By Emily Williams
A team made up of students from Mountain Brook’s elementary, junior high and high schools are gearing up to show off their engineering skills in a national competition for the first time.
The Mountain Brook team will make its debut at the 2014 Blazer BEST Robotics Competition sponsored by the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Engineering and held at Bartow Arena Oct. 4.
The competition serves as the local-hub portion of a national competition supported by BEST Robotics, Inc., a nonprofit organization aimed at providing children with the opportunity to solve real-world engineering and scientific problems through their own cognitive skills.
Participation is open to any public, private or home-schooled group, and each team participates at no cost.
In the BEST competition, teams have a six-week period to design, build and market a robot that will perform specific tasks on a playing field in three minutes. Points are awarded on task completion.
The winners of the Blazer BEST Competition will move on to the regional competition at Auburn University.
Mountain Brook Junior High Career Tech teacher James Salvant is the team’s mentor.
“The vision is for this BEST competition to become a community-backed competition. That’s why it’s heavy with parent involvement and heavy on including all of the schools,” he said.
Not only are parents involved in the competition, but the team was started by Mountain Brook mom Jenny Nunnelley.
“When I started it, it was because my sixth-grader had been asking me to help him find a robotics club for two years. I couldn’t find one. So we found this competition at UAB and started with a group of his buddies who also wanted a robotics club,” Nunnelley said. “Once Mr. Salvant came on board, he was able to advertise it through the junior high and the high school.”
The team is made up of 32 students who meet three or four days a week. And the number of students on the team grows every day, Nunnelley said.
“There is always somebody new,” she said. “Most students have other activities going on, so we get a different group at every meeting.”
The team leader, Mountain Brook Junior High ninth-grader Russell Weas, said a regular meeting begins with an explanation of the project, as there are new additions to the team every day.
There is a place for every student who wants to join the team, Nunnelley said.
“We have an engineering group and a marketing group,” she said. “Under the engineering group you’ll have kids that are working on the robot or working on the practice field. In the marketing group I have some kids working on logo design, some that are working on the booth and some who are fundraising.”
Funding from UAB provides all competition groups with the materials needed to construct their robots, but the teams are responsible for raising money to construct the booths used to display their products, Weas said.
“The more money you have, the better your booth is,” he said.
Those who are more interested in fundraising, as opposed to engineering, are given the opportunity to gain their own professional skills.
“The marketing team is going to go to stores and solicit. There are $50, $100 and $500 donations,” he said.
The team will display donor names in its booth and on the side of the actual robot, depending on the amount donated.
In addition to marketing and constructing the robot, the team will put together an engineering book documenting every step in their process to both construct the robot and market it to the community to raise funds.
Weas described the book as a way to “show your design, documentation of original designs and what went wrong with them. Then you do documentation on other stuff. You have drawings of your booth and explain fundraising.”
As for the skill involved in preparing an engineering book, “It’s a very high level of speech. To me, it looks like a college report,” Nunnelley said. “They are teaching themselves industry-standard software for programming, and they are having to learn how to draw CAD (computer-aided) designs. They’re not using watered-down versions at all. They are using things that they could actually put on a resume someday.”
Weas, who taught himself how to use engineering code during his summer vacation, said these CAD designs are “the same thing that Mercedes uses when they are making their cars.”
Not only are the students learning industry-level engineering skills, they are doing it themselves.
Salvant said his job as mentor is not to be the boss.
“I’m really the guy on the side. It’s a student-focused, student-run competition. I will never be one to tell them what to do,” he said.
Nunnelley said it has been rewarding for her to watch the students collaborate and learn.
Weas said the students are hoping that no matter how they perform at the competition, they will walk away with some new knowledge.
“I hope that we learn how to solve problems while working together as a team and how to move on from our failures,” he said.
And win or lose, parents said just having the BEST team entering the competition is a success.
“I haven’t seen my son as excited about anything, probably, in his whole life,” said team parent Kathy Shows. “To have an outlet for kids who aren’t into sports–to have that outlet for recognition and affirmation–is huge. There aren’t many things that offer the same result.”
The Mountain Brook BEST team, as well as BEST teams from other Over the Mountain schools, will give a preview of its robot at the competition-sponsored Mall Day Sept. 21 at the Riverchase Galleria.
For more information on Mall Day and the Blazer BEST Robotics Competition, visit www.uab.edu/engineering.