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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Robot-building program encourages interest in engineering

"Alarm bells ringing and red lights flashing were our first clue something was wrong."

tradition of high-intensity science fiction, a written scenario from the Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology (BEST) program asks middle- and high-school students to imagine they are engineers at a nuclear power plant who must use a robot they've built to help shut down runaway reactors.

BEST is a nationwide program in which teams of students make robots that compete against each other to solve a problem, said Sheila Horan, the New Mexico State University associate professor of electrical engineering who is coordinating the game in New Mexico this year.

Students from 16 New Mexico schools and two from El Paso will be at Las Cruces' Mesilla Valley Mall from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, to test drive their robots on a 12-by-48-foot playing field on which the robots must deposit "fuel rods" from "nuclear reactors" into "Multi-tube Containment Vessels."

On Saturday, Oct. 20, the teams will gather at Sierra Middle School for a competition to decide who will go to a regional competition at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Horan, who first heard about BEST at an American Society of Engineering Education convention and who brought the program to New Mexico, attended her first BEST competition last year when she accompanied a team from Zia Middle School to Lubbock, Texas, where teams from 40 Texas schools competed at a local high school.

"It was really exciting to see kids rooting and shouting for a science competition just like it was a football game. Some teams even brought cheerleaders," said Anna Suggs, a Zia Middle School teacher who also made the trip.

But BEST is more than just a game, Horan said. Although they are given some of the components, the students design their own robots and, at the competitions, prizes are given for "Creative Design," "Most Robust," "Most Elegant," and "Most Photogenic," as well as first, second, third and fourth places.

Teams are encouraged to think of the robot building as a product development process, similar to that at an engineering firm, with concept exploration, design, production, integration and testing phases, she said.

Steve Marum, a circuit design engineer with the Sherman, Texas, computer company Texas Instruments, who developed BEST in 1994 with fellow TI engineer Ted Mahler, said he knows of BEST student participants who eventually came to work for Texas Instruments.

"I think the program is mutually beneficial. It introduces kids to the challenges of engineering and, in the long term, it gives us at Texas Instruments more engineers to hire," he said.

"This is the perfect challenge to give a group of students," said Robert Quintana, a science teacher at Vista Middle School. "It's really enhanced our science and technology club. The whole process of designing something from scratch, building it, testing it and providing documentation about it is new and exciting for them."

Participating schools are Las Cruces Catholic School-Holy Cross, Lynn Middle School, Mayfield High School, Mesilla Valley Christian School, Onate High School, Sierra Middle School, Vista Middle School, Zia Middle School, all of Las Cruces; Cobre High School, Bayard, N.M.; Deming High School, Deming, N.M.; Hagerman Middle School and Hagerman High School, Hagerman, N.M.; McCurdy High School, Espanola, N.M.; Ruidoso Middle School, Ruidoso, N.M.; Riverside High School and Ysleta High School, of El Paso.

[NOTE: Photo opportunities will be made available at the Oct. 13 mall event.]