Robots Lead Student Warriors toward Engineering Careers

By Weaver, Rachel | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

Robots Lead Student Warriors toward Engineering Careers


Weaver, Rachel, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


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 from 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 in Youngwood.

"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 Apollo-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.

Engineering a career

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. …

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