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Robotics competition leads student warriors toward careers

| Thursday, April 14, 2011

For some students, a competition in which robots battle for victory serves as more than a unique learning experience -- it can be a pathway to a career.

In the days since the preliminary round of the annual BotsIQ competition, teams of students across Western Pennsylvania have been working out the kinks of their robot fighting machines while gearing up for the finals this weekend at Westmoreland County Community College.

"This is a really unique, dynamic way to engage high school students and teach them the central skills for future careers," said Erin O'Donnell, communications specialist with Peoples Natural Gas, the event's corporate sponsor. "The manufacturing sector is so important to Pennsylvania."

Working with a curriculum based on Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineering methodology, students are taught to design, build and battle robots in a gladiator-style competition. In Western Pennsylvania, the program started in 2005 with six teams. This year, 40 groups participated.

The competition draws on students' knowledge of math, science and engineering. With the help of industry and technical advisers, students get a glimpse of the real world of engineering and manufacturing.

"We wanted to provide some way to show students in schools today what manufacturing is," said James Rugh, member of the BotsIQ management committee.

Rugh works for Washington Township-based metal stamping company Composidie, Hempfield Area Senior High School's business partner. Participating companies often invite students to tour their facilities and sometimes even use their equipment to build the robots.

Alex Udanis, a 2010 Plum High School graduate and Community College of Allegheny County student, has stayed involved with the program as an adviser for several schools, including charter school Propel Braddock Hills. His goal is to help students realize "engineering can be fun and exciting and not necessarily just be a geeky thing."

"On paper, it looks really nerdy," said Udanis, 19, whose alma mater won the competition the past four years. "Once you get to the event, you realize how competitive it is."

Udanis remembers plenty of late nights during the national competition staying up in the hotel room with his teammates and trying to work quietly on their robot.

"I haven't gone to one yet that wasn't stressful," he said with a laugh.

Tyler Brady, 17, a Hempfield junior, hopes to become a petroleum engineer one day. He said his experience on a BotsIQ team is preparing him for his future career.

"It definitely helps engineering-wise, with all the CAD (computer-aided design) programs and learning about the way materials are manufactured," he said.

The program's ability to draw students into technical trades is valuable, school administrators said.

"There's a preconceived notion that everyone is going to go to college," said Joseph Oliphant, principal of Propel Braddock Hills, a first-year participant, which opened in August.

"There are some students who work really well with their hands -- are able to take things apart and put them back together. That's valuable."

Erin Hopkins, science teacher and Propel Braddock Hills team advisor, said the program can be "eye-opening for students who have not yet found what they're looking for."

"They can see themselves doing it in the future," she said. "Some students said it's not going to be manufacturing, but maybe graphic design."

The Propel Braddock Hills robot design consists of three connected wedges -- the front one is used to flip over opponents. It travels 15 mph, making it one of the faster competitors.

Despite its speed, the robot took a few hits in the preliminaries, Hopkins said. The team is working to get it back in shape for this weekend's event.

Sometimes, challenges arise for students' robots before they even enter the ring. Three days before the preliminary round, a tornado ripped through Westmoreland County, damaging Hempfield Area Senior High School and causing students to lose several days of work.

The team was displaced to the middle school, where members worked for 13 hours the day before the event.

"We finally got kicked out by the janitors," said Craig Sinowski, team adviser and tech education teacher. Sinowski said the competition allows for skill development that can't always be achieved in a classroom setting.

"This is as high-end as it can get," he said.

Walt Czerpak Jr. of Composidie said watching students work together and troubleshoot at the competition is like watching a NASCAR pit crew.

"It's an honor working with these students," he said. "If these are the kids who will be out there in the future in engineering, I think we will be OK."

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