The members of Spain Park High School’s robotics team are ready to put their skills to the test at competition.
Emily Broome can say she’s a CEO. So can Caelan March and Anastasia Zellner. Zachary El-Fallah is right there with them as outreach lead. They take their jobs seriously, and they work diligently to guide their team to success. And they’re all still teenagers, inching their way toward high school graduation with backpacks full of books and futures full of promise.
To clarify, these Spain Park students don’t work for a corporation. Yet. But give Emily, Caelan, Anastasia, Zachary and the 25 other students they work with on the school’s BEST (Boosting Engineering Science & Technology) robotics team more time, and they could find themselves leading powerful companies someday.
If their preparations for robotics competitions are any indication, the students lack no intelligence, creativity or finesse while using tools and materials more likely to be found at a construction site than in a classroom. On a Monday afternoon in mid-October, the sounds of power drills driving screws into wood merely signaled the start of another after-school session in which the students worked on their project and presentation for the North Alabama BEST robotics competition at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville on Oct. 25 and Oct. 26. Spain Park was among 16 teams from around the Birmingham and Cullman area to compete.
Teams had six weeks to build a robot from scratch and organize a presentation for the robot as if it were a marketable product for a real company. This year’s overall competition theme is ocean protection and conservation. The SPHS team dubbed themselves “Spain Park Ocean Conservations.”
“It has elements of a robotics competition, as well as presenting yourself as a company with a marketing angle mixed in there,” Emily says of the BEST competition. “Our product is our robot that helps remove trash from the ocean. All of the teams around the state and country have that same game theme.”
The game as defined by BEST Robotics consists of a new educational theme or challenge and field each year. The playing field is typically a 24-foot-by-24-foot configuration, and four teams compete in three-minute matches, earning points for completing tasks in the allotted time. Teams must use only materials specified in the BEST packets in their robots. Using the wrong types of materials, even something as small as a screw, could count against a team in a competition.
The freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors who make up the Spain Park’s team bring a variety of skills, ideas and interests to the table, resulting in a well-rounded team. Emily, a senior and the team’s overall CEO this year, got involved with the team as a freshman after hearing teachers and students talk about it. “I would show up and kind of plug in wherever they needed a pair of hands or a brain,” she says. “Everyone was really friendly and let me connect well as a freshman. From there, I was able to learn more about the robot, about the technical aspects. It’s all come together. There’s really something for everybody on the team.”
For Caelan, a senior, robotics is a subject he was familiar with as a child thanks to his neighbor, SPHS engineering teacher Scottie Wilson. He just didn’t have enough time in his schedule to get involved with the team until this year. “I enjoy building things, and it’s nice to apply the subjects we learn in science and math classes to something real-world in high school,” he says. “You can’t say that about other clubs.”
As the team’s engineering CEO, Caelan helps build, design and program the robots. He also enjoys mechanicals and learning how things fit together. He’d like to work for a car company like Mercedes, he says.
Anastasia, a senior and the team’s marketing CEO, was drawn to robotics in the sixth grade, when she found out the theme that year was related to creating a space elevator. “I have wanted to work for NASA since I was 5 years old. That was an integral part of me joining BEST that first year,” she says. “I’m also a creative person. I like art and drama, and there aren’t often opportunities for me to express myself in engineering.”
Fashioning prototypical products “that could help real people” is also a perk of the robotics team. “I think it’s just great being able to pass on to other people what’s been so important to me for so many years,” she says.
Zachary, also a senior, has been involved with BEST Robotics since the sixth grade, with the exception of his freshman year at Spain Park. Highlights for him include interacting with and watching other teams at competitions.
Sophomore Paul Detloff and junior Nace Allen work with the marketing team. “It’s challenging, but it has to do with math and science, and I really like those subjects,” Paul says. “My friends are in it, and it’s preparing me for my senior year in engineering academy.”
And on this particular afternoon, ninth-grader Adam Harkins was excited to be working toward his first BEST competition on the SPHS team. “I’m a little nervous, but I think it will be a really good experience for me to learn,” he says.
The competition had two areas: the robotics competition and the BEST competition. The robotics competition was comprised of a student-built robot riding along a 2-by-4-foot current that was secured with a rope on one end and a carabiner on the other, elevated 5 feet off the ground and spanning 10 feet. The robot had three minutes to traverse the current and collect ocean garbage along the way. The BEST competition was comprised of Spirit & Sportsmanship, Robot Performance, Formal Interview, Informal Marketing Exhibit and Interview and Engineering Notebook categories.
Spain Park’s robotics team took home first place in the Engineering Notebook category (with EJ Moses and Lauryn Kortman scoring a perfect score in that category. The Engineering Notebook is a 63-page document that recorded the team’s design progress throughout the six-week period), second place in the robotics competition and first place in the BEST competition.
Emily was this year’s overall CEO, with Anastasia over the BEST portion and Caelan over the robotics portion. Robot drivers were: Ben Hartwiger, Eric Wang, Chase Thomas, Justin Zhang, Mohammed Khan, Zac Shaw and Jack Hudson. SPHS will compete at the South’s BEST Robotics competition in Auburn on Dec. 1-2, along with 60 other teams from around the Southeast. It will be another chance for the SPHS team to showcase their skills on a large stage.