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Students gets hands-on experience at Cal U robotics competition

| Saturday, May 3, 2014, 6:16 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Yough driver Hannah McKeel maneuvers their robot as teammate Dominic Wilps captures their battle on his smart phone during the BotsIQ Finals on Friday, April 25, 2014, at California University of Pennsylvania’s Convocation Center in California.

As two Frazier High School girls worked to repair their remote-controlled robot at the recent regional robotics contest at California University of Pennsylvania, they were treated to the noise of an announcer giving a blow-by-blow description of the latest battle at the Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ competition.

Juniors Victoria Dulla and Haley Grimm were busy fine-tuning the 15-pound metal robot the eight-member team designed and built to take the offensive in any showdown with a competing high school's robot.

“I've learned a lot about electrical wiring and soldering,” Dulla said as they prepared for another contest at Cal U's Convocation Center.

The group of Frazier High School students were among the 800 students from 47 schools in Central and Western Pennsylvania — including Albert Gallatin, Brownsville Area, Connellsville Area and Yough high schools — that came to Cal U for the ninth annual robotics competition on April 25-26.

BotsIQ provides the students with a unique, hands-on experience that allows them to discover the possibilities of a career in the manufacturing sector and other science, technology, engineering, or math fields, organizers said. The schools partnered with local business and industries that supported the high school teams in designing and building the robots, and ultimately sending them into battle.

“It's a manufacturing workforce development program disguised as a high school robotics competition. The students designed, built, destroyed and then rebuilt these Bots,” said William K. Padnos, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ.

The students said they began working on their robots in September and continued throughout the competition, as teams were repairing or making necessary changes to their metal-clad robots.

A group of nine Yough High School students were working hard to bring their remote-controlled wedge-like robot back to life so that it could compete.

Built low-to-the-ground to take a defensive stance in its battle against another high school's robot in the Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ, Yough's robot got hung up against a wall in the square battleground and ultimately was defeated.

But, the Yough students were winners just by being there at Cal U. The team, composed mostly of freshmen, sophomores and juniors, had gone where no previous Yough robotics team had gone because last year's team never made it to the regional BotsIQ competition, said freshman Hannah McKeel, the team captain.

The 2014 squad did benefit from last year's experimental robot because they cannibalized the 2013 robot that did not operate properly, reusing the old parts. They said they worked on the robot in industrial arts class.

The students talked of the wiring skills they learned, but most importantly, it was the people skills they acquired in working together as a team, said freshman Zack Ryckman.

“They've learned how to use the metalworking machines and basic electronics,” said Kolby Wagner, who teaches a robotics class at Connellsville Area High School.

The Connellsville Area team built a robot that has an offensive weapon, but also a wedge design that gives it defensive capabilities. “The vision is that all students in Southwestern Pennsylvania will consider manufacturing as a viable career option. The key is getting them started down the pathway,” that could lead them to community college, an associate degree, a four-year college or right into the workplace, Padnos said.

Despite the drop in employment in manufacturing in recent years, Pennsylvania still has 560,000 manufacturing jobs, according to the March statistics from the state's Center for Workforce Information and Analysis. The Pittsburgh region — Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties — had 86,800 manufacturing jobs in March, a drop of 2,500 jobs from March 2013, the workforce information center reported.

Students participating in the competition are learning the techniques and soft skills that are needed for jobs in advanced manufacturing, Padnos said.

“It's not their father's manufacturing workplace,” Padnos said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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