Tuesday, October 30, 2007

BEST Robotics

BEST is a high school robotics competition founded in Sherman, Texas about 15 years ago by two engineers at Texas Instruments, Ted Mahler and Steve Marum. I happen to know both of these guys; they work with my mom and I competed in their contest for seven years. They’re two of the most awesome people you could ever meet. BEST is an acronym for Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology. It really was clever at the time the contest was founded; it comes from the era before we reached acronym saturation and they all just started sounding dumb. The name, though, is insignificant next to the fact that the contest is really awesome. BEST is now a national organization with three large state or multi-state competitions and dozens of local hub competitions. Unfortunately for the national organization, Ted and Steve have opted to go on running their smaller local contest, North Texas BEST. For seven years, though, that didn’t make any difference to me; I had always gotten to compete in the best hub, even if I didn’t know it yet.

In the BEST contests, teams from high schools within the hub’s local area gather every fall, usually in September, to see that season’s game. Each game is different; some past games involved picking up and moving rings of PVC pipe, flipping switches, grabbing balloons, or hanging bandanas on clothes lines. Some rules and the allowed building materials, however, say fairly similar: the machines are always restricted to be less than two feet long, wide, or tall, and less than 24 pounds, and the main materials are always PVC pipe, plywood, and 1x4. The teams always get four motors, three servos, and a four-channel transmitter to control it all.

The teams from Tom Bean were, at least for my first few years, never particularly good. Both the middle school and high school teams could score points my 6th grade year, but that was about it. It went downhill from there for the next four years. That was until we got a new math teacher and coach my sophomore year. She came from a school that had done fairly well in BEST in recent years, in no small part because she was willing to put lots of time and effort into the team. She did the same at Tom Bean, and from my freshman year to my sophomore year we went from scoring 0 points and finishing last to scoring lots of points and finishing 8th of 22. That was huge. More of the same the next year, when we moved up to 5th. My senior year, the odds would have seemed to be against us, as more than half of the team had graduated the previous spring. Regardless, though, I was really determined to at least have the best machine and best drivers ever for my final year in the contest. The game that year was the one about hanging bandanas. It was really fairly complicated; there were four quadrants of the field and a really tall center section in which to hang these bandanas. There were also neutral bandanas that could be taken down for additional points. There were also several ways to get bonus points, such as by both hanging and picking bandanas or by hanging in several quadrants. Getting these bonuses was our (read: my) strategy, although I had to fight like mad to convince the team that strategy could work. It felt really good later when Ted Mahler was quoted in the paper complementing us on knowing the rules and planning well. I also had to fight like mad to convince both the team and our coach that my extra simple design would work; everyone else wanted to actively grab bandanas, while I only wanted to poke them with a rubber stopper on a PVC pipe. My design worked flawlessly and I ended up winning, in no small part because I took the machine home and built some parts myself over two weekends. The key to making any machine work well is to drive it well, and that always takes practice. That was one of the big ideas our new coach brought to the team. So, we picked out three drivers after the Mall Day event a week before the competition and I basically pushed the three of us, myself included, of course, like professional athletes. We would be the best, that was just all there was to it.

It all worked perfectly. The machine, the drivers, all of it. NT BEST Game Day 2006 was one of the best days of my life. Everything just worked. I matched or beat my best scores in practice in all of our preliminary and semifinal matches. My little sister, Sara, and our other driver also performed magnificently. We were in first place by a considerable margin all throughout the day until the final round. The three of us all made the same, kind of mediocre score in the finals, so the end result was very close. With about 30 seconds left in the last match, my sister was driving and tied for first with another team. They really had an impressive, flashy machine. It had a really sophisticated, machine tooled mechanism for dropping lots of bandanas very precisely and quickly in one quadrant. That machine was very slow in moving around the field, though, and was not designed to get the bonus points like ours was. They adapted during the day and gave us a good run in the finals. With about five seconds left, though, Sara made one last score and added enough bonus points for the win.

That was, without exaggeration, one of the happiest moments of my life. We had won. I had won. My machine had won. I had used a design and strategy that no one, not even my own coach, had expected to even work. And I won. I showed them all. My “stopper on a stick”, as one of the other coaches mocked it later, had beaten them all. That particular coach built his team’s machine for them, which is a major sin in BEST, and I still beat them. I had also proven to myself in the most dramatic way possible that I could beat the odds through sheer force of will, power of intellect, and strength of character. No words, no number of exclamatory marks, no fancy formatting, can ever fully express how much this win meant to me.

That’s why I care enough about this contest to volunteer to help run Capitol BEST in Austin. I’ve carried hundreds of pounds of equipment and spent dozens of hours of my free time for the chance to work on the game field again, this time as a referee. It’s different, seeing the game from this side, but no less exciting. That will be the topic of my next post, coming soon.

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