Writer: Linda Fresques
Middle- and high-school teams from throughout the state and El Paso gathered last weekend for the NM BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) Robotics competition at New Mexico State University. There’s no doubt that all 450 plus of them had fun at the raucous event. Whether they know it or not, they are learning skills that could someday lead to rewarding career fields.
Hosted by the New Mexico State University’s Engineering New Mexico Resource Network, the BEST competition exposes middle- and high-school students to concepts involved in engineering and technology through a robotics design challenge. Each year, student teams receive a kit of parts and electronics to design and build remote-controlled robots to accomplish a specific task. In six weeks, the teams design and build prototypes, stage mock competitions, prepare marketing presentations, maintain an engineering notebook, and compete against each other, with top teams advancing to regional playoffs and the championship competition.
“BEST Robotics is one of the few robotics competitions in the country that takes students through the entire engineering design process,” said Associate Dean of Outreach Patricia A. Sullivan. “While the theme of each game changes annually, the experience is one that mirrors real-world engineering projects. The students learn project management, engineering design, marketing, prototype development using hand-tools, as well as leadership and communication skills.”
This year’s game focused on food production. Titled Bet the Farm, the competition challenged the teams to modernize operations for a fictitious family farming operation. They were required to design and prototype a robot to harvest crops and herd animals while also taking into consideration water usage and new farming methods. The competition exposed students to real-world issues impacting agricultural production, giving participants an opportunity to apply their knowledge to an industry that is sometimes overlooked in terms of advancements in technology.
Last year’s competition, called Pay Dirt, focused on robotic applications in the mining industry. Teams were challenged to build a robot capable of repairing a mine and retrieving valuable commodities within. Robots were required to collect items of varying size and weight. Student teams were introduced to emerging applications for robotics within the mining industry to extract geological materials from the earth. Students also were tasked with considering the impact that their robot design would have on the environment, and were required to consider major safety concerns.
“We are fortunate that over the past two years, the BEST Robotics competitions have been applicable to New Mexico’s economy,” said Sullivan. “Bringing relevance to our STEM outreach efforts is important as we continue to build a workforce that is able to support the state’s diverse economy.”
This year’s game is particularly relevant as agriculture continues to be a major contributor to the state’s economy. NMSU Cooperative Extension Service estimates that agriculture and food processing combined, accounted for $10.6 billion (roughly 12.3 percent) of New Mexico’s $86.5 billion gross state product in 2012. In addition, the two industries directly created 32,578 jobs and 18,308 jobs in related support activities for 50,886 jobs statewide.
“Given the thin profit margins in agriculture, farmers and ranchers are always looking for new technologies to improve efficiencies,” said New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte. “Producers have adopted technologies like laser leveling, drip irrigation, sensor technology and satellite imaging – all of which contribute to efficiencies in agricultural production. This year, BEST Robotics program put an A in the STEM by emphasizing applications to agriculture. The future of food production depends on new and improved technologies and these children are going to be the ones leading the way. Their projects were very impressive and their excitement for the future was second to none.”
Winners of the 2016 Bet the Farm competition include the Rio Rancho Homeschool collaborative, Chaparral Middle School, Alamogordo High School, Canutillo High School and El Dorado High School from El Paso. The winning teams will advance to regional competition in Dallas in early December.
NM BEST has been hosted by the College of Engineering for the past 15 years, with many participants going on to pursue engineering and other STEM-related fields at universities across the state. The program is offered at no cost to participating schools due to financial support provided by Calculex, Inc., The Boeing Corporation, the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, TRAX International, El Paso Electric Company, Jacobs Technology and Farm Credit of New Mexico.