Below is our recent interview with Michael Steiner, Executive Director at BEST Robotics Inc.:
Q: Michael, what is BEST Robotics?
A: BEST is a national nonprofit (skills training academy) that is proud of its history of delivering free STEM skills training programs through robotics competitions to middle and high school students across the country for the last 30 years. The BEST Robotics mission is to make STEM education accessible and inclusive and engage and excite students about engineering, science, and technology, ultimately inspiring them to pursue higher education and career opportunities in these fields.
Through the competition, students learn about time management, conflict resolution, teamwork and more. The BEST Robotics competition isn’t about having the best robot, but rather seeing all the robots created by a group of creative, innovative minds. The possibilities are limitless. The friendships formed last for years. Later in life, when entering the job force, hiring managers often note the abilities students developed during their time competing in BEST Robotics. Not only is teamwork required, but innovation is allowed to thrive.
The idea for a BEST competition originated in 1993 when two Texas Instruments (TI) engineers, Ted Mahler and Steve Marum, were serving as guides for Engineering Day at their company. and they watched a video of freshmen building a robot at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The high school students were so interested that Ted and Steve said, “Why don’t we do this?” With enthusiastic approval from TI management, North Texas BEST was born. The first competition was held in 1993 with 14 schools and 221 students.
Q: Any highlights on your recent announcement?
A: It is an exciting time at BEST, in 2022 we are celebrating our 30th Season and have added new challenges to the game to challenge our students. We are working with our partner, Mathworks, to enable students to use Simulink to code and operate their robots and are also offering a new math challenge starting in the Spring of 2023. More details on this challenge will be announced later in the season.
Our students are awe inspiring and we are always impressed by the persistence of this generation of students to keep innovating and discover the boundaries of their skills and capabilities. For example, we introduced sensors for our students back in 2019, and although it is challenging to code and implement them within a robot or for autonomous tasks, students love the challenge. I believe they understand the sensors and the technology surrounding them are a way for them to gain access to the autonomous industry and they are eager for the opportunity to play with this technology. We worked with our Texas Instruments partner to add autonomous driving sensors to our games and were not surprised when they ‘ate the sensors for breakfast’ and immediately began coding and operating the sensors as if they had always been using them. Our students are always looking for ways to test unchartered territories in technology.
Q: Can you give us more insights into your offering?
A: BEST Robotics offers an exciting mix of multifaceted tasks and challenges to our students. We do not limit ourselves to the topics of science, technology, engineering and math alone, instead we understand these skills are best honed in parallel with what others may consider soft skills, such as the ability to communicate, persuade, be resilient in the face of failure and/or taking responsibility.
We seek to grow students’ creativity. Students don’t truly compete against others; they compete against themselves. We teach the ability to adapt their skills, thinking and attitudes to flexibly solve problems. We strive to teach creative thinking that can then be applied to whatever field students chose to pursue. Our challenges include aspects of software, hardware, marketing, math, engineering and design, but also, teamwork, system mobilization, communication, web design, software design and video production to name a few.
Another unique aspect is that our students participate in BEST on behalf of their schools free of charge. We strive to make this program accessible to every student we can, despite socioeconomic constraints that might otherwise hinder participation.
Finally, we help prepare students for the realities of the future workforce. Our students are required to cover an extensive range of complex tasks and challenges within a six-week time frame, not just a few simple tasks. We treat them like a real workplace would, as autonomous individuals tasked to work together as a team on ambiguous problems with no one right answer. We challenge them to solve problems using their creativity and ability to innovate.
Q: What can we expect from your company in the next six months? What are your plans?
A: One positive outcome of the COVID pandemic has been the addition of an Online BEST competition to our program offerings. With remote participation, we enable teams of students to participate from anywhere with their mentors.
We plan to implement this Online option as an ongoing permanent option – this anywhere and everywhere approach allows teams to conduct their STEM project-based-learning work in a diverse range of venues: from a student’s home, to a traditional school classroom, a local library, or a YMCA, teams can choose a venue that meets their needs.
The online option also allows teams across the country or in locations across the world to participate on behalf of their schools without the limitations of distance.
Q: What is the best thing about your company that people might not know about?
A: Many people make the mistake of thinking that BEST Robotics is just a robotics competition, but in fact many consider it a family and find a connectedness in the creative environment we create they cannot find elsewhere. We like to think that we allow creativity to thrive by allowing students to make mistakes they can learn from and removing the constraints traditional classrooms impose on them. BEST is not just a STEM program because it teaches life skills and soft skills. Our students don’t have to go into the engineering fields to be a success, the skills they learn are transferrable to any field they chose to pursue. BEST is a life-long lessons program, it goes way beyond a robotics program. Robots may be the product we create, the competition is our venue, but students don’t compete against each other, they truly compete against themselves. They learn co-operative creativity – a way to approach problems and find solutions within a creative environment they help to shape. After training tens of thousands of students, we know that talent is within everyone, and everyone should be a part of the BEST future.
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A six-grade student Aubree Evans from DuBois, PA leading her Penn State University BEST team to victory because she shows such talent in the Autonomous sensors test. Her team and partner are all in a state of awe.
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Students coding the sensors on multiple screens.
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A crowd at Penn State University BEST Robotics competition.