Demopolis, Ala., students in the BEST Robotics Program inspect their robot between rounds of competition.
How can you come up with an idea that’s out-of-the-box just by using what’s in the box? That’s exactly the question middle and high school students in Demopolis, Ala., must answer each fall in order to compete in the BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) robotics program against more than 800 schools nationwide.
At the beginning of the semester, 30 Demopolis Middle and High School students receive a box full of seemingly random materials. Their mission: To design, build and market a robot with these items around the year’s chosen theme in only six weeks.
Past projects have included robots that have to pick up minerals for a mining challenge and move air like a windmill. But the students don’t navigate these challenges alone. They get the help of local volunteers who have years of engineering expertise.
Chris Stewart and Jimmy Lee, process control engineers at Georgia-Pacific’s Naheola mill in Pennington, Ala., stepped up three years ago to lend a hand when the local schools started a BEST robotics program. Since then, Chris and Jimmy have dedicated hundreds of hours working closely with the students, providing guidance and mentorship. They also ensure the students have everything they need to turn their idea into a reality, including providing students with their personal tools in addition to those supplied by the Naheola mill.
With the help of Chris and Jimmy, the program has grown tremendously. Not only has the Demopolis team gone to the regional level of competition each year, but the students have also increased their critical thinking abilities, leadership and technical knowledge. They also benefit from learning from professionals with real-world experience.
Ashley Brock, a teacher at Demopolis Middle School and sponsor of the robotics team, has seen the benefits of students working with robotics. “Students perform better in STEM classes and gain valuable experience by working with mentors who are in the profession they want to pursue,” she explains. “Several students want a STEM career because of their participation on the robotics team.”
Initiatives like BEST and National Robotics Week do more than expose students to engineering. They help kids imagine possibilities they had never thought were conceivable.
“This robotics program helps break down the barriers to STEM jobs,” Chris says. “It is so rewarding to get to be a part of that and coach them in a field they might not have considered.”
Chris Stewart and Jimmy Lee, process control engineers at Georgia-Pacific’s Naheola mill in Pennington, Ala., have volunteered hundreds of hours with local students and inspired them to consider STEM careers.