Seaside Neighborhood School receives top award at robotics competition By Wendy O. Dixon
Grouped into design teams of four, enthusiastic little engineers at the Seaside Neighborhood School tested each of their prototypes, showing their fellow students, as well as a group of grown-up engineers, their best work at building a robot that can transport supplies on a space elevator tower. It was all in preparation for an arduous competition with schools from all over the east coast.
Guided by engineer and mentor Dan Brubaker, technical advisor for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., the students learned how to best use their supplies and maximize safety. “Dan acted as a guide or supervisor as they built the robot,” Seaside Neighborhood School principal Kim Mixson explains. “He was really helpful in bringing their ideas to life.” Engineers from Brubaker’s unit then attended the trial presentation on the school’s campus.
While local engineers helped with the technical work, the students were also aided by Destin Toastmasters Club, a group of communication experts that helps people improve public speaking and leadership skills. Daniel Frankfurt, past president of the club, guided and assisted the students as they created their marketing presentation. “This is the second year Toastmasters has come in and worked with our students,” Mixson says. “They do a phenomenal job at helping give students confidence during their public speaking.”
When the final robot was designed and ready for competition, the students headed to Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., where they engaged in an academic competition with all the excitement of the Super Bowl — the South’s BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) program, a regional robotics competition for middle and high school students. South’s BEST took place Dec. 1 and 2 and included teams from Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. The Seaside Neighborhood School earned first place among middle school participants in the BEST Award category.
BEST Robotics is the third-largest educational robotics program in the nation and is the only one that is free to schools. The primary mission of the program is to inspire students to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology through participating in a sports-like, science and engineering-based robotics competition.
While the students are having fun building a robot, they’re also learning to solve real-world problems by incorporating the practical application of math and science, while including different areas of study. Managing all elements of the complex project, the students work as a group to raise funds, design, build, test and present their robot. The hope of program is that the students become technologically literate and thus better prepared to enter the workforce. The project also helps students develop leadership, project management, teamwork and organizational skills and develop confidence and competence.
Collecting donated items from the community and selling things through the Seaside yard sale, the students raised money to go toward the project. They then attended the first phase of competition at the University of West Florida in Pensacola for the kick off, where the eighth graders, this year’s leaders, were presented with the problem.
“This year, the students were tasked with building a robot that would take supplies in a space elevator from Earth to the midway station,” says Mixson. “Our robot had to ascend a 10-foot pole.”
All schools were given six weeks to solve the same problem. “There are many rules, so the first step is to learn the rules and go over the goals and have a needs assessment asking, ‘What does this robot need to do?’” Mixson adds. “They go over what kind of materials they need to use and create a Power Point presentation.”
The build team went through each idea and prioritized them, determining the best way to meet the criteria. “The robots have to have some kind of an arm,” Mixson says, recalling the brainstorming sessions the kids held. “They have to have a mechanism to get down the space elevator. You’ve got to be able to place a two-liter Coke bottle in a cup.”
Eighth grader Ale Brown, who served as builder, presenter and spotter, admitted to a few stomach butterflies during her oral presentation. But she and her teammates used their wits — and a little duct tape — to improvise their robot, scoring the BEST Middle School prize. “We had a little mishap,” Ale explains. “After our first round, we noticed our robot wasn’t getting as many points as the other robots so we decided to make some tubes using two liter bottles, which we cut off the top and bottom of, and put rubber bands inside with slits so they would act as hands so that our robot could grab so many balls. We could then hold up to three balls and earned more points.”
Nicholas Hundley, a seventh grader, enjoyed playing with his classmates during their downtime. “Going on the trip is a lot of fun, but you’ve got to watch out because there are teachers at every corner,” he laughs. Fun aside, bringing home the BEST Middle School award means a lot to the Seaside Neighborhood School students. “It’s a great honor, especially because we’re a middle school competing with high schoolers,” Nicholas says.
Eighth grader Andy Smartt, who was part of the build team and drive team, agrees. “It was really fun,” he says. “We had pretty good equipment to help us build it. We’re like one of the few middle schools going up against a bunch of high schools so it was really cool.”
The BEST Award is given to the team that most embodies the concept and spirit of the competition and is the highest achievement a team in the competition can accomplish. The winner is judged on a combination of project engineering notebook, marketing presentation, team exhibit and interview, and team spirit and sportsmanship. Seaside Neighborhood Middle School also won first place for their team video.
Seaside School, Inc., also known as Seaside Neighborhood School, opened its doors in 1996 as one of the first charter schools in Florida to 36 students, two faculty members, and one administrator. Seaside Neighborhood School currently has 136 students, 15 faculty and staff members, and two administrators.
Seaside is one of the top performing schools in the state of Florida, recognized at the national and state levels for its academic achievements.
All of the school’s students participated in the robotics project. “We always call this our Super Bowl,” says Mixson. “This is a small school, and everyone has a talent to lend to this project. So maybe you’re not a robot builder but you’re really good at art, so you’re in charge of posters. If you’re a good speaker you may be in charge of the oral presentation. We have students in charge of fundraising and community outreach. It’s a lot of fun, everyone enjoys going.”
To learn more about the South’s BEST, including a complete list of competition results, visit southsbest.org.
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