AU’s “BEST” could play role in development of I-85 corridor

AUBURN — Education leaders from Lee and Chambers counties met Friday with representatives from area industries and Auburn University to discuss workforce development along the I-85 corridor, and the role that BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) can play in addressing this important issue.

Alabama BEST, co-sponsored by the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and College of Sciences and Mathematics at Auburn University, is designed to inspire middle and high school students to pursue technological careers. The program is currently seeking the support of local industries, with long-time sponsor Briggs & Stratton leading the charge.

“The industry that is locating along the I-85 corridor is increasingly dependent on a technologically literate workforce,” says Harold Smith, plant manager for Briggs & Stratton’s Auburn Operations, who hosted the meeting. “If this nation wants to retain its preeminence as a world leader of production, we must increase the desire of our young people to pursue an education in science and engineering, so more may contribute to the success of companies like Briggs & Stratton – whether in technical or professional capacity.”

According to Michael Carroll, a BEST alum (three years at Austin High School in Decatur, Ala.) who is currently majoring in engineering at Auburn University, BEST is just the ticket for engaging middle and high school students.

“I am different because of BEST,” says Carroll. “For three years I came together with a diverse group of nearly 100 students to complete in six weeks what seemed like an impossible task to design, build and market a robot designed for a head-to-head competition against other schools.”

“In six weeks we went from a disorganized group of students who knew nothing about the process of designing and building, to a team that worked together towards a common goal, he continues. I learned to listen, that there are many ways to solve a problem, to work with and appreciate people who are really different than me, to communicate one-on-one and in front of a group, and, most of all, to think creatively. I learned that engineering is exciting and fun.”

These are just the words that many area business leaders and educators want to hear.

“BEST brings a sports-like intensity to the academic competition,” says George Blanks, BEST co-director, and director of K-12 Engineering Outreach for the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. “It is a perfect collaboration, bringing industry sponsors together with educators and real-world engineers and scientists to allow students to experience the excitement that characterizes engineering, science and technology. BEST works. It is no accident that the program has influenced well over 100 students from high schools around the state to enroll in engineering, science, and math disciplines at Auburn over the past six years.”

Briggs & Stratton’s Auburn Operations, which has been a strong supporter of the program for the past six years, is challenging other industries in the area to get involved with BEST. They received funding from the Briggs & Stratton Foundation, based in Wauwatosa, Wisc., to provide a source of supplemental funding to six area schools — Chambers Academy, Chambers County Career Technology Center, Beulah High School, Smiths Station High School, Loachapoka High School and Sanford Middle School.

“All teams start the competition with the same sponsor-provided box of electronics and general supplies,” says Mary Lou Ewald, BEST co-director and director of outreach for the College of Sciences and Mathematics at Auburn. These grants are designed to help these rural schools with the extra expenses, such as a coach’s stipend for the advisor and for travel to and from the competition, and tools and equipment. The goal is to bring schools with limited resources on board and to help them get the program up and running, and be successful.”

The Alabama Cooperative Extension Service is also joining the effort, reaching out through its 4-H program to attract schools to the BEST program and to encourage area industries to sponsor the program and provide mentors.

“Our goal is to work together to unleash the power of this program along the I-85 corridor,” says Smith. “George and Mary Lou have in six years laid a firm foundation for the program. Our goal is to enlist the help of industry to bring it to as many area schools as possible.”

BEST Robotics Inc. (BRI) is a non-profit, volunteer organization based in Dallas. Started in 1993 with 14 competing schools and 221 students, today BEST has more than 700 middle and high schools and 10,000 students participating each fall. Auburn University is home to the South’s BEST regional competition, where the best teams from 12 local competition hubs in 10 states east of the Mississippi gather for a final weekend of competition.

(Contributed by Sara Borchik.)

Contact: Cheryl Cobb, 334-844-2220 ( cobbche@auburn.edu)or
Mike Clardy, 334-844-9999 ( clardch@auburn.edu)