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Alabama Power retiree helps make robotics competition a winning event for students

For years, James Thrash has put his mind toward helping students at Wetumpka High School compete in the annual Boosting Engineering Science and Technology (BEST) Robotics Competition. But this year he added more muscle to the effort.

James Thrash built the arena for the BEST Robotics Competition. (contributed)

For a decade, Thrash, who recently retired from Alabama Power, has been a devoted supporter of the BEST Robotics Competition, assisting students in building and putting their robots to the test. But this time, Thrash was called on for a different, but just as important, task: to build the competition arena for the Central Alabama Game Day Finals.

Thrash has taken pride in guiding Wetumpka High students in building portions of their practice arena for 13 years. But things changed in 2021.

“This year was unique due to COVID-19,” Thrash said. “We could not have students get hands-on work experience with the project, so it was more challenging. Typically, we have anywhere from 25 to 40 students at my workshop assisting with the building of the arena. We’d meet on a Saturday and spend eight to12 hours to get them pieced together. That couldn’t happen this year.”

Additionally, groups that helped build the arena in previous years couldn’t take part this year. Although it is stored at Wetumpka High School, the arena benefits students from across central Alabama.

Thrash felt a calling, so he stepped up to build the arena for students to compete, with support from the Alabama Power Foundation.

The finals, held Nov. 6 at Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl, drew students from 18 middle and high schools who showcased their robots in a head-to-head competition. During the contest, the student teams had to navigate their robots around, and use them to deconstruct, several obstacles in the arena – all tied to this year’s theme: “Demo Daze,” focused on demolition.

In addition, the students created  “companies” related to their robots and built booths to display their designs, engineering journals and marketing plans. This year’s winning team came from Davidson High School in Mobile, which moves on to compete in the South’s BEST regional competition at Auburn University on Dec. 4-5.

The demolition theme added a new twist to objects and materials needed for the arena construction and competition – a challenge Thrash met with gusto.

“Alabama Power and Mr. Thrash have been major supporters since the beginning of Elmore County’s participation in the competition 13 years ago. It has been incredible to have their help again this year with the construction of a competition field for all of these schools to use,” said Wetumpka High science teacher Virginia Vilardi, who coordinates the school’s robotics team and program. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Learn more about the Alabama Power Foundation, and the company’s employee and retiree volunteer programs, at