Robots took center stage at the North Allegheny 5th Annual VEX Robotics Competition, bringing in 30 teams from across Western Pennsylvania to compete at NA’s Baierl Center, located next to the high school.
Students from high and middle schools throughout the region competed Feb. 11 with robots they designed, built, and programmed during the school year. Out of 30 teams, five were from North Allegheny, according to Heath Lauster, chair of the North Allegheny Technology and Engineering Department.
NA teams did not qualify that day for the state competition to be held at Clarion University in March. However, NA High School Teams 1012B and 1012C reached the semifinals. They are on the waiting list to go on to states, Lauster said.
“Three of the NA teams were brand-new to competition robotics and just started building in January. A very short window for the success they had Friday, ”he said.
The NA students are either enrolled in or have taken Robotic Engineering or Advanced Engineering, Lauster said.
Many students are active members of the Robotics Club, which gives them extra time to work on their robot designs and programs.
“They’re very passionate about it,” said Lauster, an instructor in the department. “They don’t know that they’re learning here, and they’re having a good time.”
More than 20 students from NA participated in the competition with approximately 25 National Honor Society and Key Club students volunteering, he said.
The VEX Robotics Competition took place on a 12-foot-by-12-foot field. Two alliances – one “red” and one “blue” – composed of two teams each, compete in matches consisting of a 15-second autonomous period in which the robot operates without a human driver, followed by a 1 minute, 45 second driver- controlled period.
The object is to get a higher score than the opposing alliance in having robots perform tasks, including a ring-scoring challenge, moving mobile goals to “alliance zones,” and elevating on platforms at the end of a match.
Roles on teams can vary. Some roles include designers, builders, programmers and drivers, Lauster said.
NA senior Ashley Zeman was the sole programmer for Team 1012A with fellow senior William Reinhart, 18, of Wexford, who drove the robot during the competition, making it to the quarterfinals. They called their robot “Jaws – the Snapping Turtle.”
Zeman, a member of the North Allegheny rowing team, was in charge of programming the robot.
She plans to pursue robotics and technology in college.
“I really enjoy being in this environment,” said Zeman, who wants to encourage others, especially girls, that coding and robotics is a cool thing.
She said there are mainly two misconceptions about robotics and programming, including who does it.
“A lot of people see robotics as nerdy. These kids are really fun, ”said Zeman of Marshall Township. “There are so many cool people here.”
The second misconception is that many think “it’s too hard to do.” But Ashley, 17, said there is a lot of educational support, whether at school, watching YouTube coding videos or visiting the VEX website for information.
Ashley’s dad, Jeremy Zeman, an event volunteer, secured a grant to help fund the competition from his employer, Williams, an oil, gas and energy company with offices throughout the US
Ashley has made her parents proud, said Zeman, a mechanical engineer at Williams.
“Whatever she does, we tell her to keep doing your best. Don’t let setbacks hold you back ‘, ”he said.
Ashley said their team is going to try to compete in an upcoming online competition.
In competition robotics, student teams design, build, and program robots based on an engineering challenge presented in the form of a game that changes each year. Throughout the year teams update their design to improve the robot’s performance.
At competition tournaments, teams participate in qualifying matches where two randomly chosen alliances compete for the highest team ranking.
The highest-ranking teams choose their alliance partners and compete in an elimination bracket that will determine the champions. Additionally, teams are judged on their engineering notebook, interview skills and the overall robot design.
The VEX competition presented excellence, tournament, design, robot skills and judges awards.
The Team 3260S of Sharp Robotics of Sarah Heinz House and Team 1462D of Penn-Trafford School District were the best teams of the day and won multiple awards, according to Lauster.
VEX is a company that sells various robot platforms used for K-12 STEM Education. North Allegheny uses VEX Robotics programs to teach robotics to students starting in grades six through 12.
Carnegie Mellon University Robotics provides curriculum and training support and multiple robotic events and competitions for middle and high school robotics students.
Jessie Flot, of the CMU Robotics Academy, volunteered at the competition and offered support.
“Robotics competitions like this present unstructured problems for students to deconstruct and solving opportunities,” he said.
“Give them a problem, they break it down and come up with a solution,” he said.
Twelve regional middle school teams also competed that day in the VEX IQ Challenge, a separate competition. NA partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania to help with that competition, Lauster said.
Natalie Beneviat is a Trib Total Media contributing writer.