Team SHARP in action in the pit at the Pittsburgh FIRST regional competition.

Watch out, world. Here comes Team SHARP.

Team member Billy Sullivan, a senior at Sewickley Academy says, “I’ve always had a passion for building crazy things and seeing how they worked.” As one of 19 high-school students from 10 different schools on Team SHARP, Billy got to do just that as the team captured first-place in March at the Pittsburgh Regional FIRST Robotics Competition.

That triumph is sending the team to St. Louis for the FIRST Robotics World Championship April 23-26.

In the world of robotics, it’s a very big deal and a thrill for the Sarah Heinz House on the North Side where Team SHARP is based.

Getting to the World Championship was immensely challenging, drawing on and building numerous skills from each team member. But most are like Billy, with a passion for building crazy things–and the persistence to make them work.

The winning team.
The winning team.

Both the regional and local competitions put robots on what looks like a combination volleyball and soccer field. Each team had six weeks to build a robot to meet the year’s challenge, which was released early in January. For 2014, the robot had to pass and catch a two-foot-wide exercise ball, score goals in corner baskets and high nets, and even play defense. There’s a beam strung across the middle of the field where the top of a volleyball net would be, where the robot can pass the ball for more points.

After finishing their robot, the team must seal it into a bag and ship it to the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition site – where they will have a pit, a la NASCAR, to make last-minute additions and repairs. Each competition has about a dozen elimination trials, after which the best teams are invited to choose two other teams as allies for the final match.

Billy Sullivan has been doing robotics all through his school years, starting a Lego team in grade school and robotics teams at both middle and senior schools at Sewickley. He’s been involved in “every process” of robot design, he says, “from thinking how to solve the problem to actually building it and programming it.

“I still wanted to do something bigger,” he says. “That’s when I found the Sarah Heinz House.”

Five years from scratch to the finals

Team SHARP at work on their robot for FIRST.
Team SHARP at work on their robot for FIRST.

Team SHARP — Sarah Heinz Advanced Robotics Program – is just one of many robotics programs here, directed by Christine Nguyen, who is also the team coach. The team also has five mentors with experience in robot-related fields, such as mechanical engineering, “who do most of the communication with the kids about what won’t work, what might work,” Nguyen says, “although we have a strong policy that kids have to do all the hands-on work.” It’s important that the program leaves the kids feeling “that they are the ones building the robot, that they trust one another, that they are a family.

“I’m lucky to have very dedicated kids,” she adds. “Half of the kids show up six nights a week during the build seasons. When I talk to other coaches, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

The SHARP team meets and works on robots year-round. “I really enjoy it,” says Billy. “I come from school and I get to just build and not think of anything but the robot. I joke around and just concentrate on the robot. I treat school as my job and I think of going to Sarah Heinz House as a break in my day.”

This is the team’s fifth year. “Our first year, we really struggled,” Nguyen recalls. SHARP put a robot on the field, but it didn’t move. “Our second year wasn’t much better.”

That’s the year Billy Sullivan joined. He recalls helping to build part of one year’s robot–a mini-bot that deployed from the main robot, attaching to a pole on the field and climbing it for extra points at FIRST. “We had trouble getting onto the pole,” Billy recalls. “Another robot would always end up hitting us, and we’d be freaking out. So it worked–just not during the competition.”

The six-week build, says teammate Raina Oravec–an 11th grader from Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy in her first year on the team–“is really intense. Everybody is flying through stuff as quickly as possible and hoping it works.”

“This year we felt much better than during any other year,” Billy says. “We had a robot that worked a week ahead of when we had to bag it. I don’t know if we’ve ever been in a position where we weren’t adding stuff and building stuff at the competition.”

The group had a full week to test their creation, which was a large factor in their success, Nguyen says.

“That played a big role in our morale,” Billy adds. It also left teammates time to scout the competition, allowing them to pick the best pair of teams for their alliance at the regional competition, held at California University of Pennsylvania. “Once you get to the point where you’re, ‘Oh my God, we’re in third place,’ you’re like, ‘Oh my God, what is going to happen?’ That’s when you feel the rush.”

Luke Melcher of Team SHARP at work on the winning robot.
Luke Melcher of Team SHARP at work on the winning robot.

“It’s really fun – everyone is cheering for everyone,” remembers Team SHARP member Kevin Selavko, an 11th grader at Quigly Academy in Baden, in Beaver County. It’s the spirit of “gracious professionalism,” he says, that turns the patchwork quilt in the stands–all the teams in their matching t-shirt “uniforms–into each other’s fans.

“But it’s really tiring,” Kevin admits. “I drive the robot, so I have to be able to perform. But after the competitions I go to sleep for, like, a couple of days.”

Kevin has also been doing robotics since kindergarten, and like all his teammates has picked up a specialty. In his case it’s the robot’s drive train and electronics. This year the kids designed a robot with chains, like bicycle chains, to move the wheels–the very technology that hadn’t worked in their first year. “Now with the experience we have and the people we have, we were actually able to do it,” Kevin says. He also designed a gear-shift box that allowed the robot to make quick runs or stand its ground and push two other robots at once out of its way.

As real-world as you can get in high-school

The six-week robotics build each spring starts with a week of prototype brainstorming and design. That’s the toughest week of the process, Nguyen says, since the kids put their hearts and souls into ideas and then most are cut in favor of the final, chosen design.

“It’s as real-world as you can get in high-school,” she says.

Billy Sullivan recalls having one of his ideas rejected this year: he pitched a kicker to launch the ball, rather than the team’s choice of pneumatics (air compressors). “But I just picked up the pieces and moved on,” he says. In fact, he helped the group devise a solution when its single compressor failed to put enough oomph behind the ball – three smaller air compressors acting in parallel.

The SHARP team is unusual in that it welcomes middle-schoolers.

“They see us working on the big robot and they want to move up,” says Kevin. “Christine has a hard time keeping them at the lower level.”

Adds Raina Oravec: “I honestly think it makes the team a lot better and the younger kids will have more time on the team so when us older kids graduate they will know more of what’s going on.” Raina’s specialty is handling the business, media and photography side of the team, although she did work on the robot chains and wheels this year.SHARP's creation in action.

SHARP’s creation in action.

During the regionals–the team also competed at the Cleveland regional–she says she got to meet many other teams from as far away as Florida and Canada.

“The main thing I’ve gotten out of this is learning to socialize better,” she says. “I used to be really shy and hide from people, but now I go up to new people and say ‘Hi there!’ It is so amazing – everybody feels like they’re your family on the team.”

On to St. Louis and STEM careers

In St. Louis, “I’m really looking forward to robo-prom,” she says, which was devised because some kids miss their senior dance to compete in the FIRST finals. That won’t happen to Raina. “But I just feel robo-prom is better,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who will sit outside the room where people are dancing and make new friends.”

Her team experience is helping her in an engineering course at school and in moving her toward a career in the new field of engineering management, she says.

I’ve heard it’s amazing,” says Billy about the St. Louis competition, where more than 250 teams will face off, compared to 40-60 in regionals. “I think it’s going to be crazy but it’s going to be fun. Just the atmosphere … how big it is and all those amazing robots together, because you know everyone there is the best of the best.”

He has plans for a robotics engineering career after high school – and the lessons he’s learned at SHARP are propelling him there: “I don’t think that I would be where I am without it. If you have something that is fun but at the same time you are using all these skills,” he says, noting that  classroom lessons stick, and applying them to real-world tasks comes more naturally.

“It’s had me exploring different things in school,” adds Kevin. “Freshman year I took three different math classes. I’ve learned a lot about teamwork, how to interact with other people.”

“It’s kind of cool–my co-driver and I have formed a very interesting relationship,” he adds. “We yell at each other” but it helps them focus.

Kevin is already looking forward to post-competition sessions, when the group will be remaking their Frisbee shooter just to play with it, and building a t-shirt cannon “just to show off,” he jokes.

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Click to read more in this series! This article is part of a series in Learning Innovation in partnership with WQED, Pittsburgh Magazine and WESA.

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere. He teaches magazine writing for Creative Nonfiction magazine.