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Western Pa. students' bots battle for glory at Cal U

| Friday, April 8, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Hempfield's Owen Kraisinger drives his team's robot 'Epsilon' in a battle with Mt. Pleasant High School during the 11th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at CaliforniaUniversity of Pennsylvania on Friday, April 8, 2016 in California.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Hempfield's robot 'Epsilon' flips Mt. Pleasant High School's robot 'Sweet Maple Bacon' during the 11th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at CaliforniaUniversity of Pennsylvania on Friday, April 8, 2016 in California.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Hempfield's Brett Weaver examines his team's robot 'Epsilon' in the pit after a battle with Mt. Pleasant High School during the 11th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at CaliforniaUniversity of Pennsylvania on Friday, April 8, 2016 in California.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Admiral Peary's James Ressler drives his team's robot 'The Joker' as his teammates Gabrielle Haratsky (left) and Ken Smith Jr. watch their battle with Brentwood High School during the 11th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at CaliforniaUniversity of Pennsylvania on Friday, April 8, 2016 in California.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Latrobe High School's Zachary Malone (left) and Brandon McGannon work on their team's robot 'Oryx' in the pit area during the 11th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at CaliforniaUniversity of Pennsylvania on Friday, April 8, 2016 in California.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Norwin High School's Luke Cordle watches bouts on the scoreboard while waiting in the pit area for his team's chance to compete in the 11th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at CaliforniaUniversity of Pennsylvania on Friday, April 8, 2016 in California.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf teammates from left to right Justin Cristina,Nicholas Bertone,Nick Miller, and John Price work on their robot 'Relentless' in the pit area during the 11th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at CaliforniaUniversity of Pennsylvania on Friday, April 8, 2016 in California.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Greensburg Salem High School's Bradyn Claycomb drives his team's robot 'Fanatic Escalator' as teammate Riley Maruca films their battle against Central Valley during the 11th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at CaliforniaUniversity of Pennsylvania on Friday, April 8, 2016 in California.

The combatants enter an arena made of bullet-proof glass. These robots have been painstakingly built by students for months, but could tear each other apart over the next three minutes.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals started Friday.

It pits 84 robots against each other over a two-day tournament at California University of Pennsylvania. Each was designed and piloted via remote-control by a team of high school students.

It looks like a sporting event, complete with referees in black-and-white shirts and the fights broadcast on large screens over the arena. But behind the scenes, students don safety glasses and gather around work stations, putting the final touches on robots with names like “Knockout,” “Fanatic Escalator” or “Torxuss.”

The students behind the “bots” might be the future of American manufacturing, said William Padnos, executive director of BotsIQ, a Pittsburgh-based program that organizes the yearly robotics competition to promote manufacturing education and work skills.

“Right now, there's a massive skills gap in manufacturing, and there's not only a skills gap, there's an interest gap,” he said. “There's probably going to be about 2 million job openings by 2025. So unless we get these high school kids to be interested, and exploring careers in manufacturing, they're never going to start wanting to fill these jobs.”

The thrill of robot combat gets young people excited and teaches them fundamental skills, he said.

Each team is paired with a local manufacturer to provide assistance and advice. This has the intentional side effect of introducing students to modern manufacturing, and to potential employers, said Dave Tilstone, president of the National Tooling and Machining Association, who addressed the teams during the tournament's opening ceremonies.

“There's a stigma about manufacturing,” Tilstone said. “The smokestacks. It's dirty. It's unsafe. But they walk into some of the companies that I represent, they see they're clean, high-tech, highly computerized.”

BotsIQ competitors are often immediately employed with manufacturing firms after graduation, or go on to college to learn more about the industry. Some do both.

Destin Bernie took the former path. He's an apprentice tool and die maker at EDM Services in Forbes Road, and he got the job about two weeks after graduating from Hempfield Area High School in 2013.

During high school, he got involved with the robotics team, growing more confident in his skills and designing the school's bot for the competition almost single-handedly in his senior year. That's how he got connected with EDM Services.

“They actually sponsored this team, that's how I found out about them,” he said. “I got a recommendation from the other technical adviser we had when I was going to high school.”

Now he's working as a technical adviser himself, helping Hempfield's robotics team prepare their robot, “Epsilon,” for the competition.

Hempfield was named the grand champion last year, despite taking third in the tournament overall. The award takes into account both tournament performance and academic excellence, based on how teams show their work through documentation.

When it comes to pure robot-fighting prowess, however, Plum High School remains the team to beat. The school's robotics program is big enough to field two teams, and has taken first place in seven of the 10 previous BotsIQ finals.

“I always get jitters the night before the competition, but I love it,” said Joe Doerfler, high school senior and captain of one of Plum's teams.

He has less reason to be nervous than most. His team won the National Robotics League championship in Berea, Ohio, last year, and he piloted the bot.

The final bouts of the BotsIQ finals are happening Saturday. Links to watch them live are online at http://www.botsiqpa.org.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com.

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