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‘Brilliant’ students engage in BEST robotics event

story and photos by Michael Tilley
mtilley@thecitywire.com

They were loud, energetic, quick to break out in a dance move, intense and young, but also, as John Martini noted, “brilliant.”

They were the 35 teams of students who gathered Friday and Saturday in Fort Smith to compete in the Frontier Trails BEST Robotics Championship. The event, held at the Fort Smith Convention Center and sponsored by the city of Fort Smith and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, brought several hundred – if not more than a thousand – students, teachers, family members and coordinators to the area.

Teams were from Northwest Arkansas, the Fort Smith area central Arkansas and as far away as Colorado.

BEST is a non-profit, volunteer-based organization whose mission is to inspire students to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology through participation in sports-like, science and engineering-based competitions.

BEST competitions have been held nationwide, beginning in Texas in 1994. UAFS has been participating since 2003, according to Martini, who is the director of the Frontier Trails competition and an associate professor at UAFS. Student teams design and build a robot which operates on a wireless network and is capable of completing a specific task. The teams are given kits and have six weeks to prepare for the first competition.

The 2012 game theme was to mimic the operation of a space elevator to deliver cargo and materials to a space station. According to the Frontier Trails literature, the U.S. government “needs unmanned robotic lifting vehicles for routine cargo delivery, as well as additional Space Station expansion and construction.”

To “apply” for the federal contract, the BEST teams had to build a machine that would perform several tasks, including moving waste cargo, transporting light cargo balls from the cargo ship to a cargo bin on Earth, installing solar panels on the space station and installing a habitation station.

Teams were judged on the ability of their robotic machine, on the quality of a notebook that documented their process to build the robot and perform the tasks, and spirit and sportsmanship.

Sometimes the spirit was hard to maintain.

“Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” said Brandon Malone, an advanced manufacturing professor at Arkansas Northeast College, who was the instructor for a robotics team from the Blytheville, Ark., area.

“But, we had a good time. ... It’s a good experience,” he quickly added.

Some teams brought more than just a robot. The Sedalia Smith-Cotton team from Sedalia, Mo., showed off an impressive mobile and robotic t-shirt shooter with a Gatling-gun style barrel.

“We take it to football games, baseball games, pretty much everywhere,” said Nick Wagenknesht, a member of the Sedalia team.

Before the Sunday afternoon final matches began, Martini said the event was going well.

“It’s been very, very exciting. We’ve had some high-scoring teams, much higher than in past years,” Martini explained. “I’ve also seen great team cooperation and sportsmanship among the teams. ... They are just a brilliant group of kids.”

Winner of the overall BEST award with the Wichita Homeschool team from Wichita, Kan. Metro Homeschool from the Kansas City area took second place and Circle High School from Towanda, Kan., received third place.

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In the robotics competition, first place went to Wichita Homeschool, second place to Metro Homeschool, and third place to Bentonville-based Ambassadors for Christ Academy.

Other event sponsors included Baldor Electric Co., Weldon Williams & Lick, Gerdau, The U.S. Air Force and Peterson Chemical Technology.

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