Dallas BEST

Dallas Texas or “Big D” anchors the fourth largest metropolitan area in the United States. Dallas is known for its competitive environment from professional sports leagues to Friday night football. Competitive sports are not the only activities sponsored by the UIL (University Interscholastic League) in Texas. UIL sponsors competitions for high schools in everything from band competition to debate. In 1993, BEST (Boosting Engineering Science and Technology) Robotics held their first game “PVC Insanity” just north of the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex in Sherman, Texas.

Dallas BEST Robotics is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1996 and started with a demo in the Texas Instruments North Building of the 1995 game TOTALly AweSum. Over its 26-year history, Dallas BEST has had four hub directors and three hub co-directors. The current co-directors are Bill Rock and Joel Graber. Bill Rock has been with Dallas BEST since its inception and co-director for five years. He is a Texas BEST referee as well as lead developer of the 2002 game Warp X. Bill also helped develop the 2012 game Warp XX and has been a member of the national game design team since 2019. Co-director Joel Graber began as a team mentor for his daughter’s high school team with the 2006 game Laundry Quandary; he joined the core team the following year and has built game demonstration robots for several seasons. He was the lead designer of the 2012 Warp XX Space Elevator game.

Dallas BEST typically hosts 22-28 teams per year. These teams are made up of a very diverse group of students that come from middle, high, charter, and private schools as well as home school organizations.  Dallas’ teams are from both urban and rural communities and some teams travel as far as two hours away to compete in the hub each year. Jon Spangler is the school interface and venue coordinator in charge of recruiting teams for the hub. Jon stated that “generally half of the teams compete in UIL, and we have several teams each year move on to the UIL State Championship and Texas BEST State Championship.” “At most, about 20% of the teams are from middle schools and the rest are high school students” says Mary Helmick, hub financial manager and pit boss extraordinaire. Dallas BEST tries to host their hub competition in nearby colleges to expose students to the opportunity and atmosphere of a college campus. 

Sponsorship and volunteers are an important part of any nonprofit organization, and that includes Dallas BEST. Their primary sponsorship, funding, and main sources of volunteers have been Texas Instruments and Raytheon. Dallas BEST boasts some very talented volunteers filling key positions. Alison Brown is the volunteer coordinator and scorekeeping wrangler; Cissy St John is the Consumable Kit Maven and Timothy Chung and Kristen Graber help with returnable kits. Elisa Miller is Head Judge; Stephen Wynne does field construction and transport, and he also referees at Dallas and Texas BEST. Ann Balaban does event coordination and setup. Elisa Miller mentioned that “[Ann Balaban] certainly got her and a lot of others from the professional organization the Society for Technical Communication (STC) involved [with Dallas BEST] primarily in judging the engineering notebooks.” The hub has had many outstanding volunteers and teachers helping the program over the years. They recognize Pete Lohstreter, who was an outstanding BEST supporter at the Hockaday School for many years; by naming the Outstanding Teacher Award in his honor. Another exceptional long-time judge, Gary Suder always volunteered whenever anyone needed help.

There is a lot of sharing of resources between the hubs in the metroplex area. Bill Rock often supports Collin County (CoCo BEST) and Texas BEST competitions. Many Dallas BEST volunteers also serve in a wide variety of roles at the Texas BEST Regional. Working together benefits everyone in BEST Robotics. “A few years ago, we had misordered something on our kits and had a last-minute panic the night before our kickoff, and CoCo happened to have some stuff in stock, so we rushed up and got it and they kind of bailed us out,” said Mary Helmick.  CoCo volunteers frequently help at the Dallas Game Day, and field assembly has been a collaborative effort for several years.

One thing that sets apart Dallas BEST is their student and teacher awards. Students nominate their teachers and vote to choose the Pete Lohstreter Outstanding Teacher Award. The Graduating Senior Award is similar, but instead, teachers nominate their students. Dallas BEST is very proud of the diversity of the competing teams. “We’ve got amazing diversity, and the students are from just everywhere” says Elisa Miller. Jon Spangler adds “the team demographics run the full spectrum, there are country teams, city teams and everything in between.” Students are from many different backgrounds and at the competition, they all seamlessly unite to compete.

The Dallas BEST team works hard to produce a quality program, but sometimes unexpected things happen. You may not want to drive behind them. “One of the sections of the field fell out of my truck because I didn’t put the latch down or something like that, so the door slowly rolled up, and four miles down the road the door was all the way rolled up and then a piece falls out,” said Bill Rock.

Another time, Jon Spangler was hauling the game field on Interstate 635 when he looked in the mirror and saw the V-shaped windscreen on the trailer meant to protect the field suddenly start to rise up and float away.  He was slowing down as much as he could but couldn’t prevent the wind screen from blowing off the trailer. Fortunately, it landed on the side of the road and did not hit another vehicle.  Another time a base from a field piece fell out, and at game day the rebuilt base featured an automobile tire track across it.  Mary Helmick joked “lesson learned, don’t drive behind Dallas BEST people while they are hauling field materials.”

The Dallas BEST organization and all of the volunteers are committed to supporting all of the schools as they learn about designing, building, programming and driving their robots, as well as how to write an engineering notebook, give a marketing presentation and build an information booth. “One of the coolest things about BEST is that we get to see these kids grow into leaders with their continued participation,” said Elisa Miller. “Some of them come back as volunteers after they graduate from college,” added Bill Rock.

Hub Spotlight submitted by Trenton High School (Trenton, TX):

Abigail Casey             Class of 2024

Caleb Crittenden         Class of 2024

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