Image courtesy of BEST Robotics.

Imagine an auditorium filled with kids cheering as a pep band plays, cheerleaders do their thing and mascots rev up the crowd.

But this isn’t a school sporting event. It’s the scene at a typical BEST Robotics competition, where middle and high school student teams from all over the country go head-to-head to show off their STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—skills.

“The noise level is off the charts. We literally wear earplugs,” says BEST Robotics executive director, Rosemary Mendel. “It’s so exciting to see a celebration of academics at the same level as sports.”

Now Mendel and her team plan to expand their unique brand of STEM education to schools throughout Western Pennsylvania and the tri-state region by moving the BEST Robotics headquarters from its current location in Georgetown, Texas to Pittsburgh.

Mendel, a New Castle native who attended the University of Pittsburgh, believes the city’s role as an emerging tech hub makes it a natural fit for BEST to set up shop.

“Being in Pittsburgh gives us that much more validation and credibility because we are on the pulse of everything that’s happening in the technology and engineering sectors,” says Mendel.

Image courtesy of BEST Robotics.

Founded in 1993, BEST—which stands for Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology—develops free STEM programs for schools all over the country. They currently have 5,000 volunteers and mentors operating out of 45 licensed hubs, including one outside of Pittsburgh at Grove City College. The nonprofit organization’s annual competition draws more than 25,000 students in 17 states.

The organization’s main focus is to create a highly skilled workforce by inspiring students to pursue STEM majors and careers. Part of that mission is to make STEM more attractive to kids, as well as less intimidating.

Deb Moore Ellsworth, director of Strategic Engagement at BEST Robotics, has seen progress at some of their partner schools in Texas, where academics have been elevated to the same level as sports programs.

“Kids in Texas that normally could only letter in basketball or football can now letter in robotics,” says Moore. “To be able to compete at that level of consideration and respect as the athletic teams went a long way.”

One major component of the program is the annual BEST Award, which requires student teams to create a business model, complete with a marketing presentation and a trade show exhibit, around a certain industry theme.

“It demonstrates to students that in order for a business to be successful, it needs a diverse talent pool,” says Mendel, adding that it joins STEM students with those who excel in areas like graphic design, writing and public speaking. “Not everybody can be the engineer or the one writing code.”

She says the approach introduces students to subjects they might not have otherwise considered, specifically young girls who often feel discouraged from pursuing math or science.

“Sometimes girls will come in because they want to do the marketing piece and they get a year under their belts and they go, ‘you know what, I’m building that robot next year,’” she says.

Image courtesy of BEST Robotics.

Mendel believes that because they provide their programs for free, they’re better able to reach low-income and minority students in underserved rural and urban schools, who are often overlooked when it comes to STEM education.

“It’s so important because we’re told over and over by companies that it’s critical that the STEM talent pipeline must be a diverse pipeline,” says Mendel, who adds that her own grown son, who now works for EA Sports in Orlando, had access to STEM learning. “We hope we’re doing our small part by giving those students a chance.”

To prepare schools for the program, established BEST Robotics teams, such as the one currently set up at Cornerstone Christian Preparatory Academy in West Mifflin, will act as mentors to new teams. Meanwhile, teachers will attend workshops at BEST hubs during the summer to ensure they’re ready to oversee student teams once the school year begins.

As for relocating, BEST will continue to conduct business virtually but plans to move into a Pittsburgh location, most likely a co-working space, by next year.

“We’ll likely be adding more staff down the road and I want a place where we can all convene on a regular basis,” says Mendel.

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.