Engineers are in high demand locally, and no one knows that better than Paul George.
George, the director of career services in the School of Engineering, talks regularly with local employers about their needs. The first thing they mention is the need for more engineers in the pipeline.
“Engineering employers — large and small — are telling us many of their engineers are 55 and older and they’re retiring,” George says. “They need more engineers. My message to them always is if you want engineers in the pipeline, we have to start in the sixth and seventh grade. We don’t have the luxury of hoping that as high-school seniors they have an epiphany and decide to come here. It can often be too late at that point for them to prepare properly.”
|Spain Park High School students go over last-minute details prior to the Blazer B.E.S.T. Robotics competition at Bartow Arena.
UAB has a new means to engage and excite younger students in the field of engineering and start growing that pipeline thanks to a new community outreach program known as Boosting Engineering, Science & Technology — or B.E.S.T. The campus hosted its first Blazer B.E.S.T. competition earlier this month to a near-packed house at Bartow Arena. Students from 21 area junior and senior high schools competed in the competition in which they had to build a robot from raw scrap materials that could be used to assemble an airplane.
More than 110 UAB volunteers, including students, faculty and staff from Engineering, Computer & Information Sciences, Media Relations, the School of Business and Communications aided in running the event, which George described as having a “rock concert-type atmosphere.”
“And this was not a one-shot deal,” says Engineering Dean Linda Lucas, Ph.D. “We are already thinking about year two.”
UAB is new addition
UAB was selected as Alabama’s fourth local hub to host the event by B.E.S.T. Robotics Inc., a non-profit, volunteer organization based in Dallas, Texas. B.E.S.T. started in 1993 with 14 competing schools and 221 students. Today, B.E.S.T. has almost 600 middle and high schools with approximately 10,000 students participating nationally each fall.
Five winners from the local hubs advance to regional competition. This year’s overall Blazer B.E.S.T. winner was Home-wood Middle School.
Any middle or high school can compete in the competition at no cost. Local hubs, like UAB, and area corporations provide the financial support and resources to enable schools to participate.
“The cornerstone of the B.E.S.T. program is that any school that wants to participate can,” George says. “The responsibility to raise the money and buy the components rests with the local hub, so we had to find the funding to do it. This year the School of Engineering funded a vast majority of what we did. We had to buy the robotics components. Those components came from everywhere from Lowe’s to McMaster Car to bicycle parts warehouses. It’s an amazing and eclectic mix of stuff – anything from plywood to PVC pipe to old communion cups. It’s nothing that snaps together in any form or fashion. It’s raw materials.”
UAB will continue to provide those kits to any school that wants to participate in the coming years. The kits were more than $300 each this year.
“The first year financially for a hub is the most expensive because of the returnables — things like the motors and controllers — but we have those now and don’t have to buy them every year,” George says. “We had some in-kind services and donations to help us a little bit this year, but the SOE was the chief financial provider. Next year we really will be reaching out to the community in a more structured fashion.”
How it works
B.E.S.T. features two parallel competitions. The first is a robotics game, this year based upon the theme of “Just Plane Crazy,” with four teams competing at once in a series of three-minute, round-robin matches. Teams accumulate points for their performance in each round.
The second competition is for the B.E.S.T. Award, which is presented to the team that best embodies the concept of boosting engineering, science and technology. Elements include a project engineering notebook, oral presentation, table display and spirit and sportsmanship. The B.E.S.T. Award competition is optional for schools.
“The competition is not just the robot on the field; it’s a comprehensive look at the engineering process,” George says. “Each team must present an engineering notebook. The students have to understand the brainstorming and trial and error that exists in building something new.”
Schools find out the theme of the game and get their materials six weeks prior to competition. Those that opt to compete for the B.E.S.T. award are particularly challenged due to the short time frame, but George says the students are undeterred.
“Some of their table displays actually turn into walk-in exhibits like you would see at major trade shows,” he says. “They’ll design a T-shirt and a Web site.
“The key to the whole thing is structure. Teams like Hoover, they had 65 to 85 people on their team and not every one of them can be involved in driving the robot. So you’ve got teams that are like marketing teams, and presentation teams and notebook teams. They really begin to understand project management. They come to understand the organizational structure needed to take something from an idea all the way through to a product. It’s tremendous work-force development. This is how we can engage these young people and get them into engineering.”
Inspiring the next generation of engineers
The B.E.S.T. program is the only engineering competition in the country offered to middle and high schools at no cost. George said several current Engineering students were excited to learn that UAB was hosting the event.
“A number of our students talked with us and said they wanted to help because they came from a high school that did B.E.S.T. Robotics and that they were in engineering because of it,” George says. “B.E.S.T. is beginning to track the metrics on the success of this program in driving young people into science and technology disciplines. Anecdotally, I can tell you it does.”
The competition empowers the younger students, which is a key reason for that success, according to Lucas. The students are engrossed in the project for six weeks, detailing every roadblock and success. And after the competition they then take their project on the road to local schools to show off their work and, hopefully, build excitement.
“When they go to other elementary and middle schools and show their excitement over building these robots and doing all these activities with it, it spreads the enthusiasm for engineering and science to the kids below them,” Lucas says. “What better way to inspire the next generation than to hear it from other young people.”