By JAMES EVANS
Rutherford County Schools
When Alissa Whitney transferred to Thurman Francis Arts Academy a few years ago, she joined the robotics team to get to know other students and because her older sister was a member.
It didn’t take long for her to get hooked.
“I fell in love with it,” said Whitney, now an eighth-grader and president of the club. “I liked the camaraderie, I loved the atmosphere and I loved many of the people.”
The Thurman Francis robotics group is one of four student teams from Rutherford County competing this weekend at David Lipscomb University in Nashville as part of the BEST Robotics contest.
In addition to Thurman Francis, the others teams are from Stewarts Creek middle and high; Blackman Middle School; and a team from Central Magnet School and Discovery school. The winners will move onto the next round of competition, which will be held at Auburn University later this year.
The competition is known as BEST because it stands for Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology. It’s a national, six-week competition that is held at “hubs” around the country, according to the organization. Each team is given a kit of parts, guidelines and an annual theme.
This year’s theme requires teams to design a robot and program that helps protect the environment.
At Thurman Francis, the students’ robot is intended to help clean debris from the ocean, team member Garyn Darby said. The robot can move along a track and features an arm and claw mechanism that can lift items from the ocean, such as garbage.
The purpose of the competition covers much more than the building and programming of a robot.
The students have multiple teams completing different tasks as part of the competition. They are divided into teams in categories such as computer-aided drafting, engineering, programming, marketing, community relations, sponsorship, spirit, T-shirt, website and presentation. They must submit a portfolio that fully describes the program they’ve developed and complete a live presentation in front of a panel of judges.
They receive points to rate each component of the project and those points will be used to determine the winners.
For example, team member Sydney Risner is in charge of the website team.
“We are masquerading as a company, so it has to be about the robot and the project,” Risner said about the website component. “We are trying to solve the issue of ocean pollution and so the website has to reflect that we are trying to solve that problem.”
It was the different components of the project that intrigued Whitney when she first joined the group.
“I was rather fascinated with how the team works and how they came together with different projects to achieve one common goal,” Whitney said.
There are 37 students on the Thurman Francis team in grades 5-8, and a handful of adult volunteers who help mentor the students. They also allow “junior” members from lower grades to participate to help them garner an interest in STEM and to eventually join the competition team when they get older.
Teachers Rhonda Halimi and Nicole Stegner are the sponsors of the team. Halimi started the team nine years ago, she said, at the urging of her own child and a fellow teacher from another school who also led a robotics team.
“This has been the most cooperative group and the most on-task group that we’ve ever had,” Halimi said about this year’s Thurman Francis team. “This group is on it. They are so driven and they are in to what they are doing.”
Last year the team placed seventh overall in the competition and did not make it to the next level of competition, although they did earn a spot in a separate, invitational competition at Auburn University.
They have ambitious plans for this year’s competition.
“I come in to win,” Halimi said enthusiastically, explaining the team has been practicing almost every day after school for the past six weeks.
For those interested in attending the competition, it will be held at Lipscomb University in Nashville from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20, and results will be posted online.