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Home-school robotics team aims for the top

September 2, 2012

Members of the SCHE Robotics team pose with the BEST Award at the 2011 Mississippi BEST (Boosting Engineering Science and Technology) competition. The competition not only has a first place award for the team with the robot that performs best, but also an overall BEST Award for a team that not only has a high-performing robot but also performs well in marketing, fundraising, team spirit and presentation, among other categories. (Submitted photo)

For Michael Lane, one of the hardest parts of building a home-school robotics team was finding a place for all the students to work on the robots.

Lane, director of the Starkville Christian Home Educators Robotics team, said the team was small enough to meet at his house when it first formed. In the five years since, he said, the team has long outgrown his home, swelling to 35 students this year.

"By the second year, we had grown to 22 students," Lane said. "Thankfully, the electrical and computer engineering department at Mississippi State University has graciously allowed us to meet in two of their classrooms."

The SCHE Robotics team has become a perennial winner at the Mississippi Boosting Engineering Science and Technology (BEST) competition hosted each year by MSU, and the team is gearing up to aim for the top again at this year's competition Oct. 27 at Starkville High School.

The competition will kick off Sept. 15 at Raspet Flight Laboratory, Lane said, giving the students six weeks to not only design and build a robot, but also create marketing material, build display booths, write oral presentations and spread word about the competition to the area.

Generally, there are two ways to advance from Mississippi BEST to a regional South's BEST competition at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., he said. First, a team can place in the top two in the actual competition among robots, he said, and second, a team can place in the top two for the BEST Award, which measures a team's performance in not only robotics, but all the team's other activities.

"SCHE has been blessed to have done well over the past four years," Lane said. "Last year, and three years ago, SCHE Robotics took first place for the BEST Award at Mississippi BEST.  Two years ago, we came in third place for the BEST Award. Currently, there isn't a national competition, so the regional competition is the final stop. The South's BEST regional hub has schools from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and teams from local hubs out of the New England area."

The types of robots BEST competitors build varies from year to year, Lane said, and the age range for members of SCHE Robotics is 9-18.

"Students have had to move Mars colony supplies (represented by bottles and boxes) from a landing site to the colony," Lane said. "They have had to make a robot that could assemble a small model airplane. This past year, the students had to make a robot that could recapture genetic bugs that had escaped from a lab."

The multifaceted nature of BEST has a side effect that shatters stereotypes about engineering: Lane said about half the SCHE Robotics team is female. Even factoring in the division between team members who actually build the robots and team members who perform other tasks, he said about a quarter of the builders are female.

One of the team members, 14-year-old Angelica Maiers, writes the lab journal for the team, and she said the responsibility has taught her communication skills she never envisioned herself having before. She said she is not a robot builder herself, but her sister was.

"My older sister was involved in it the first year that SCHE had a BEST robotics team," Maiers said. "When I went to the competitions with her, I saw what the robots had to do and the presentations the teams had to give, and it looked really interesting, so when I was older, I joined too. A lot of girls don't want to work with hammers and nails. A lot of them do ... but a lot of us want to work on something else. I think BEST Robotics gives everyone a chance to show their own talent."

2012 is the fourth year on the team for Maiers and for 16-year old Jessica Savage. Savage said she joined the team after several of her friends who had joined it recommended it, and it has taught her to work with people she wouldn't necessarily have worked with before. She said even those who do not build learn much about engineering by osmosis.

"You still gain a lot of the robot knowledge, but you're publicizing it," Savage said.

The leader of the team's public relations division is 15-year-old Ryan Jeffries, who said he discovered the team at an SCHE Kickoff and joined the team four years ago.

"Frankly, before I did robotics, I had never thought of going into any engineering field," Jeffries said. "Since then, I have seen all the different jobs it takes to create an engineering company. I've considered going into an engineering field such as engineering management since I joined."

Lane said his favorite part of working with SCHE Robotics students is seeing the different gifts each child has and showing the children how to make their gifts work together.

"Individually, (each student) may not view it as important, but each student's gift is vital to the team," Lane said. "Watching the students start the program, perhaps a little overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do in six weeks, keep coming back each year, and eventually moving into leadership roles that they told me they would never do when they started their first year is what makes it enjoyable."

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