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Bot team headed to World Championship in St. Louis

| Thursday, March 29, 2012

Because his father is an electrical engineer, Joel Alexander found himself surrounded by science and technology — and felt drawn to it.

So when he learned about an organization called For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), that organizes robotics programs for students in middle school and high school, Alexander was interested.

Alexander joined a friend's middle school team for FIRST LEGO League in 2003 and enjoyed it so much, he decided to start his own team the next year.

"After that year, I decided this was something I wanted all my friends to do, so I was like, 'We'll just start another team,' " said Alexander, 18, of Murrysville. "I just kind of roped them into it."

Eight years later, Alexander's team, Team 4149 — the Terabytes — has moved up to the more-advanced FIRST Tech Challenge for high school students. The team won the Inspire Award at the Ohio state championship, qualifying it for the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship from April 25-28 in St. Louis, one of 128 teams to compete. No championship was held in the Pittsburgh area, allowing the team to compete in Ohio.

The championship will be conducted alongside the FIRST Robotics Competition Championship, which is for high school students, and the FIRST LEGO League World Festival, which is for elementary and middle school students 9 to 14 years old. A local team called The Girls of Steel, composed of 60 girls from 20 schools and some home-school students, will compete in the FIRST Robotics championship.

"Our goal all year long was to make it to worlds," said Nathan Schartner, 17, of Highland Park. "I think some of us were more optimistic than others — I personally didn't think we were going to make it to worlds this year. At the end of the competition, all of us were just super excited. As soon as our name was called, it was like an explosion."

The Terabytes consist of Alexander and his younger brother, Thomas, 14; Schartner; Joshua Kephart, 17, of New Kensington; and Harvish Mehta, 17, Matt Peretic, 17, and Nathan Slippy, 17, all of Murrysville.

Harvish and Nathan Slippy are juniors at Franklin Regional High School. The others are home-schooled.

"Our parents were friends in college, and we all went to church together for a little while, so (it was) just various connections," Kephart said. "Some of us actually didn't know each other (before joining the team)."

Each year, FIRST creates a game designed "to apply real-world applications as far as what an engineer might encounter," said spokesman Dennis Garrigan.

In this year's competition, Bowled Over, two team members work with an alliance team on a field strewn with bowling balls, racquetballs and crates. Teams score points in various ways, such as getting robots to put racquetballs into crates, stack the crates with racquetballs inside or move the bowling balls or crates into certain zones on the field.

The games begin with a 30-second autonomous period, where the teams' robots perform some of the tasks based on pre-programming, followed by a two-minute period where team members pilot the robots with remote controls.

After the 2011-12 theme was announced in September, Alexander said the Terabytes spent two months designing, building and programming their robot, the Terabot.

"We basically sat down and we all had a bunch of ideas about how to solve the problem," Alexander said. "We bounced ideas around, and we kind of fell into building something to complete the task."

The work still isn't over, though — the team will spend the next month fine-tuning the Terabot for the world championship.

"I never think this thing is done," Alexander said.

robotics team raising money

The organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology aims to get American middle and high school students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Members of team 4149 the Terabytes are already interested in those fields, but they're looking to extend FIRST's mission to another country.

While on a church mission trip to Guatemala in January, two members of the Terabytes visited Agua Viva, a school that provides a home and an education for impoverished children.

The Terabytes are now hoping to provide Agua Viva with a robotics curriculum and are looking to raise money to send three NXT Lego Mindstorms kits to the school.

"These kids don't really have the opportunity to get any engineering experience," said team member Joshua Kephart. "We want to give them the opportunity to at least have the chance of seeing what it's like to be an engineer, a scientist or a programmer, so that they might choose this if it's their calling."

For more information on the Robots For Agua Viva mission, visit www.robotsforaguaviva.com .

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