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North Hills students qualify for robotics event in St. Louis

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North Hills High School sophomore Luke Melcher, who is studying robotics at the A.W. Beattie Career Center in McCandless, poses with a trophy and his team's robot after the team won the FIRST Robotics Competition’s Greater Pittsburgh regional event in March 2014. The team, from the Sarah Heinz House on Pittsburgh's North Side, qualified for the international FIRST Robotics Competition. North Hills senior Curtis Sobien also is a member of the team.
By Laurie Rees
Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Using nuts and bolts, motors, gear boxes, sensors and circuits, North Hills High School senior Curtis Sobien and sophomore Luke Melcher helped create a 120-pound robot that beat 47 other robots from five states and Ontario, Canada, to win first place at the FIRST Robotics Competition's Greater Pittsburgh regional event.

Their team qualified for the international FIRST Robotics Competition in St. Louis, scheduled for April 23 to 26.

Sobien and Melcher's team is from the Sarah Heinz House robotics program, which has 19 students in grades seven through 12.

With their regional win last month at California University of Pennsylvania, Team SHARP — which stands for Sarah Heinz Advanced Robotics Program — earned a trophy, banner and advancement to the international competition, which includes teams from across the United States and other countries.

FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

“The robotics competition teaches real-world competencies,” said Christine Nguyen, robotics director at Sarah Heinz House in Pittsburgh's North Side, a nonprofit provider of after-school programs associated with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

“Students are asked to engineer a robot from scratch to compete in a game. Some people on the team specialize in certain aspects of robot building. Those specialized teams must communicate, meet deadlines and figure out how they are going to get the final product out in time.”

Competitors were challenged to build, program and operate a robot to advance up and down a 25- by 54-foot playing field and shoot an exercise ball into a variety of goals as often as possible during a two-and-a-half-minute match.

“We built a robot to pick up and shoot the ball using a catapult. It had to shoot the ball into goals located on the wall and floor, plus it got extra points for shooting the ball over a 5-foot-tall truss in the middle of the field. It also had to pass the ball to other robots,” explained Melcher, 16, of Ross Township.

The robots are operated by team members using XBox controllers.

“The competition was like a rock concert mixed with a sporting event. It was a lot of fun. Everyone was so excited to be there,” Melcher said.

His team ranked in the top 3 percent of the 2,729 teams in the world, based on scoring.

This is the first time a team from the Sarah Heinz House robotics program has qualified for such a major competition, said Nguyen, 29, of Fox Chapel.

“This year has been an incredible adventure. When we started this program five years ago, we could barely get the robot to move,” she said.

Mentors from local businesses and universities helped teach the students mechanical and electrical engineering, computer programming and technology. But, Nguyen said, the students did all the work themselves.

Team members worked every day after school and on Saturdays for six weeks to design, build and program the robot using the Java computer programming language.

Melcher, who studies robotics at the A.W. Beattie Career Center in McCandless, helped design the robotic system that shot the ball.

“We had to determine linear motions of the ball, pneumatics and physics,” he said.

He enrolled in a welding class to learn how to assemble the aluminum parts of the robot.

Sobien has been selected for a summer internship at the Carnegie Mellon University National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh.

Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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