Eclipse leaped off its stand in the center of Chartiers Valley Middle School and got to work.
Placing the hatch covers on the makeshift rocket ship? Check.
Picking up “cargo” — or large rubber balls — and loading them onto the “rocket?” Check again.
The 100.5-pound robot — moving remotely at the hands of Chartiers Valley High School students — made the completion of each task look easy, while parents and community members looked on in awe.
The robot, built under a strict six-week schedule by the 26 members of Chartiers Valley High School’s Horsepower 4991 team, made its public debut at an unveiling Feb. 25. The team will compete with the robot named Eclipse in the FIRST Robotics Greater Pittsburgh Regional Competition March 21-23 at California University of Pennsylvania, where they will be challenged to complete these exact tasks.
“Over the last six weeks, there’s been a lot of trial and error. There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and we’ve actually seen the robot do some pretty crazy things,” said middle school teacher Jeff Macek, who serves as the team’s lead mentor.
Chartiers Valley launched its FIRST Robotics competition team six years ago. It’s sent two teams to the world competitions since.
Each year, the team is composed of high school students who construct a robot based on that year’s FIRST robotics competition.
FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” holds regional and world robotics competitions each year that allow students to learn from professional engineers and master science, technology, engineering and math skills.
“We have engineering classes at school, and they go through, ‘This is the design process, and these are the steps.’ But this is applying it,” said junior Jack Radzanowski, 16, who leads the wiring team for Horsepower 4991.
“This is pretty much the closest thing we can get to real engineering in school,” added junior Clare Malone, 16, who serves as head builder.
This year, the competition, Destination: Deep Space, was announced Jan. 5.
That meant students around the world — including those at Chartiers Valley — had until midnight Feb. 19 to design, prototype, build and test their robot for competition.
Team members stayed after school many days until 9 p.m. and came in for 12 to 14 hours on the weekend.
“We were here because we loved it,” said junior Morgan Carroll, 16, head programmer and co-pilot.
“Some days they’d have to force us to go home,” added Malone.
The team was assisted by 11 mentors, including employees from Uber and Argo AI.
Alumni mentors, who are studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Virginia Tech, video conferenced with the team to help them with the project, Macek said.
Team members each find their niche. Some work on building, others on wiring and others on social media and getting sponsors.
That’s important because the team is entirely self funded, operating on a budget of $35,000, Macek said.
While the robot on the competition field can only cost $5,000, that doesn’t include backup parts and all of the parts it took to build the machine.
This year, the team worked 21 days straight on the robot. And, since they have to pack-up the device on Feb. 19, they’ve decided this year to build a second one so they can practice for the competition.
Many of the team members are juniors, meaning they’ve done this for a couple of years.
“Over the years, we’ve learned to work together,” said junior Josh Wilson, 17, who is a member of the team. “We’re all a close-knit family.”
A major component of FIRST Robotics is learning to advocate.
Six members of the Chartiers Valley team last year went to the three day FIRST National Advocacy Conference in Washington D.C. to advocate for full funding of the Every Student Succeeds Act and school based mentor STEM programs.
Team members, and graduates alike, say the program has helped them with their future careers.
Some plan to go into engineering.
“It really helps in the real world with getting a job,” said team mentor William Zheng, who was on the team prior to graduating from Chartiers Valley in 2017. He’s now an electrical engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh. “It’s like a stepping stone. You get to do it. It’s hands on.”