School for children in need, Hope Academy, advances to South's BEST with their robot, The Green Machine.

By Candis Birchfield, College of Sciences and Mathematics

 

 

On Dec. 2 and 3, Auburn University hosted the 2011 South's BEST (Boosting Engineering Science and Technology) Robotics Championship at the Auburn Arena. This middle- and high-school, work-force development robotics competition engages students in engineering, science and technology, with the goal of inspiring them to pursue careers in these fields.

Through participation in this project-based program, students are required to design, build and market a robot that can perform required tasks on a specified playing field. Regional robotics competitions allowed the most exceptional teams to advance to South's BEST, where 50 middle- and high-school teams from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Tennessee competed against one another for top awards.

Included in this year's South's BEST competition was first-time participant Hope Academy with their robot, The Green Machine. Located on the 88-acre campus of The Presbyterian Home for Children in Talladega, Ala., Hope Academy is a SACS-accredited, first- through twelfth-grade school. Although the school opened in 1997, The Presbyterian Home for Children has provided services to kids in need since 1868. Originally founded as an orphanage, today it provides a wider range of services for children and their families, including the school, Hope Academy.

About half of the students who attend Hope Academy are referred there by the State of Alabama through the Department of Human Resources. These students are often victims of neglect, abuse, incarcerated parents, deceased parents or a disruptive home setting. Some students are privately placed by families who recognize the need for outside help with a child's behavioral or educational needs, such as learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Most of the students, when they arrive at Hope Academy, are behind their grade level in school, often by as much as two years.

Hope Academy provides these students what a traditional public school cannot: small class sizes and lots of personalized attention. Typically, there are a mere six to eight students per class, and a majority of the instructors at Hope Academy have master's degrees and are retirees from the state of Alabama's public school system.

"Working in a school like Hope Academy is an amazing experience. We take the students from wherever they are and get them to wherever they need to go to be successful. Why would any teacher not want to work here?" asked Hope Academy's Director of Education Linda Harris. "Because of the small class sizes and personalized attention that we offer, we can work with strengths and weaknesses of a student and in one year make two years of progress."

Small class sizes and personalized attention also attract some of the most gifted students in the school's region. The result is a school that is diverse, not only ethnically, but also academically. Furthermore, some of the students at Hope Academy are full-time residents, while others are day students only.

Since 1998, Harris has been responsible for designing and directing the educational program for Hope Academy's diverse needs and coordinating the educational program with social services, residential services and counseling services. Prior to her work at Hope Academy, Harris accumulated more than 35 years of experience in Alabama's education system, including extensive work with the Alabama State Department of Education. A mathematics teacher at heart, Harris said she believes participation in the BEST Robotics competition is the most fantastic educational opportunity she has ever experienced with students, and she has worked with every age group.

"Our students will tell you that our school is a family, they think of themselves as a family. They support each other and work together to help each other, which worked well for the BEST competition. The students stepped up to the challenge, and they are responsible for every single thing we brought to the South's BEST competition," Harris said. "They had the self-determination, discipline and drive to see it through, and we didn't lose a single student who originally signed up to take part in BEST. All of our students have given 110 percent, and the students who are not involved say they will participate next year."

Twenty-seven, eighth- through twelfth-grade students participated on the Hope Academy BEST Robotics team, representing 67 percent of students in this age group. The team at Hope Academy utilized a business concept to oversee the development of the various categories for the competition including spirit, engineering, assembly, design, marketing, exhibit, web design and robot. They gave their team a company name, Hope Environmental Protection Incorporated, and nominated two CEOs to oversee the development of the engineering and marketing aspects of the competition: Jacob Jackson was the CEO for engineering and Abbie Taylor was the CEO for marketing.

Additionally, two teachers from Hope Academy worked extensively with the BEST Robotics team, offering guidance and also stepping back to allow the students to have full control over the process. Diane Rogers, a seventh- through twelfth-grade mathematics teacher, served as teacher mentor for the engineering side of the program, while Sandra Hobbs, a seventh- through twelfth-grade English teacher, served as teacher mentor for the marketing aspects of the competition.

"This idea that you have formed a company, and you are not competing against each other but are working together to build the robot and have the same goal, is very different from what they experience in the classroom," said Rogers. "The students rose to the occasion, and the process of preparing for the competition provided them with a piece of what it's like to work in the real world."

The teacher mentors listed numerous skills participants gained that will serve them later in life as they look for jobs and begin their careers. For example, participation has taught them the importance of being able to work well within a group, how to dress at a presentation or job interview, how to budget, and how to problem solve and think outside the box. Students also gained invaluable knowledge on new and innovative technologies and benefited from the firsthand experience of industry leaders who were brought in as additional mentors.

"We spent a lot of time and energy in this competition, and what the students learned are skills that they will take with them for a lifetime," said Hobbs. "Everything from public speaking, the ability to brainstorm within a group and have a cooperative spirit, and the ability to have an idea and allow someone else to tweak your idea – the entire process of preparing for the BEST Robotics competition gives the students real-world lessons and experience. I have witnessed a lot of growth and I have seen a lot of bonding between and among our students that might not have occurred had it not been for this endeavor."

Participation in BEST Robotics even prompted a change in the curriculum at Hope Academy. Beginning in 2012, the school will offer a class in CAD drawing and a class in programming so that next year, as students once again participate in BEST Robotics, they will not experience such a large learning curve when designing and programming their robot. Administrators believe these skills will also benefit students as they make decisions about higher education and join the workforce.

Although this was the first year Hope Academy participated in the BEST Robotics competition, the team challenged many veteran schools, both at the local level and at the national level. They won numerous team awards at the Central Alabama BEST regional competition including: second place, BEST Award; first place, BEST Spirit and Sportsmanship Award; second place, Founders Award for Creative Design; second place, BEST T-Shirt Award; second place, Most Photogenic Robot; third place, Best Team Exhibit Design and Construction Award; third place, Project Engineering Notebook from Honda Manufacturing of Alabama; third place, Most Elegant Robot from Talladega Super Speedway and Motor Sports Hall of Fame; and third place, BEST Web Page Design.

It was because of their exceptional showing at the regional competition that Hope Academy was invited to South's BEST. Although they were newcomers to the competition, out of 50 teams present, Hope Academy advanced to the top 16, semi-final round of the robotics competition. Their robot, The Green Machine, narrowly missed securing a spot in the final round.

"This is our first time to participate and we really didn't have a clue as to what to expect," Harris said. "I am tremendously proud of our school for their participation this year, and now that we have been through the competition once and know what's involved, we can start working toward next year's competition."

For more information on Hope Academy, visit this link: http://www.phfc.org. For more information on the Hope Academy BEST Robotics team, visit the team website at www.hopebestrobotics.com.

Last Updated: Dec. 7, 2011

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