Mississippi State University’s Bagley College of Engineering hosted its regional BEST Robotics Competition on Saturday at the Humphrey Coliseum. The day-long event lasted from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and hosted over 500 students, who were a part of 17 teams from Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama. The competition combined the excitement of an intense basketball game with the engineering challenges of a technical science fair. A slew of family members and students cheered as the teams rotated their matches.
BEST, which stands for Boosting Engineering Science & Technology, helps to interest students in STEM fields through participation in a sports-like technology contest. The contest challenged them to build a remote-controlled robot that could accomplish defined tasks in a competitive setting. This year’s theme was “Off the Grid”, asking the students to create and submit a prototype to repair an electric grid after a disaster. The simulated tasks included clearing debris, re-attaching power lines and installing transformers. Students had six weeks to create a robot that could outperform the competition using only the materials provided.
School coaches and mentors guided student teams through the engineering process, including design and testing. During the engineering phase, the student teams had to experience the obstacles that come with taking a product to market. The challenges of team dynamics, material constraints and the pressure of time led to unique solutions that separated each team. The weeks of technological effort culminated into this year’s BEST competition.
Christopher Hawkins, MSU's assistant director for the Center for Student Activities, hosted the event. He led the announcements, setup and countdown for each match. Along with the commentary, Hawkins engaged with the crowd, mascots and the DJ of the event.
“This event was full of energy,” Hawkins said. “Everything was pretty well-organized and the crowd is extremely active and enthusiastic. I like the comradery because it’s great to see young people build these robots and compete in competition. The Bagley department has continued to host this event for so many years and it’s a great opportunity to work with K-12 students. I would love to continue to be a part of it in the future.”
At the end of the placement round of 26 matches, Hawkins and a group of volunteers judged a mascot dance competition. A series of four songs led to the Warriors of Corinth City Schools taking the top prize, with Eagle Homeschool taking second place.
Following the placement phase was a wildcard match that had to be redone due to an error in score collection. Eight teams then moved to the semi-finals, all culminating in a three-round final for the highest-scoring teams. The final four schools included Starkville High School, Starkville Christian Home Educators, Corinth City Schools and McNairy Central High School.
The event then moved into the awards ceremony, in which Starkville schools took home numerous placement awards. Starkville Christian School took home second in Best Web Page Design and the Founders Design award. Starkville High School won the Most Robust award, first place in Best Robot Performance and the first place BEST Award.
Ty Adair, a Starkville High School teacher and the Robotics Team assistant coach, shared his enthusiasm for BEST.
“This is a life-changing program,” Adair said. “I’ve been a teacher for 24 years and it’s a privilege to watch kids learn to love engineering and STEM fields. It just brings out so much, whether they take home a trophy or not. They learn the design process, how to overcome adversity and it can lead to scholarships.”
Adair went on to discuss the growing diversity that can be found in this type of program.
“We really push for girls. The group can seem like an intimidating boys club and we fight that,” Adair said.
However, Adair said students have to earn their place on the team.
“Our A-team consists of an 11th grader and sixth grader. They worked on the robot, they’re calm and they were in the finals. It isn’t just about inclusivity. It’s about winning competitions,” Adair said.
Vemitra White is the director for K-12 Educational Outreach in the Bagley College of Engineering at MSU. With her team of volunteers, she worked to set up the event and the competition floor.
“We are proud to be inspiring the leaders of tomorrow and preparing them for STEM fields," White said. "We had a great turnout. Coaches prepared with six weeks of long hours and hard work.”
This event served as White's final time working at MSU’s BEST competition, and after 4 ½ years of work at the Bagley College of Engineering, she is taking an assistant professor position for Texas State University and will be stationed at NASA in Huntsville. Her farewell address was an emotional affair that was met with a standing ovation and supportive remarks from her volunteer staff.