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STEM students gear up for robot competition

Back Row:  Kaitlin Reither, Stephanie Krogen, Abbi Hesse, Cassidy Olson, Megan Walters, Gavin VanHecke, Gayle Thostenson, Erin Thostenson. Row 3:  Kailey Christlieb, Ashley Christlieb, Ben Ockert, Bryan King (white shirt). Row 2:  Olivia Gravel (pink scarf), Maria Slette (white shirt), Talia Dalzell, Tailor Rudolph, Mackenzie SteMarie, Brandon Smedshammer, Bryan Tassava. Front Row:  Jessica Qian, Nick Pfeifer, Tristan Hart, Matt Zent, Keegan Cronin, Rit Bezbaruah, Neeraj Advani. Not pictured:  Jorda...

By Tyler Shoberg

Holly Erickson's sixth- and seventh-grade STEM students busy themselves as they work together on a class project.

This is no ordinary assignment, however - these kids are building a robot.

Now, don't get the wrong idea. They're not constructing some "Lost in Space," arms flailing, hooky tin-can clunker. Their version is a bit more practical.

Erickson's class is competing in the Bison BEST challenge, hosted by the College of Engineering and Architecture at North Dakota State University.

BEST stands for "Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology." Each year, competitions occur throughout the country at locally organized "hub sites." According to Nancy Rossland, hub director for the Bison BEST competition, this is NDSU's third year as a hub site, and area interest in the competition has grown.

"When we first started, we had 16 teams competing," Rossland said. "Last year, we had 20 and now this year we have 25."

"Once (schools) drink the Kool-Aid, they'll continue to come back because it's that kind of program," she said. "It's addicting and it gets in your blood."

Though the robot gets the limelight - with winners placing first, second or third -the contest encompasses much more.

For example, Erickson's class is broken into separate groups, each working on a specific part of their overall project. One group is filming a YouTube video, another discusses design concepts for their display area. There also are fabricators, journal and oral presentation writers and "leaders of cheer."

"They didn't want to be called 'cheer leaders,'" Erickson quipped.

Each group's job has a critical impact on the entire package. The team with the most exceptional overall project will win the BEST award, which "encompasses all five categories: oral presentation, table display, spirit and sportsmanship, their written engineering notebook and robot performance," Rossland said.

"It's so real-world for these kids. It very much models the way industry works," she said.

As far as the robots, each must run an obstacle course, of sorts. The job of the robots has changed each year, and this year teams will try to satisfy or complete chemical reactions based on labeled objects on the field. Racquet balls, tennis balls, beach balls and soup cans will have specific chemical compositions. It's up to each team to control its robot and figure out which chemicals join together to make particular fuels.

"The theme of the game is based on alternative energy," Rossland said. "The storyline kind of centers around decreasing our dependence on foreign oil."

Rit Bevbaruah, a seventh grader in Erickson's class, is ready for the competition.

"I'm excited, but also nervous," he said. "Even if we don't win it's still ok, because we've had so much fun doing it."

Asked if there was one team the STEM students really wanted to beat, Bevbaruah grinned.

"The West Fargo High School team, for sure" he said. "They're going to be tough."

Free and open to the public, the games are being held at the Fargo Civic Center in the main arena. An opening ceremony kicks things off at 8:30 a.m., with robot matches running most of the day. An award ceremony culminates the event.

Anyone who attends can look forward to an entertaining day.

"It's really hard to describe the atmosphere in words. You'll be overwhelmed, because it's like a sporting event, but it's not a basketball or volleyball match," Rossland said. "Kids are cheering for robots and engineering."

For more information, visit the Bison BEST challenge Web site at and to check out the West Fargo STEM team's progress, go to