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Students “Bet the Farm” to be BEST in robotics competition

More than 375 local high school and middle school students designed, built and tested robots for the STEM-focused contest.

By Caroline Schomp

November 9, 2016

Students “Bet the Farm” to be BEST in robotics competition

Anxiety and enthusiasm ran high on Saturday, Oct. 15, as more than 375 high school and middle school students on 28 different teams battled in a robotics competition.

The teenagers had designed and built robots over six weeks in preparation for the Rocky Mountain BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) game. Now, they came together at Metropolitan State University of Denver to compete in the sixth annual event, dubbed “Bet the Farm.” The teams engaged in three-minute matches that required their robots to plant and harvest “vegetables,” corral “pigs” and turn water valves to earn points. 

The competition had all the electricity of an athletic competition with a crowd in the bleachers and announcers doing play-by-play as the robots engaged in four-team games until a final match among the top scorers. Judges and other manpower for Rocky Mountain BEST come entirely from volunteers, including MSU Denver professors and students, parents, and others who work to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and careers.

BEST competitions are free for all students, which levels the playing field and enables any school to participate. A teacher-mentor leads each team. According to the national BEST organization’s Director of Marketing and Communications Deb Moore Ellsworth, “One of the clear focuses is to make sure that every student has access and gets the benefit from one-on-one work with a mentor. It’s a 360-degree view of what kids will need when they hit the workplace.”

Besides creating the robots using identical bins full of parts supplied by Rocky Mountain BEST, every team had to provide an engineering notebook with a detailed description of its process. Notebooks were scored using the same standards students might encounter in the real world, and scores were considered in selecting award winners, including those for creative design, robust machine, software design and simulation, and craftsmanship. An overall BEST Award was given to a team that also built an exhibit and made a marketing presentation; nine teams competed for the top award.

A Denver School of Science and Technology-Cole (DSST-Cole) team member summed up the BEST Award competition: “You get to build a robot, sure, but you also get to show your creative side. There are options to do other things, and it’s good to see how people solve the problem.”

“It always surprises me, with the identical boxes that we give them, that the robots are completely different,” said Jose Lopez, executive director of Rocky Mountain BEST and an aviation and aerospace lecturer at MSU Denver. “I am amazed at the creativity.” 

Solving problems and improving their robots between matches were handled in a curtained-off “pit” area behind the contest floor. Each team had a table, and most were littered with tools, duct tape, bits of wire, screws and other essentials. As their matches came up the teams moved their robots to a “ready” table to be checked by judges. Then it was on to the next match-up.

The 24 by 24-foot game floor was divided into quadrants. Every robot was handled by a single driver and a spotter who watched for obstacles and advised on the best path to take for planting seeds (golf balls), harvesting ears of corn, heads of lettuce and tomatoes, delivering the vegetables to the appropriate bins or produce stands, turning a water valve, and corralling toy pigs into a pen. Teams – ranging in size from three to almost 50 – and anxious parents clustered behind the action to cheer on the competitors.

Each team’s teacher-mentor provided advice and expertise, but parents and teachers could not perform hands-on work. According to New Vista High School (Boulder) teacher-mentor Stephen Shepherd, performing any work “would be like me stepping up to bat for a kid.” He said his team worked three or four days a week after school and some nights.

Ron Livingston, the Wheat Ridge High School teacher-mentor, said he’s brought a team to the competition every year but the first in 2010. His nine-member team made it to the final four this year for the first time. He loves the job, and said it’s very intense. “Lots have never designed and built something, and it’s hard,” he said. “It’s a very valuable experience for kids because it’s hands-on application of what they learn in their math, science and engineering courses – an opportunity to explore the whole engineering design cycle and either confirm or refute the notion they might do this kind of work for a living.”

As its name implies, Rocky Mountain BEST’s main mission is to get kids excited about STEM careers. Several students proudly reported that they all intend to go to college (most in STEM subjects), and they will be the first in their families to do so. The students are as diverse as their ambitions. One team, the “Dragonotics” from DSST-Cole, had “Dragon” translated into the many languages spoken by its members and printed on their T-shirts.

At the end of the competition, Ralston Valley High School came away with the most points, followed by Denver Public Schools’ DSST-Byers and DSST-Stapleton, and Wheat Ridge High School.

The overall BEST Award also went to Ralston Valley. The Innovation Center of the St. Vrain Valley took second place and DSST-Byers took third. They, and Longmont’s Skyline High School, winner of the student-selected Sportsmanship Award, will go to the regional competition Dec. 2 and 3 in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The day ended eight hours after it began with exhaustion, elation, some disappointment, but some real satisfaction at having competed. As Chad Harris, Ph.D., associate dean in MSU Denver’s College of Professional Studies, put it, “Teamwork, problem solving, leadership. You can’t put a price tag on those qualities. They are what’s going to lead Colorado in the future.” 


Additional awards:

  • Creative Design (The Founders Award) – Ralston Valley High School
  • Most Robust Design – Thomas Jefferson High School (Denver)
  • Software Design and Simulation – Wheat Ridge High School
  • BEST Rookie Team (first-year participants) – St. Mary’s Academy Middle School
  • Craftsmanship – DSST-Byers (all middle school and freshman-level students)
  • Engineering Notebook (non-BEST Award team) – Wheat Ridge High School
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