Published: Dec 16, 2009 9:21:00 AM
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This Saturday, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley joined thousands of students, parents, teachers and industry mentors at Auburn University's Beard Eaves Memorial Coliseum for the South's BEST Robotics Regional Championship, one of the nation's leading science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs.. At the heart of the fun and excitement is a program designed to whet student interest in careers in engineering and the sciences and develop the workforce of the future.
"I must say that I am absolutely shocked at what I've seen today," said Riley, who addressed the group. "I've heard about BEST but did not fully appreciate the power of robots and this program to engage and exite. I am proud that Auburn and the State of Alabama are supporters of a program of this caliber."
This year's BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) competition began in September when teams from along the East Coast picked up their boxes of standardized supplies and first heard this year's game challenge. The 55 teams at South's BEST are the winners of 11 local competitions from Connecticut and Pennsylvania to Illinois and Alabama. Nationally, more than 11,000 students competed in this year's BEST competitions. While some teams choose to compete in only the robotics portion of the event, others also choose to compete for the BEST award to see who is most successful at marketing their robot.
"I believe in BEST," said Peter Jones, mechanical engineering professor at Auburn and head judge for the BEST award. "Each year, the teams start with the same boxes of electronics and basic building materials. They always surprise me with the variety of solutions to the challenge we present them with. BEST helps students get a feel for what real-world engineers do.."
According to South's BEST co-director Mary Lou Ewald, students not only need the desire to be an engineer or scientist, but they must also have the educational background to handle the college curriculum. "Students make decisions in seventh and eighth grades as to which math and science courses they take that impact their options after high school. Our goal is to get them excited about these professions - excited enough that they opt for the tougher classes that provide the foundation for work at the college level." And if the energy at Beard Eaves this weekend is any indication, BEST is doing just that.
Thumbs Up from Students, Teachers, Educators and Industry
"This was our first time to qualify for the regional championship," said Savannah Cox, an eighth grader from Woodham Middle School in Pensacola, Fla. "We are excited about the chance to compete head-to-head with Seaside. At our local competition we beat them for BEST Spirit, and they were the ones that won this competition last year."
Students such as Katie Cooper, also a Woodham eighth grader, cite the feeling of accomplishment that comes from seeing a design work as planned and the challenge of coming up with a quick fix when it doesn't. "Our robot was kept in our teacher's workshop and when he went in last Wednesday it had gotten broken. Our team and fixed it in two days ... stressful but sort of fun, too."
The competition also provides students with a chance to visit a large college campus. "Auburn has a beautiful campus," said Eric Hadley, a Spanish Fort 10th grader. "This is so awesome. I've enjoyed being around others with similar interests and am inspired by the high energy of the program. Science and math competitions are usually dull. This one is anything but!"
BEST is a partnership between educators and industry. Industry supports the program through sponsorships that provide students with the materials packets and with team mentors.
"There are other very good robotics competitions out there," explained George Blanks, BEST Inc. director. "BEST differs in that there is no fee to participate and the playing field is level, because we provide teams with all of the supplies to build their robots. As a result, our teams represent all socio-economic levels." That resonates with industry looking to address looming workforce challenges.
"The demand for engineers is growing," said Clint Foster, operations manager with Alabama Power in Auburn, who points out that Alabama Power and its parent company, Southern Company, require a steady pipeline of engineers. "We support BEST because it works. I am part of a group of seven or eight employees that help with all phases of the competition and will next year take over the construction and maintenance of the game fields. This is a chance to mentor students, many who have never met an engineer and are amazed to find that we are interesting people who love our jobs!"
The effectiveness of the program is one reason that BEST counts heavy hitters, such as Southern Company, Igus, SolidWorks, Briggs and Stratton, Brasfield and Gorrie, Donaldson and Hyundai. It is also one reason that Auburn's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and College of Science and Mathematics took on the program, which began in Texas, but now formally resides at Auburn.
"A recent article predicted that in the future 80 percent of new jobs will require skills in math, science and engineering," said Engineering Dean Larry Benefield. "Yet, 84 percent of middle school students polled indicated that they would rather go to the dentist or take out the garbage than study math and science. This is a serious problem for our nation ... serious enough that President Obama recently announced the Educate to Innovate initiative to support programs that motive students to study math, science and engineering."
According to Benefield, BEST is doing just that. "The opportunities will be enormous for the next generation of engineers and scientists," explained Benefield. "They are the ones who will address the world's global challenges and develop the technologies that will carry us into the next century. BEST shines a light on this world, helps students grasp its importance and understand the excitement it offers."
Tara Powell, mother of a senior at Oak Mountain High School in Birmingham, notes that BEST also provides a positive alternative to sports or music programs. "The principal helped my son and another young man link up with BEST. My son is now proud to represent his school at BEST and has the opportunity to participate in an activity that puts him on college recruiting lists."
Teachers also like the program. "BEST works with all kinds of schools and allows a schools own personality to shine through while still maintaining the integrity of the program," said high school chemistry teacher and team adviser Nancy Tyson. "I like that."
Ready for the Future
"What you are doing here today is important to our nation," said Riley. "Today's economy is requiring us to teach in a way that we have never taught before. You are at the cusp of this change. I am proud of what you are doing here today, as proud as I am of the student who goes the extra mile to make that touchdown. If you stop and think of it, the impact of that touchdown is fleeting. The impact that those of choose careers in science, math, technology and engineering will make a real difference and improve the lives of average citizens."
The complete awards list for the 2009 South's BEST Robotics Championship and photo gallery can be found at:
South's BEST is hosted by Auburn University's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and College of Sciences and Mathematics.