impact isn't as tangible as we might desire. We know that what we're doing is important and that it makes a difference, but it's hard to tell if anyone notices...even if you stop to peek over the cubicle walls or look for any sign of a light-bulb moment with a student. We all need that reassurance that what we're doing is important and that it does make a difference. So, I'd like to propose a way that you can make a limited investment of your time and walk away with tangible results, knowing that what you've done has made an impact that may have ripple effects for years and generations to come.

A Place to Have an Impact

BEST Robotics is a competition where middle- and high-school students are asked to go from design to market in just six weeks! BEST, which stands for Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology, started in Texas in 1993 with 14 schools and 221 students. This year, the program is reaching more than 11,000 students in 750 schools in 13 states. Each Fall, students converge on their local competition site (or "hub") for Kick Off, where the game for the year is unveiled. Students then have six weeks to design and build a radio-controlled robot to play the game using only what those in-the-know refer to as "stuff" - plywood, PVC, aluminum, screws, bolts, a few motors and servos, string, duct tape, coat hangers, golf tees, etc. Each team receives identical supplies, and almost nothing is pre-fabricated; wheels, gears, motor mounts, and any sort of specialty item must be designed and manufactured by the students.

Most teams also choose to participate in the BEST Award, which typically includes preparing an oral presentation, designing a t-shirt, creating a 10' x 10' x 10' display area, developing a Web site, making solid models of the robot, responding to interview questions from judges, and demonstrating spirit and sportsmanship throughout the competition. Again, all of this happens in just six weeks.

Teams are led by their coaches - usually math, science, or technology teachers - who volunteer their time (and a lot of it) to provide this opportunity for their students. The overwhelming majority of these teachers do not have a background in engineering. Many are just as overwhelmed as the students when they realize what they've gotten themselves into. However, most come back to compete again the next year. Why? Because they see the impact that it has on the kids, and not just on their kids, but on the hundreds of students who show up at their local hub on Game Day.

Rarely do you see middle- and high-school students so excited about learning that they don school colors, paint their faces, and cheer until they have no voice left...unless you happen to be a regular at BEST competitions. That level of excitement is evident every year on Game Day, and the scene will be repeated at all 33 hubs this Fall and again at the regional championships in December - at Texas BEST in Denton, Texas; Frontier Trails BEST in Fort Smith, Arkansas; and South's BEST in Auburn, Alabama.

Why all the excitement? Think back to your time as a student. How many times did you think, or even voice, the question, "When will we ever use this?" Some things have changed since you were in school, but that question still ranks as one of the top two questions asked by students (along with "Will this be on the test?"). In the same way that we want to know that what we're doing matters, these students want to know that there is some legitimate reason for learning geometry, simple machines, and Newton's Laws. They desperately need to tie the classroom to the rest of life. Experience is often the best teacher, and BEST Robotics is a memorable and meaningful experience every year.

How to Have an Impact

How do you get students - at any level - interested in pursuing a demanding career like engineering? What is needed to maintain a pipeline that will supply tomorrow's engineers? Industry admits that there is a shortage of engineers and technically trained workers. On occasion, small sums of money are made available as good will gestures with the hope that a little work might magically rid us of the problem. The reality is that most companies and industry representatives just don't know where to start. Participating in career days or having an open house at your company is not going to cut it. What is needed is a vehicle that is accessible to schools regardless of location and demographics and that engages kids. That program is BEST Robotics, and someone has already gotten it off the ground. The pre-college educators are on board. The universities are on board, as most hubs are located at universities. The one crucial piece that is missing is the engineers!

An army of volunteers makes BEST run. Everyone from the teachers/ coaches to the hub directors to the judges and mentors are volunteers. The greatest need is for committed volunteers with an engineering/technical background. One goal is for every team to have at least one engineer who will commit to mentoring the team (and the teacher) during the six weeks of BEST. Finding these volunteers is no easy feat, though. Most teams use time after school and on the weekends to work on the project, and it's difficult to find enough engineers willing to adjust work and social schedules in order to make the commitment to the team. (Yes, we recognize that engineers have social schedules! PBS, Discovery Channel, IEEE meetings...J) There is also a need for engineers behind the scenes to serve as the technical experts for the equipment that is issued to each team, to help with the building (and sometimes debugging) of the game-specific playing fields, and to serve as judges on Game Day.

Imagine the impact if every local section of the IEEE were to decide that BEST would be their primary focus for three to four months each year. They could adopt local schools and supply willing mentors or adopt the local hub to make sure that the necessary technical expertise is in place. Companies could do the same, though it would mean working with their employees to allow for some flexible scheduling during those six weeks in the Fall. How far reaching are the Section-based scholarships when you really stop and think about it? Leverage the fact that the IEEE is the largest professional society in the world! If anyone can have a significant impact almost overnight, it should be the IEEE.

See Students Being Impacted for Yourself The South's BEST regional championship will be held on 11-12 December 2009 at Auburn University, which is the national headquarters of the program. Winning teams from up and down the east coast and Deep South will come together for friendly, but fierce competition. A live video stream of the competition will be available, and more information on how to access the video feed will be forthcoming at www.southsbest.org. This year, Auburn will also be hosting a VIP Orientation Session starting at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, 12 December. The primary aim of this session is to show industry representatives that BEST is the vehicle they should use to reach today's students. Anyone interested in attending or finding out more about BEST Robotics (www.bestinc.org) should contact its Executive Director, Dr. George Blanks (blankgw@auburn.edu or 334-703-0077).

As one who is in the trenches on a daily basis, I urge you to be part of the solution to engaging young people and encouraging them to consider engineering and engineering-related professions. The sidelines are full; we need folks to get in the game! Mark D. Conner currently serves as the Director of The Engineering Academy at Hoover High School (www.eahoover.com) in Alabama. He also holds an appointment as Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where he has taught a variety of electrical circuits courses for all engineering majors since 1998. Conner earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering from Duke University and a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from UAB.

For the past ten years, Conner has been involved with the IEEE in various national K-12 education activities. He has participated in the Technological Literacy Counts Conference, served on the Pre-College Education Coordinating Committee, spoken at several IEEE conferences, and initiated the idea of bringing deans of engineering and deans of education together to discuss K-16 education (leading to the IEEE Deans Summit series of meetings). In 2004, Dr. Conner was award the IEEE Pre-College Educator Award.