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Robot competition requires science, innovation and teamwork

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A group of 4-H youngsters from Latrobe, Derry and Greensburg and students at the Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in New Stanton will compete this week in a special basketball contest that will test their skills in ways no mere team sporting event could.

Rather than dribbling and shooting, the youngsters will be using battery-powered robots they designed, built and programmed to make a basket at the Pittsburgh Regional FIRST Robotics Competition, which will be held Friday and Saturday at the Peterson Events Center in Oakland. They will face three-on-three competition against robots built by 45 schools and clubs from Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and even Niagara Falls, Canada.

The 4-H Club and CTC robots could find themselves on the same three-team alliance, or playing against each other in two-minute, 30-second games, said Patricia DePra, Pittsburgh FIRST regional director.

The robotics competition, sponsored by the nonprofit For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology of Manchester, N.H., tested the youngsters' knowledge of science and technology. They had to work under a deadline with each other and adult leaders, team leaders said.

"This brings everything into a full-scale learning experience --- the science, technology, engineering and math. They are learning a lot of principles of math and science," said James Broker, the head coach of the 25-member CTC robotics team and a mechatronics instructor at the school.

Stretching their reach

Students in carpentry, machining, welding and other programs were involved. "A lot of the students are getting to learn about things they are not accustomed to," Broker said. This is the school's second year in the competition.

The JCP 4-H Gears Club is in its rookie season. The FIRST robotics program fits nicely with the 4-H motto of learning by doing, said Johanna Sheppard, 4-H extension educator for the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Westmoreland County. The club is named after retailer J.C. Penney Co., which donated $8,500 for the club's registration fee and building materials, Sheppard said.

To learn by experience "is precisely what these youth are doing by building this working robot. Not only do these 4-H members work alongside professional engineers to build a robot of their own design, but they also are exposed to design project management, programming, teamwork and strategic thinking, which mimic real life," Sheppard said.

Since early January, the 4-H members and nine leaders spent a few evenings a week and several Saturdays building their robot at a warehouse in Unity. They used a standard kit of parts valued at $1,500 -- hundreds of screws, bolts and nuts, plus metal for the frame, motors, batteries, a control system, two joysticks to control the metal hands and a metal arm that reaches 5 feet off the ground.

The 4-H students learned about computer-aided drafting, mechanics, programming and electronics, said Allan Jones of Derry, an adult leader who is an engineer with DeVilbiss Health Care LLC in Somerset.

What they have to say

4-H member Josh Jones, 16, of Derry, said he liked the experience of putting together the robot. The problem-solving aspect of the project appealed to Sam McGaughran, 15, of Derry, and Gary Harter, 15, of Latrobe, enjoyed using the power tools.

"I like to think they got a sense of accomplishment out of it. They really expanded their technical knowledge of robots and were not intimidated about it," said Jeff Schomer of Latrobe, the 4-H organizational leader on the project and an adviser at FirstEnergy Co.'s West Penn Power in Greensburg.

Based on its practice sessions, the 4-H robot will give them a shot in the competition.

"We were consistently making baskets from 12 feet away," Schomer said.

The winning alliance of three robots, along with robots that win the Engineering Inspiration Award and the Chairman's Award, will go onto the national robotics championship on April 25 in St. Louis. The 4-H club could qualify for the championship a third way --- by winning the Rookie Award from a field of 11 first-time entrants in the Pittsburgh regional competition, DePra said.

The effort was a success, said Peter Jerz, 14, of Greensburg, who said he learned about teamwork while working on the online writing and documentation for the project.

"I was just a rookie who had to learn this stuff right off the bat, participate in building, testing, then tearing up, fixing and rebuilding a robot," said Jerz, who plans to participate in next year's competition.



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