“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.