One room was nearly silent as pairs of students crafted a tall structure out of paper and straws that would support several golf balls.
The adjacent room was filled with cries and cheers as other student teams battled the robots they had built and programmed to chase colored balls.
More than 80 middle and high school students from Joplin, Carl Junction, Adrian, Butler and Belton put their technology and engineering skills to good use Friday in the regional Technology Student Association conference at Missouri Southern State University.
Competitions were held in technology bowl, technology problem solving, robotics, music and digital video production, and debate/extemporaneous speaking. The event also featured Missouri’s first humanoid robotics competition for secondary school students, who were judged on their ability to program a robot to dance or tell a story.
Elke Howe, chairwoman of the Missouri Southern engineering technology department, said she hoped the competition would spark student interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly referred to as the STEM fields.
“There’s a huge skills gap in the U.S. and Missouri in those disciplines, so the more we can get kids excited about those fields, the better it will be for the state,” she said.
Kaci Dorton, the technology teacher for Joplin High School, also said it was important for students to learn about college and career opportunities in science- and math-related areas.
“Our world is going to be based on what they learn in these classes, and for our world to continue, we have to have these kids trained for those careers,” she said.
Joplin senior Rocky Lowery was part of a team that competed in the VEX Robotics challenge, for which it had built and programmed its own robot so that it would push colored balls toward a designated area of its pen.
Lowery, who hopes to one day be a computer software programmer, said that in building the robot with his team he learned the importance of being able to plan ahead, how to create something from a vision and how to manage one’s time properly to ensure the task gets completed.
“It was a lot of building something to see if it works (and) taking it apart to make it better,” he said.
Luke Arnce, a junior at Carl Junction High School, said being involved in technology competitions has taught him how to think critically and how to adapt to problems.
He said he has also learned how technology relates to everyday life, whether he is debating the pros and cons of robots in the workplace or figuring out how to program computer systems.
“It’s got a nice application of sciences, and you can translate it to real-world problems,” he said.
Waylon Campbell, also a Carl Junction junior, joined his school’s Technology Student Association club to put his love of debate to good use. He said public speaking skills are not out of place in STEM fields, which can benefit from marketing teams and public relations specialists who understand the technology.
“Then you’ll be able to speak to someone about the technological application of a product,” he said. “It’s a really good skill to have, especially in these kinds of fields.”
Campbell said he enjoyed participating in Friday’s debate/speaking and technology bowl competitions.
“I like doing these events and being able to use my mind in a more applied way than just regular schoolwork,” he said.
Student participation in this year’s competition at Missouri Southern, now in its second year, was more than triple the number of students who competed last year, said Steven Stokes, the state president of the Technology Student Association and a student at Carl Junction High School.
“This really shows that Southwest Missouri is a leader in our state association and STEM education in Missouri,” he said in a statement.
Students who competed in the regional Technology Student Association event can advance to the state conference for a chance to compete at the national conference in June in Washington, D.C.