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Pittsburgh high school team wins world robotics championship

robotics world
Candy Williams
May25/ 2018

The City of Champions has another big win to add to its accolades.

A Pittsburgh robotics team – made up of 10 kids from six high schools – capped off a winning season by clinching the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics World Championship in Detroit, Mich.

The Giant Diencephalic BrainSTEM Robotics Team “has been on fire all season,” says TJ Faber, a team member and junior at North Allegheny Senior High School.

The team has been together for seven years. This was their third trip to the FIRST World Championship. Winning the FIRST Tech Challenge – for kids who design, build, program and operate robots to compete in a head-to-head challenge – was the culmination of a remarkable year.

They set four world records and held the top score globally for nearly two-thirds of the overall season. After winning several qualifier tournaments, they won the Ohio State Championship tournament as the First Place Inspire Award winner – and earned their spot at the World Championship through a top finish at the Northern Super Regionals competition in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

world robotics
Christina Walton, the electronics specialist, works on the team’s robot.

“It’s been fun the whole season,” says Christina Walton, a freshman at Sewickley Academy, the only girl on the team. “We had a really great design early on and were able to just refine it over the course of the season, rather than doing lots of rebuilds like we have sometimes in the past. My brother is a really amazing driver and he set four world records with the robot this season, which was really exciting to watch.”

Christina’s brother James Walton, team captain and a senior at Sewickley Academy, agrees.

“It was an amazing experience,” he says. “This whole season has been exhilarating. We were able to put up big scores all year and established a stronger brand name for the team.

“At Worlds, when we went up to talk with a Korean team that we were going to be playing with, they knew us right away from the YouTube videos of a couple of our record-breaking runs. I personally like to stay more in the background, so it’s been a different experience for me this season to have so many people know about the team and about me as the driver.”

The FTC Robotics Challenge is an annual competition in which more than 60,000 students compete worldwide.  This year’s challenge, “Relic Recovery,” required teams to have their robots balance on a stone, collect and place glyphs (foam cubes) in different patterns, transfer relics, retrieve jewels and navigate to specified areas of a playing field within a 2½-minute time limit.

As the team’s electronics specialist, Christina’s “neurotic focus on detail” was a major asset to the team’s win at the World Championship, says Gordon Walton, team mentor and Dad.

“There was a ton of static electricity on the field, so careful wiring was extra important and kept us from being susceptible to some of the problems that our opponents ended up having,” Christina says. “I spent more than 40 hours getting all of the wiring perfect, making sure it was all done with perfect joints, just the right length wires – making sure everything was routed correctly. And then I ended up putting a form of shrink wrap over all the wires to secure them and provide additional shielding.”

world robotics
BrainSTEM team members presented Children’s Hospital of UPMC with a 3D printer.

In addition to their intensive work preparing for the robotics competition, the BrainSTEM team is involved in community outreach projects, including teaching camps this summer for kids interested in getting more involved with the FIRST Tech Challenge.

They organized an effort to bring together a number of robotics-related companies in Pittsburgh to help provide a 3D printer for a soon-to-be-built maker space at Children’s Hospital of UPMC. They’re planning classes in 3D printing, CAD design and LEGO robotics for patients.

Michael Peck, a senior at Pine-Richland High School, is savoring the team’s victory and what he has learned from the experience.

“I have wanted to win this award for six years, so finally winning means a lot to me,” he says. “When we started as a team, we lacked a lot of the knowledge required to build robots.

“Over a four-year period, I have learned CAD (computer-aided design), CAM (computer-aided manufacturing), how to use a mill and other common machine tools and how to program. FIRST also taught me the required skills to give a good presentation.”

The competition encouraged him to take STEM classes in high school. “It is the reason why I am majoring in mechanical engineering at Rutgers University” in the fall, he says.

world robotics
BrainSTEM team members display their awards.

Members of the winning BrainSTEM Robotics Team are: James Walton, Aydin Turkay, Jayvir Monga and Christina Walton  of Sewickley Academy; Joe Schurer of Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School; Michael Peck of Pine-Richland High School; Caleb Isaac and Adrian Zugehar of Mars Area High School; TJ Faber of North Allegheny High School; Parv Shrivastava of South Fayette High School.

Candy Williams

Candy Williams is a freelance writer and journalist whose articles have appeared in national and local publications. She lives in the South Hills.

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