Teenagers throughout the Tennessee Valley are challenging themselves in more mechanical ways than shooting a ball through a hoop or scoring touchdowns.
They put their creative, mechanical and math skills to the test to see who can build the best robot to conquer challenges in organized competition.
More importantly, these students are in a competition that's preparing them for college and beyond.
Robotics teams have been growing in popularity during the past decade. Now almost every high school — and many middle schools — fields a team.
Most robotics team participants are like Decatur High senior Carrie Hill, chief executive officer this year of the Decatur-Austin Robotics Coalition.
"I really love science and technology," Hill said. "And robotics gave me a great chance to do some really cool stuff."
Robotics teams provide students like Brewer High's Jacob Treakle a chance to get involved, make friends and unleash their competitive side.
"It's really great to get out of the house and at least do something useful," said Treakle, team captain of the Morgan County robotics team.
The proof they enjoy the robotics teams is in their commitment. Teams often work four evenings a week. They add weekends to the schedule as the big competitions approach.
The 27-member Morgan County team is in competition mode now. It is preparing for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition that starts Wednesday in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
With expenses reaching $20,000 each year, FIRST is one of the most expensive and more difficult robotics team competitions.
The most popular area competition is BEST (Boosting Engineering Science and Technology). Held in the fall, BEST is popular locally because it's less expensive. Competition organizers provide most of the robot parts.
Most robotic competitions include the same elements. Adult mentors from various engineering areas teach and guide students in the building of a robot.
Morgan County coach Tim Sharp said his team has mentors from military research and development, mechanical engineering, machining, electrical engineering and computer technology.
Brewer sophomore Gunter Chenoweth said this is a great help as he figures out college major. He is sure it will be a form of engineering.
"It's just great experience," Chenoweth said.
The Decatur-Austin Robotics Coalition completed its team competitions in the fall, and Hill said it prepared her to attend Auburn University next fall. She plans to major in civil engineering.
As DARC lead programmer for two years, Hill said, she learned various computer code and programming languages.
"I really learned how to manage an engineering project," Hill said. "Robotics taught me how to troubleshoot problems."
Brewer sophomore Jordan Ratliff said the deadline pressure of preparing for competition should help when he is working on a project in his chosen career of mechanical design and drafting.
Building a robot for a competition isn't the only part of BEST and FIRST. Both include a marketing and display component that engages the less-mechanically-inclined students.
"The students learn to promote the team through creating posters and flyers," Sharp said. "They have to talk to the media and the school board. They have to seek out sponsors to help fund the team."
Bayne Hughes can be reached at 256-340-2432 or email@example.com.
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