In 2015, while other schools continued advancing in the Jubilee BEST Robotics competition, Williamson High School left its first competition with the “Heart” award.

At the time, it was the school’s first year participating in the BEST program, which uses the backdrop of a robotics competition to “Boost Engineering, Science and Technology” curriculum in more than 40 schools in southern Alabama and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The trouble with last year was, the school didn’t have the funding to purchase its equipment, and could only borrow it from BEST temporarily. That severely reduced the amount of hands-on experience the students had with the tools and software used to build and operate the robots.

“Last year, we had to give all the tools back and we weren’t really able to sustain our club,” club sponsor and engineering teacher Daniel Forshier said. “We were one place away from advancing to the finals, and after the competition. we were heartbroken as we took the robot apart to give it back because we didn’t have the funds to keep [it].”

That means since the end of last year’s contest in October, Williamson’s robotics team has been robotless. For an inner-city school with a poverty rate higher than 95 percent, purchasing the needed equipment wasn’t really an option.

In the club’s second year of competition, though, the students are determined to make it to the statewide competition in Auburn, and thanks in part to a donation from Chevron and some ingenuity on Forshier’s part, they’ll have the equipment they need to give it a better shot.

When Forshier created a page on the fundraising website, Chevron met the project’s goal of $1,257 with a single donation through its “Fuel Your School program.” The program donates a portion of proceeds from local fuel sales to public education programs in the area; in total, Chevron plans to pump $150,000 into Mobile County schools in 2016.

Mobile City Council President Gina Gregory and Superintendent Martha Peek with the Williamson High School robotics team. (Jason Johnson)

Mobile City Council President Gina Gregory and Superintendent Martha Peek with the Williamson High School robotics team. (Jason Johnson)

On Oct. 13, Chevron presented Williamson’s robotics team with multiple specialized saws, organizational bins, power drills and other tools needed to build, adjust, program and store the robots year round. State Rep. Barbara Drummond (D-Mobile) pitched in as well, donating funds for a new robot prototype for Williamson’s club to use.

To show the community’s support for the team, the presentation was also attended by members of the Mobile City Council, the Mobile County School Board, the state Legislature and Superintendent Martha Peek.

“The only way that we’re going to be competitive is by having a level playing field,” school Commissioner Robert Battles said. “I’ve always contended in my two years on this school board that, if my students here at Williamson and in my district had a level playing field, we could be just as competitive as anyone in the nation.”

With hopes that playing field has been leveled by the recent donation, Williamson is currently gearing up to head back into this year’s BEST competition, which be held Oct. 29 at the Mitchell Center on the University of South Alabama campus.

Forshier said his students plan to return home with more than the “Heart” award this year, but no matter the results, he said the robotics program has his students taking more of an interest in their academic development and finding their own inspiration.

“That inspires me. When the “Ah-ha!” moment comes, and they finally get the robot to move and everybody’s excited, it’s a really good feeling,” he said. “When the community comes in and sees what they’re doing, they stand up a little straighter, and they take their stuff a little more seriously, which in turn makes them focus more on their academics.”

The program is more than just learning to use a remote. Certain models of robots run independently based on designed programming. Students like Javares Dortch actually go in and program the coding that runs the robots using a BEST software — determining direction, timing, speed and stability using the C++ programming language.

“You can tell it how fast to go and for how long,” Dortch said. “So, you’ll put that in, and then watch it. If it doesn’t work, maybe you’ll have to back in and put another [code] in so it don’t flip over.”

Dortch is one of the 15 current team members. He told Lagniappe he’d never done any coding before joining the club, though he has been known to fix the occasional cell phone.

A member of the Williamson High School robotics team uses a ban saw donated by Chevron. (Jason Johnson)

A member of the Williamson High School robotics team uses a ban saw donated by Chevron. (Jason Johnson)

Overall, Forshier said the robotics club is continuing to grow slowly in the second year since it was suggested by Williamson High School alumnus Lonnie Johnson. A graduate of the WHS class of 1969, Johnson went on to become a successful inventor and entrepreneur after a distinguished career in engineering with the U.S. Navy and NASA.

Forshier said working after school gives the students something positive to focus on, which he said Johnson had agreed would be almost as important as the program’s academic benefits.

“One thing [Johnson] would say to them was, ‘What are you doing with your time? What do you do in your free time?’ He kept telling the students that,” Forshier said. “So, instead of hanging around outside or going home and playing videos games, these kids are in here doing something constructive, and we think that’s the way to go.”

For Hashim Bell, a junior on the robotics team, being part of the program and preparing for competition is just “fun.” Like Forshier, Bell plans to be at Auburn for the state contest this year.

“You can program your robot to do whatever you want it to do, but you have certain tests to do on the track at the competition, and that’s what determines how many points you get,” Bell said while maneuvering a small robot. “It’s all really fun. We didn’t have as much [equipment] last year, but we got this donation now, and I think we’ll get better points and do better this year.”