Robots take center stage at Cal U.

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CALIFORNIA – The convocation center at California University of Pennsylvania has served as the venue for basketball games and rock concerts, but Thursday robots took center stage, along with frenzied high school students scrambling to put the finishing touches on their creations.


While this scene may seem odd, Mike Amrhein couldn’t have been more delighted at what was unfolding before him. Amrhein, the director of outreach and integration for technology, engineering, arts, math and science at Cal U., said the university was pleased to host the FIRST Robotics Competition for the first time. FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – was started in 1989 to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders.


Participating teams are given six weeks to construct a robot from a kit. Teams can add additional parts at their own expense. After the six weeks are up, student teams and their coaches are required to seal their creation in a bag until they arrive at the competition. The Cal U. competition ends today, with the top three teams and two specialty winners moving on to finals in St. Louis, Mo., at the end of April.


This year, teams were required to build a robot that could either catch or throw a large exercise ball. Points are awarded for scoring and collaboration, among other things.


Just fewer than 30 students, from two teams, represented Washington County and were among roughly 50 teams from the eastern United States and Canada competing.


The Titanium Titans, composed of 21 students from Pennsylvania Cyber School and Peters Township, Washington, Trinity, Canonsburg, Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park and McGuffey school districts, is hoping to be among the top three going to finals. Coach Julie Ogburn said the team attended a FIRST Robotics Competition in Ohio last weekend.


“We took 22nd place,” said Ogburn, whose son Wade is on the team.


But the students at the Cal U. event weren’t concerned.


“We had some technical issues,” Jace Palmer, a freshman at Trinity High School, said of the Ohio event. “But we still did awesome. I think things will go well this time.”


Palmer said she was looking for “something mechanical” to get involved in, and decided to join Titanium Titans after shadowing them for some time. She is one of three girls on the team.


“I’m learning a lot of new stuff I wouldn’t have learned otherwise,” she said.


Palmer’s teammate Lucas Switzer, a sophomore at Pennsylvania Cyber School, said the FIRST program puts students interested in science, technology, math and engineering careers in contact with real-world work scenarios.


The team has partnered with Western Area Career and Technology Center, which thrilled Switzer.


“We have access to industrial-grade materials and machines,” he said. “We created the parts ourselves.”


The 4-H Chrome Clovers, composed of seven students from Trinity, Bentworth and Canon-McMillan school districts, also had high hopes. Although her group is considerably smaller than the Titans, team coach and mentor Betty Robinson said the members are a talented bunch.


“They show up at my house and do it all on their own,” she said. “It takes a lot of time and dedication.”


Sam Bashioum, a senior at Bentworth High School, said their robot, Pneuman, is designed to catch the ball.


“Most teams try to throw the ball,” he said. “So our strategy is to catch it. You can earn 20 extra points.”


In his third year of FIRST competitions, Bashioum said the program has taught him things he wouldn’t have learned in a classroom.


“It’s pretty cool,” he said.


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