Local team takes first in high school robotics competition

?We were a rookie team ? we had borrowed tools in a Shop ?n? Save bag ? but the rookie team won out,? said Michael Dischner, the advisor of the McKeesport High School team that won the FIRST Pittsburgh Regional Robotics Competition on March 12. While this year?s FIRST competition is a true story of an underdog?s amazing triumph, its happy ending has yet to come: The McKeesport team may not have enough financial support to continue on to the national competition.
This year, the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition took place on the University of Pittsburgh?s campus March 10?12. Thirty-two high school teams from all over the United States and Canada, with four from the Pittsburgh area, gathered at the Petersen Events Center. There, they could determine which team had, in six weeks, built the robot that could best play the competition games.
The McKeesport team, Team 1708 ? Natural Selection, didn?t have six weeks to make their robot, called ?Charles.? After deciding that the competition needed more teams, David Richardson, head of the Pittsburgh FIRST Planning Committee, asked an organization The Future Is Mine (TFIM) to find another competitor. TFIM, Mon Valley Education Consortium?s initiative, sought out the McKeesport team. Only two weeks before the event, the 11 members of Team 1708 accepted the challenge.
?The kids really wanted to build it,? said Dischner. In addition to advising the team, Dischner teaches Team 1708 students in an engineering technology class.
Using their learned skills and engineering innovation, Team 1708 quickly planned how to create a robot that can block other robots and pick up large tetrahedral objects, tetras, and place them on a target platform.
?The McKeesport team did a great job developing their robot in only two weeks,? said Jessica Pedersen of the FIRST Pittsburgh Planning Committee. ?Although Charles was not as big or as technically complicated as the other robots, the team was able to use it to play defense during the ?Triple Play? game.? Charles out-performed 24 robots before it was eliminated in the penultimate round.
In the final round, however, a finalist robot experienced a mechanical error. The team was given five minutes to fix their robot?s malfunction, but had no luck. The FIRST Competition called upon Team 1708 to step up to the final round.
Team 1708 joined two other teams to compete against three teams in a three-on-three match on a 27-foot-by-54-foot field. Charles and two other robots stood at one end of the field, facing their opponents. When the round began, the robots stacked tetras and blocked enemy robots. With the best defensive skill on the field, Charles made a game-winning block. Team 1708 burst out, cheering.
The members of team 1708 weren?t the only ones cheering. ?We couldn?t be more proud of these kids. They worked hard, under great pressure, and they won. We hope the Atlanta experience is just as exciting and successful for them,? said Amy LeFevers, the TFIM project director to the Mon Valley Educational Consortium.
Unfortunately, after such hard work and accomplishment, Team 1708 may not make it to the Championship competition in Atlanta on April 21 and 22. The team does not have sufficient funding to improve Charles, travel to Atlanta, and pay the $5000 entrance fee. In efforts to fundraise, Dischner and his students are asking local engineering companies for financial assistance.
General Motors in Pittsburgh has already contributed, and a deal with Westinghouse is in the works. A Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company, re2, Inc., is also a key contributor to the team?s fundraising.
If Team 1708 raises enough money, Atlanta will have to watch out, because this time around the students from McKeesport High School will have time to enhance Charles.
Still in high school, the members of Team 1708 have already proven themselves to be capable engineers. Many of them plan to attend college for engineering; in fact, one senior on the team is eagerly awaiting a letter from the admissions department of Carnegie Mellon.