BEST Offers Level Playing Field for Minorities & Girls to Explore Robotics & STEM

Last year we brought you a story about FLATE’s partnership with BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science
and Technology) robotics, and kick-off of the program at Hillsborough Community College and the School District of Hillsborough County (SDHC). It’s been almost a year since the program started with several SDHC schools adopting the program, and participating in local and regional BEST competitions. A defining element of BEST robotics has not only been the curriculum, but its accessibility to minorities and students from all economic and ethnic backgrounds.

Jim Brockman, teacher and BEST robotics mentor at Strawberry Crest High School says BEST offers a level playing field as it gives all teams the same materials. The competition is based on student ingenuity. As an educator Brockman believes “robotics is as essential as any subject that is taught in school” and is important for all kids, regardless of their ethnicity/economic background to be involved in it.  

Mike Wilson, Industrial Technology Education teacher at McLane Middle School agrees with Brockman. He says “girls in particular and minorities are underrepresented in the engineering fields.” Additionally, Wilson notes “if you want engineers in the future, programs need to be well funded” too. In that respect, the way BEST is set up at SDHC is that there is no cost, besides time, to be involved in the program. The three year BEST grant has made a huge difference in funding the program, and has enabled more students to be involved with robotics and STEM subjects. Since the launch of the program a year ago, several middle and high schools have adopted the program, and participated in local/regional BEST competitions.

Of note is McLane Middle School’s “All Girls” team of eight students (five from McLane and three from other regional high schools). Jeanelle Balbwin, junior at Middleton High School who serves as the team captain says the BEST robotics program is a way for middle and high school students to be engaged in industrial robotics, and get preview of the kinds of educational and career opportunities that are available to them in the future. What attracts Balbwin and her team mate, Kayla Shepherd from McLane Middle School, to BEST is the team component coupled with business acumen and leadership skills.

“One of the biggest events that got us involved and interested in BEST robotics competition was our visit to the HCC-Brandon campus manufacturing lab in October and getting the opportunity to use the CAD” said Wilson. During the visit students designed and built gears for the robot. “The access to that lab really opened up the door for our students to consider engineering as a possible educational venue.”

Strawberry Crest High School (SCHS) known for its academic strength and Plant City High School (PCHS)
which has a largely Hispanic population are some other schools that have hopped into the BEST bandwagon. SCHS currently has 13 students enrolled in the program; while PCHS has 12 in the BEST program. Both schools have made significant headway in winning accolades at local and regional competitions. “It’s a new experience for everyone, but we have learned a lot in the first year” said Brockman. He believes the program is highly beneficial as it integrates a greater degree of manufacturing component, and applauds BEST in offering students “a more authentic learning experience that cannot be replicated in a classroom.”

Given the enthusiasm from students and teachers alike, teams at all schools have won many accolades. In April 2013, McLane Middle School participated in the BEST competition held at HCC in Brandon. They won first place in the robot division, and second place for BEST and sportsmanship at the robotics competition held at Leonard High School. Outside of its involvement with BEST, the Vibots from McLane competed in the 2013 Robofest world championship, and were winners of the VEX Robotics World Championship STEM Educate award in 2011. It also stood third at the world championships two years in a row, and multi-competes with high schools each year. Given several wins, the “all girls” team from McLane Middle School is on its way to building a stronger STEM community in the future.

In 2013, SCHS BEST team competed in the regional/Tampa BEST competition where they stood first in
marketing and in designing engineering notebook. This allowed them to advance to the regional level where they placed third under the video presentation category, and had a variety of top 10 finishes in other categories. They also competed in South’s BEST, and will be competing in Robofest in 2014. “Our most exciting victory was winning the BEST award at our local competition, and having the opportunity to move on to the southern region competition for BEST at Auburn University” said Jessica Alzamora and Brian Do, current team members and seniors at SCHS.

The PCHS BEST team also surged ahead in the past year. At the BEST Robotics competition they stood second place overall, and won Best Website design, Most Robust, Best Robot design, and Best Interview. “Many don’t see the ‘when am I going to use this’ unless they have hands-on experience” said Artemio Perez, PCHS BEST coach. Perez hopes participation in BEST will help students learn the applications of science (physics in particular) in many fields of studies.

For more information on BEST, or upcoming robotics workshops contact Ken Fiallos at ken@tampabay.rr.com, or visit www.floridaroboticsalliance.org. For information on FLATE’s robotics program and upcoming summer camps for middle and high school students contact Dr. Marilyn Barger, executive director of FLATE at barger@fl-ate.org, or visit www.fl-ate.org and www.madeinflorida.org.