By Dennis Neal, RDECOMAugust 7, 2012
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Aug. 7, 2012) -- PVC pipe, screws, an irrigation valve cover, an aluminum paint grid and a bicycle inner tube. What do they have in common? They're all part of a kit to build a robot according to Lucas Hunter, a mechanical engineer with the U. S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center.
"This is my third year volunteering to work for the BEST competition," Hunter said. "BEST means Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology. It's a competition for middle and high school students that centers around robotics."
Hunter serves as AMRDEC's science and technology representative to the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga. He provides guidance, advice and support in the areas of missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.
BEST develops a new game each year with different themes such as chemistry or insects, Hunter said. Schools that field a team receive the kit free of charge. The student teams then complete the two elements of the competition.
"The first is the design, production and competition of a purpose-built robot," he said. "The second element involves research of the theme of the game, developing a trade show style display to convey what the team has learned about the theme, marketing, presentations, Web site design, T-shirt design and documentation of the team's overall engineering process.
"Students earn points for all elements and compete not only for the best robot, but the best overall package."
During his three years of volunteering Hunter says he has spent 40 to 60 hours per year, mostly on weekends, supporting the local and regional competition. As a volunteer, he provides technical support but has been surprised and even learned from the students.
"I didn't realize you could reshape PVC by heating it up with a teakettle," he said. "In one game, the teams had to collect plastic balls and sort them by color. Most teams made a scoop to gather the balls from a bin. One team took the one-quarter inch PVC pipe, heated it with steam from a teakettle, which made the PVC pliable.
"[They] formed an auger, which they could drop into the bin, spin and pull the balls to themselves," he said. "They were able to save a lot of time not having to traverse the field with loads of balls."
Hunter has enjoyed volunteering to work with the students and feels it is extremely important.
"Our nation is losing its competitive edge on the world market because we have lost our technological edge," he said. "We have a lot of brain power that is not being developed in our educational system, and a lot of wasted potential. As a business-minded engineer, I see a growth market emerging where the most technically minded elements of our society can flourish, as long as they are exposed at an early age to the possibilities."
Hunter feels the BEST competition helps provide that insight and the opportunity for those well-established in their career fields to work with the students, helping them see and reach their potential.
"If you don't till the soil, you can't grow good crops," he said. "It is incumbent upon all professionals to give back, just as those before us have given to help us get where we are. If I can help one student see his or her potential each year through spending a fraction of my time with BEST, it is worth it."