By STEVEN NALLEY
On the weekend of Dec. 1, two different Starkville School District robotics teams faced competition from miles away, and both returned with awards.
The Millsaps Career and Technology Center's BEST Robotics team took high honors at the regional South's BEST competition in Auburn, Ala., and Armstrong Middle School's two FIRST Lego League teams did the same at the state level in Hattiesburg.
Denise Adair, one of the Millsaps team's faculty coaches, said her team placed eighth out of 42 teams in the Overall BEST Award ranking, which not only evaluates the team's robot, but also the team's work as a mock corporation marketing the robot. One element of this marketing is a display booth, and in that category, she said Millsaps took second place.
"We are the only team that finished in the top 10 that has not had 10 (or more) years of (experience) competing in the regional competition," Adair said. "It is unheard of for a second-year team — and a first-year regional team — to finish in the top 10. Also, the second in booth construction award is the first award ever to be won by the Mississippi BEST Hub. It means so much to the kids to have done so well as a second-year team and a first-year team at regionals."
Adair said the strength of Millsaps' team caught other BEST program leaders by surprise, including one who nicknamed a Millsaps team leader “Mississippi.”
"There was a veteran team who consistently wins at regional (competitions) who asked Eric Heiselt, our hub director, 'Hey, “Mississippi,” where did that team come from?'" Adair said.
BEST robotics competitions use a different theme with different goals each year, and this year's robots are model space elevators designed to carry cargo up a wooden pole to a receptacle at the top. Adair said the team's strategy was to build a robot primarily designed to carry one of many available types of cargo to the top consistently, and while other teams may have been able to score more by carrying more cargo types, the Millsaps' students' strategy worked just as planned.
"They executed this perfectly every round," Adair said. "The competition was really fun for all the kids. I think our goal for next year is to advance to regional and do many things the same. We are going to have to plan on scoring more points in robotics next year, which means learning even more about robotic arms and robotic mobility, depending on the challenge."
Denise Adair's son Marshall Adair, a freshman at Starkville High School who served as the team's robotics coordinator, said seeing other teams in action was an opportunity to learn from them about robotics. He said he saw such innovations as rotating and telescoping robotic arms, and he and other team members photographed and drew models of these creations to learn from them.
"(We were) basically learning how to build things we had never thought about," Adair said. "I think we'll use that knowledge to our complete advantage (next year)."
Nick Kolbet, CEO of the team's mock company "Elevation Nation," is a senior at SHS this year. He said he it fills him with pride to know the team's booth placed second.
"I'm kind of sad to have to leave this year," Kolbet said. "I think there's a lot of potential in times to come. I think they'll be making bigger waves."
Jackie Wilt, AMS Lego FIRST robotics coach, said neither of the two AMS teams who went to Hattiesburg will advance to the next level as in years past, but the teams did earn major awards. In light of the competition's "Senior Solutions" theme, she said, both teams were called "Senior Swag" while wearing different colors.
"The First Lego League is comprised of three parts centered around a central theme," Wilt said. "The first aspect is the robot mission game. Students are to build and program a robot to complete as many missions as possible in 2 1/2 minutes. The second part of the competition is where students research a real world problem that today's scientists are working on and create an innovative solution to that problem. The third part is core values ... a set of rules that FLL abides by."
This, year, Wilt said, the second category focused on engineering solutions to help senior citizens, and the green Senior Swag team received the research award for designing a portable, inflatable chair designed to replace chair lifts at a fraction of the cost. The orange team also received a "Why Didn't I Think of That?" award from judges for a wheel chair peripheral concept.
"Their design was to add an attachment to the wheels of a wheel chair that would lower in front of the chair and allow the chair to drive up a built-in ramp," Wilt said. "Their design was to help seniors be able to go over curves when no wheel chair ramps are available."
Wilt said the orange team also earned the second-highest amount of points in the robot mission game, with 295 points to the winner's 310. Finally, Wilt herself received the Mentor Award, which must be earned through recommendations by parents and coaches of other teams.
"It is given to the person who they feel has contributed greatly to the students and to the building of FLL," Wilt said. "I am honored to (have) received this award. It has been a joy to help my teams and give advice to new and beginning teams. I have been teaching for 13 years, and this program pushes students to think and use their minds more than any other program I have been involved in. I believe in this program and think it does an excellent job teaching real world skills, such as learning to work with other students."