Photo courtesy of Janice Wasson
Team SHARP works on its robot — Sharp Shooter — in the robot pit during a competition.

By Alyse Horn

In March, the Sarah Heinz House robotics team –Team SHARP – placed first in Pittsburgh’s FIRST Regional Robotics Competition, which catapulted the team to the FIRST Robotics World Championship in St. Louis, which concluded on April 25.

FIRST stands for the Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams. According to its website, it “is a premier organization and recognized global leader in incident response.”

Christine Nguyen, technology education and robotics director at Sarah Heinz House, said the team wasn’t sure what to expect in a worldwide competition, but they did extraordinarily well.

Nguyen said there were 400 other groups competing on Team SHARP’s level, which are then split into four divisions of 100 teams. Overall, Sarah Heinz House finished 47th in its division and 10th in offensive points.

The offensive points rating comes from the robotic challenge, where each team was asked to build a robot that is no more than 120 pounds and is less than five feet in height. Each team had six weeks, January and February, to build their machines. The robot must be able to play basketball and shoot the ball into a six foot basket.

Although Sarah Heinz House competed in only two regional competitions, Nguyen said they happened every Saturday for six weeks and winning one competition would allow the winner to receive an invitation to the world championship.

“From there [the championship] is just a bigger version of regionals, except you’re playing against the toughest robots in the world,” Nguyen said.

Team SHARP, which stands for Sarah Heinz House Advanced Robotics Program, officially started in 2010 and Nguyen said during the first year of the program the kids could barely get their robots to move.

After the first year the team adopted the motto, “just get a little better each year,” Nguyen said.

“We knew we would do well this year, but we had no idea we would do this well,” Nguyen said. “[The team has] worked incredibly hard, we had to fight every step of the way, and they deserve this.”

This year there were 19 participants on Team SHARP from seventh through 12th grade, and 17 team members were able to travel to the world championship in St. Louis.

Nguyen said the team is composed of students who are willing to meet team requirements. During the year, the students build, program, design and create a robot during the six week build season, and then start competing.

The team is supervised by different mentors who volunteer to help the students. Nguyen said this year, PhD students from the mechanical engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University offered to lend their time. Other mentors have included government and Comcast employees, and various volunteers with technology backgrounds.

“It has been a pleasure to work with the robotics team at Sarah Heinz House and see them grow and succeed,” said Ron Sell, Jr., a Comcast engineer who has mentored the team for the past two years. “These students are dedicated, smart, and determined, and I am proud of what they have accomplished in reaching the national competition.”

Nguyen said the goal of the program is to “encourage students to participate in technology related fields, enjoy engineering and the process, and to give students hands on experience.”

Even though the purpose of the team is to gain technological insight, Nguyen said the students have created their own “family,” and the students “push each other to do better and work harder.”

“We are a young team,” Nguyen said. “They are creating a legacy, which I hope others want to be part of, and it’s not only about building winning robotics.”