The excitement was building to a fever pitch. The fans wore their school colors and yelled in unison with the cheerleaders. The bands beat out a foot stomping tempo that seemed to mirror the tension in the final moments of the competition. Surprisingly this was not an athletic contest but a meeting of junior engineers and software designers demonstrating their skills in building robots. Their machines had three minutes to perform their tasks and the stakes were high. The winners would advance to the state meet in December. All eyes were on the young men and women and their remarkable creations that had come to life to mimic human abilities.
The BEST robotics competition of San Antonio took place this past weekend with forty high schools and middle schools representing nearby cities and towns, some as far away as Laredo. The journey to the contest had begun many weeks ago when the students and their adult mentors received the details regarding the tasks which their robots must perform. With a minimum of materials the students went to work obtaining sponsors, building their machines, naming their companies, marketing their work, creating technical journals, designing team shirts, coding the software that would bring their robots to life, simplifying processes, creating displays and bonding in a spirit of team unity.
They burned the midnight oil and worked through weekends executing each of the phases of construction. Every member of the teams played an integral part in the many aspects of the project. Their robots would have to be as capable as farming machinery. They would pick corn, corral pigs, operate valves, harvest tomatoes and lettuce. For each task that they succeeded in performing points would accrue. It may have sounded easy on paper but in reality it took hours of trial and error, all of which had to be faithfully recorded in a scientific notebook filled with research, diagrams and technical explanations. In addition team members were responsible for being able to discuss every aspect of the work in interviews with the judges.
There was no consideration of age in the judging. The middle and high school students were alike in the expectations that they had to meet. It was David and Goliath as public, private and magnet high schools along with a few middle schools vied to be named the best of BEST, an organization dedicated to boosting engineering, science and technology. Each team had eight rounds in which to demonstrate their excellence in designing a robot capable of preforming each of the movements.
Early on one of the schools stood head and shoulders above the rest. The United Engineering and Technology Magnet High School from Laredo had a machine that was a thing of beauty. It maneuvered with ease and the points quickly mounted making the team virtually unstoppable. It was quite a story given that the students hail from a city beset with problems and most of them are economically disadvantaged minorities. All day long their outstanding abilities demonstrated the power of providing young people with opportunities to move beyond the limitations of poverty. Their design was brilliant and they had developed strategies for building points that had not occurred to any other team. In addition, they had brought a huge contingent of students, parents and teachers who cheered them with pride. Nobody was surprised when they took home multiple trophies and scholarships including the top prize of the day. They literally modeled the methods and spirit of winners who are bound to become tomorrow’s leaders.
The stunning victory of the event came in the form of a group of students from Smithson Valley Middle School who resembled children beside the other competitors. They had taken their work quite seriously, learning the computer language needed to program their robot only a few weeks ago. They had met after school and on weekends with their teacher and a number of parents who guided them but essentially left them on their own to either succeed or fail. They were an earnest lot who somehow didn’t seem to understand that they were not supposed to be in the same ranks with the more experienced high school students. Somehow they closed the gap and managed to be the second place team which allows them to move to the state meet along with five other high school groups. The key to their stunning win lay in their scientific research and the professional journal that three of the young women created to chronicle the journey that the team had made from the first day when they began to learn how to create a machine that would ultimately come to life. They also had achieved a commanding lead during the interviews intended to determine how much they really understood about the processes that they had used. It became fully apparent in those meetings that these were young students who had done all of the thinking and the work on their own.
I love that there are events in which young people are just as excited about academic pursuits as sports. We don’t often give enough credit to those who quietly invent the thoughts, processes, and materials that make our world better. We hold pep rallies for our heroes of the gridiron but often ignore the students who pioneer new ways of thinking in medicine, chemistry, physics. We forget to salute the extraordinary writers, actors, dancers and artists. It is not often that we encourage the historian or the child with a penchant for politics. We should be enthusiastically honoring each of the talents that we humans possess, not just the ones that have been the traditional focus of glory. Ours would be a wonderful world indeed if we were to eliminate derogatory terms like nerds, jocks, geeks, dumb blondes and such. Showcasing each student’s skills is a step in the right direction and hosting an event like the BEST robotics competition gets us just a bit closer to the perfection that we hope we may one day achieve. It is in these kinds of practical applications of knowledge that the most powerful learning takes place. We would do well to include more capstone projects and real life adventures in our curriculum. Our youngsters will no doubt surprise us when we do.