Walk around the metal-working shop at Denison High School and ask the members of its award-winning robotics team what they want to be when they grow up, and a person will get some predictable answers: welder, fabricator, engineer, wedding planner.

Walk around the metal-working shop at Denison High School and ask the members of its award-winning robotics team what they want to be when they grow up, and a person will get some predictable answers: welder, fabricator, engineer, wedding planner.


Well, maybe not completely predictable.


"I actually do want to be a welding planner!" said sophomore Kara Harrelson. "But I’m really glad that I joined (the robotics team). It helps me think a little bit better. It kind of helps me with thinking outside the box and just kind of figuring out things in a different way."


Harrelson is one of nine members of Denison’s BEST team, which stands for Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology. Each year for the past two decades, a group of tenacious students has competed against other high schools in a competition to see who can build the top robot using a common list of supplies. The tasks required of the robots change from year to year, meaning no winning strategy is guaranteed to work twice.


But despite those yearly ebbs and flows, the Denison team qualified for the state competition earlier this month, making it two in a row, after never having qualified before.


"They worked two weekends and a whole bunch of class periods. It took two solid weeks just to get the framework finished," said their teacher, Michael Green, who’s overseen the robotics team for the past 12 years. He said there’s probably 750 man-hours in this year’s robot.


The 2013 competition requires teams to use their robots to simulate circuit board creation through three tasks designed to ape microprocessors on a macro level. Junior Landon Henne said the group embraced a "do one thing and do it well" strategy that paid huge dividends at the Collin County regional competition, where the Denison team took top honors over 25 other schools.


"Basically our idea was, it’s really hard to do everything," said Henne. "A lot of (other teams’ robots) were extremely complex and very hard to operate because they were trying to do it all. What we went for is trying to take on only the easy tasks, but we tried to do them as quickly and efficiently as possible, which I would say we did a pretty good job on."


"They put a lot of thought into it," said Green. "I use the analogy of a Swiss Army Knife: it can do all that stuff, but it doesn’t do any of it very well. Last year they made some real good choices on what they designed the robot to do, so they had that lesson still in their minds that we don’t need to try to do too much."


The team will pit its design against about 60 other schools at the state competition, to be held Nov. 8 and 9 in Garland. Green said the teams’ banked knowledge from last year — when they placed among the top 20 teams — should give them an edge. Henne agreed.


"A lot of these teams that go to state have some unreal resources. They have engineers on their team; professionals, like four or five of these guys that are working hand-in-hand to build their robot. So it’s definitely a lot different than a regional competition."


While Henne was the hero of Collin County meet, where he used the robot to build nine simulated transistors in only three minutes, each of the nine members brings something unique to the table, according to Green. The veteran teacher explained that much of Denison’s success can be attributed to the blue-collar work ethic of the students’ varied backgrounds. It’s a work ethic he specifically cultivates when recruiting new members to the team.


"I look for somebody that gets ahold of something and won’t let go. Because this takes a lot of dogged determination. You’ve got to have somebody that wants to do it and is curious and is gonna find their own answers."


Once a student gets involved in the program, Green said, the benefits are often tangible.


"They came up with BEST as a way to get people engaged and interested in engineering fields," said Green. "These are typically not advanced placement kids; these are Average Joe students. But (because of this program,) they’re looking at college careers where they weren’t really considering it before — a bunch of them will probably end up going to engineering school."


One of those students for whom the program has opened doors is junior Danny Hooker.


"I’ve been working with my dad; he’s an electrician," Hooker said. "But when I got into this class, it kind of made me realize that I like the building part of it more than just pulling wires. Engineering was not really something I thought of going to college for; not until I got into this class."


Count Henne among those who’ve had their horizons expanded, as well.


"I already had a slight interest in engineering, but this has really opened my eyes to how awesome it really is," Henne said. "Ever sense I’ve gotten in this class, I’ve been much more interested. This has really swayed me over to engineering. I’m definitely going to find some (college) with a good engineering program."


For school administrators like Green, who volunteer countless hours on nights and weekends to make the BEST program work, stories like Hooker and Henne make it all worth while.


"It’s a big time value to these kids," Green said from Denison classroom as the members of the robotics team busied themselves out in the shop, hurrying to perfect their design before state. "The AP kids — what some people might call ’the best and brightest’ — they don’t have room for these elective courses that take up a lot of their time. I’ve got a kid out there that only passes a few classes each year, and he was on the honor roll list for the past six weeks — it’s never happened for him before. I’ve had two or three of them say, ‘You know, I wasn’t even going to come to school today, but I really didn’t want to miss this class.’"