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Technology & STEM

Allegheny, Westmoreland robotics teams gear up for competition season

Jamie Martines
| Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, 3:48 p.m.
Quasics robotics team members Hailey Kopp (left), an 11th-grader at Gateway High School and Nathan Ridge (center), also an 11th grader, assemble the robot's frame with Meg Gilmore (right), a 2015 Gateway alumni and team mentor during a team meeting on Jan. 18 at Gateway High School.
Jamie Martines| Tribune-Review
Quasics robotics team members Hailey Kopp (left), an 11th-grader at Gateway High School and Nathan Ridge (center), also an 11th grader, assemble the robot's frame with Meg Gilmore (right), a 2015 Gateway alumni and team mentor during a team meeting on Jan. 18 at Gateway High School.
Quasics robotics team member Ian Ottenberg, an 11th-grader at Gateway High School, holds a piece of cardboard as teammate Connor Kelly, a 12th-grader, assembles a prototype of their robot during a team meeting on Jan. 18 at Gateway High School.
Jamie Martines| Tribune-Review
Quasics robotics team member Ian Ottenberg, an 11th-grader at Gateway High School, holds a piece of cardboard as teammate Connor Kelly, a 12th-grader, assembles a prototype of their robot during a team meeting on Jan. 18 at Gateway High School.
James Broker (left), Central Westmoreland Career and Technical Center teacher and robotics team coach, talks to Team Captain Michael Singer (right), a senior from Mount Pleasant Area High School, during a team meeting on Jan. 15, 2018.
James Broker (left), Central Westmoreland Career and Technical Center teacher and robotics team coach, talks to Team Captain Michael Singer (right), a senior from Mount Pleasant Area High School, during a team meeting on Jan. 15, 2018.
Paytn Szymkiewicz, a senior from Yough High School and student at Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, works on computer code as her brother and robotics team mentor Braydn Szymkiewicz, a sophomore at Robert Morris University majoring in software engineering, gives advice during a robotics team meeting on Jan. 15, 2018.
Paytn Szymkiewicz, a senior from Yough High School and student at Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, works on computer code as her brother and robotics team mentor Braydn Szymkiewicz, a sophomore at Robert Morris University majoring in software engineering, gives advice during a robotics team meeting on Jan. 15, 2018.
Team Captain Michael Singer (center) demonstrates how to use a soldering iron as teammates Michael Danto, a junior at Belle Vernon Area High School (left) and Philip Mickens, a sophomore at Jeannette City High School (right) look on during a robotics team meeting at Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center on Jan. 15, 2018.
Team Captain Michael Singer (center) demonstrates how to use a soldering iron as teammates Michael Danto, a junior at Belle Vernon Area High School (left) and Philip Mickens, a sophomore at Jeannette City High School (right) look on during a robotics team meeting at Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center on Jan. 15, 2018.

The technology education room at Gateway High School in Monroeville comes alive every evening as about 30 students work to design a robot that can roll, climb and pick up objects.

The Quasics, as they're called, is one of thousands of robotics teams around the world — including dozens in Southwest Pennsylvania and across the state — gearing up for some of the biggest competitions of the year.

Zachary Baughman, a senior and Quasics co-captain, is optimistic about the season ahead.

“We've gotten better the last few seasons I've been on the team,” Baughman said, adding that he's looking forward to seeing what new challenges this year's game will throw at them.

Teams have six weeks to build a robot based on a game released in early January by FIRST, which organizes one of the biggest and most competitive robotics leagues available to middle and high school students in the world — the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).

About 3,650 teams will compete in over 150 regional FRC competitions throughout the United States and countries including Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Mexico and Turkey during the 2018 season.

Teams in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties are eyeing the Greater Pittsburgh Regional in March, where about 50 teams will compete for a chance to move on to the finals and snag an array awards and scholarships.

At this point in the six-week build season — teams must pack up their robot and ship it out to their first regional competition site by Feb. 21 — teams like the Quasics are focusing on getting the robot's drive train assembled, basic code written and strategy in place.

Similar to sports like football or basketball, students meet nearly every day after school, including weekends, to perfect their designs, skills and strategy. But unlike those sports, the rules of the game change every year.

“Every year is a challenge, but every year is exciting because you never know what you're going to have to design,” said 12th-grader Shane Aitken, one of several co-captains on the Quasics team.

This year's game — based on a video game theme — requires robots to stack cubes in order to activate scales and switches. Doing so earns teams points. Robots must be able to operate autonomously and be controlled by a human player. Designing a robot that is able to climb will earn teams extra points.

“There's no textbook, you're writing the book every year,” said James Broker, teacher and coach for the Road Dogs team from Central Westmoreland Career and Technical Center.

Like the Quasics, the 12-member Road Dogs team is working on getting their playbook in order. Team Captain Michael Singer, a senior from Mt. Pleasant Area High School, is pleased with the progress they've made so far.

“We've never had a working prototype up this quick,” Singer said. “It's disassembled right now, but believe me, it worked at one point.”

The Road Dogs also count a new pair of drive coaches — who are tasked with advising the robot's driver during a match — among their strengths this season. Coach James Broker said he's confident the students are well prepared to keep their drivers cool, calm and collected during matches.

“You have to be able to react to whatever happens around you,” said Michael Danto, an 11th-grader from Belle Vernon Area High School and one of two new drive coaches. “And that's going to be one of the big things.”

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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