If you walked into the Fargo Civic Center on the weekend of December 4 -6, you would have seen a very interesting sight. Robots flooding the main arena on a bizarre looking stage of foam, windmills, and primary colors. Highschoolers running around in business suits, yellow mo-hawks, or tie-dye shirts. Stands filled with observers, participants, and interested bystanders, making as much noise as possible with whistles, hand-clappers, trumpets, voices.
Welcome to the BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) Robotics competition regional championships 2014, hosted by North Dakota State University for the 3rd year in a row
BEST Robotics is a 20 year old organization with 21,000 students participating at 46 local competition sites in 19 states. The competition held in Fargo was the regional championships for North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Canada. Teams of middle school and high school students braved long hours on buses, cars, and more buses to get to Fargo and show off their robots, competing for the title of BEST robot in the region.
Every year in September, teams made up of anywhere from 4 to 40 students come together with the purpose of creating a robot. And every year the mission for the robot is different.
This year, the mission was to create a robot that could effectively transport and assemble three blades onto a wind turbine – all while driving over rough terrain and avoiding “prairie chickens ” (represented by small cylindrical objects).
Six weeks in advance, each of the 37 teams were sent an identical package of equipment and parts along with a set of game rules. Six weeks to build a robot, most team members agreed, is not a long time.
“One of the coolest things is brainstorming ideas,” said Bailey Carlson, a former BEST robotics competitor and now a freshman at NDSU volunteering at the event. “You have constraints, and there’s an infinite number of ways to do it, basically. You’ve got to think about the best way, while hearing other people’s ideas and all that, putting it all together and coming up with a robot – and the fact that you do it in six weeks, it’s kinda like, we did this. Look what we created.”
Teams are graded for a variety of things; the robot’s appearance, the speed and efficiency in which it gets the job done, as well as the team marketing presentations, team website, team YouTube video, team mascot, and team spirit (a.k.a, who can be the loudest).
The teams used materials like plywood and PVC pipes to build their robots, among other things. Although the robots were created to accomplish the same task, each one had a clearly unique look and design. Some of the robots were named by the teams, like Barnesville High School’s robot Hector – named to represent their mascot, the Trojans. Here’s just a few of the robots seen at the competition:
They might not look like Apple products, but these robots are certainly effective. The audience watched as team after team sent forth two members forward to compete on the course in front of the judges.
Of course, every time a team stepped up to the plate, the other members of the team would burst into applause from the stands, cheering, waving flags, and making all the noise they could muster.
The announcer gives the countdown, and the robots are off – whirring and buzzing over the ridged terrain, avoiding the prairie chickens, picking up and transporting the wind turbine blades, and slowly maneuvering them into the turbine itself. As soon as the blades are in place, the team member without the controls manually hoists the wind turbine upright – usually drawing even more cheers from the stands.
After all the teams had competed, in the late afternoon of Saturday December 4, the final winners were announced. Members from each team gathered at the front of the stage and rose to receive their award each time their name was called. Every team name was met with whoops and hollers from their school. But no team had as eruptive of a response as Cornerstone Prep school from Grove City, Pennsylvania, when they were awarded the highest-ranked award in the competition – the BEST Team award (most points in all categories.)
The entire team, made up of over 40 people, jumped from the stands, entirely clad in tie-dye shirts, and ran to their ecstatic team members as they accepted the trophy. For a few minutes, the entire stadium floor seemed a flood of rainbow tie-dye, as the school members lifted the trophy high, some in joyous tears and some with victorious grins.
Afterwards, when asked how it felt to take home the win, team member Don Porcari immediately quoted Vince Lombardi, reciting word for word:
“I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”
Other team members recounted the weeks of hard work and long nights they had put into this, noting that perhaps the biggest lesson they learned was the importance of teamwork.
“One thing I know we do best is just stick together,” said Ally Arvay, who did team marketing and plans to pursue a marketing degree in college next year. “Even if someone is struggling we lift them up and we cheer for them. Teamwork is something that is one of my favorite things about this competition.”
If she wasn’t graduating, Arvay said she would absolutely do the competition again, and other graduating seniors agreed.
According to the BEST website, the whole point of having an intensive robotics competition like this (and why NDSU has agreed to host it year after year) is to inspire students to pursue careers in engineering, science, technology and mathematics.
“A lot of people who start doing this aren’t into robotics,” said Carlson. “But by the time you get to the first or second competition, it becomes an interest. It’s more appealing after you’ve seen it and been a part of it.”
As a former competitor himself, Carlson said this program had the biggest influence on his decision to major in Mechanical Engineering at NDSU.
Carlson is not the only one. Multiple students who competed in this years competition stated that they had plans to continue their education in fields similar to mechanical engineering, inspired by their team roles in the BEST competitions.
“National average of graduates going into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers according to BEST is 25%,” said Cindi McCall, director of Cornerstone Prep. “At our school the average is over 50%. So it’s fabulously successful. A lot of people change from this competition.”
As for the out of state perception of Fargo, the usual response was to be expected: it’s cold. (Although not as cold as last year, teams said.) However, team members could be seen traipsing around downtown all weekend, enjoying Teaberry, King House Buffet, admiring the lights and commending the North Dakota hospitality.
McCall recalled a time a few years ago when a storm had prevented them from leaving on time. Instead of charging extra, she said, NDSU was happy to accommodate the snowed-in students by finding space for them at local hotels and ensuring they had food to eat. This, McCall said, left a lasting impression for which they are very thankful.
Both she and the rest of the students look forward to next year’s regional championships for the BEST robotics competition. In fact, for a lot of students, it might be the highlight of 2015.
As one Cornerstone student put it, “It’s what we look forward to every year.”
Learn more about the BEST robotics competition here.
All photos taken by Marisa Jackels.