AUBURN – The tune “If the House is a Rockin'” by Stevie Ray Vaughan could have been the theme song for Saturday’s South’s BEST Regional Robotics Championship.
“When I walked in, I thought that maybe I was in the wrong place,” said Myra Hicks, eighth grade teacher at Admiral Morrer Middle School in Eufaula, Ala. “I’m a coach and this sounded like a sporting event. To see this level of student engagement with an academic competition gets me very excited. ”
Saturday’s event was the largest ever with 61 teams from schools in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Tennessee competing for the right to advance to the BEST national championship to be held in April at the ESPN Zone Complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando. The teams were winners of 13 local hub competitions. South’s BEST is one of three regional BEST competitions.
“When I first heard about BEST I thought it would be just a bunch of nerds playing with toys,” said eighth grader and lead mechanical engineer for C.C.A. Baldi Middle School in Philadelphia. “I was so wrong. This is real world problem solving and project management, and it is fun. I’ve learned about all aspects of engineering and learned to work with some very different people.”
This combination of hands-on-learning and excitement explains the strong support that this program receives from educators and industry.
“BEST is a grass roots volunteer-based program whose focus is providing students with a window into the exciting world of science, math and engineering with the goal of inspiring them to pursue careers in these fields,” said George Blanks, director of K-12 outreach for Auburn University’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and executive director of BEST Robotics, whose national headquarters is at Auburn. “This year 4,500 volunteers worked to serve 12,500 students from 850 schools.”
Vicie Larken, assistant superintendant of the Dallas County school system, was one of 53 educators from 33 Alabama schools in 13 counties who attended South’s BEST as an observer in advance of starting a program in their counties. “I saw student engagement at the highest level with collaboration and scholarship. I also saw parents and community and business leaders engage at the highest level. It is clear that this program benefits students, as well as the community that supports it.”
Chester Vrocher, director of workforce development and community affairs for BoisePaper in Jackson, Ala. and BEST volunteer and advocate, could not agree more. “Industry across the U.S. is having a hard time finding qualified job candidates,” he says. “It is critical that we engage students early, keep them in school and give them the tools they need to be successful in the workplace, whether or not they are college bound. BEST is helping us do that.”
When they arrived at Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, students were greeted with four game floors and a stunning backdrop designed by Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction. This year’s set was constructed from recyclable materials including 24,000 plastic bottles and 12,000 cans pulled from the trash after Auburn football games. It represented more than 1,300 student hours of work. An army of volunteers from industry and education joined Auburn faculty, staff and students to provide the manpower to make Saturday’s event happen.
“I am a senior and this is my fourth time at South’s,” said Jennifer Harrison, a senior at Wetumpka High School who hopes to attend college in forestry or environmental science. “I have learned so much — from working with people, setting up a business model and small company, and understanding how a skill can be used in a variety of ways on a project, to learning how to talk in front of a group. Our advisor and mentors have been a big part in making this happen and opening a door to a world that I would not have seen otherwise.”
Tennessee schools took top honors in the robotics competition and included first place winner Merrol Hyde Magnet School from Hendersonville, second place winner Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro and third place winner DART from Burns. Alabama schools lead the BEST Competition with Decatur’s DARC taking first place and Oak Mountain High School from Birmingham second, followed by Wetumpka High School in third. Runners up Central High School from Philadelphia and Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis will also advance to the national competition.
“We are excited that eight teams from six hubs will represent South’s BEST in Orlando next April. We are so proud of what these students have accomplished and are confident they will be excellent representatives of South’s at the national championship,” said Mary Lou Ewald, director of outreach for Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics and co-director of South’s BEST.
To learn more about South’s BEST co-hosted by Auburn University’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and College of Sciences and Mathematics, log on to www.southsBEST.org or contact Blanks at (334) 844-5759.