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South Hills area robotics team offers varied learning experiences

Picture a 125-pound, nearly three-foot-tall mechanical creation climb unassisted onto a set of monkey bars, amid a throng of folks who are rooting for it to succeed.

“It’s as exciting as a hockey game or a football game,” Upper St. Clair resident and Scott Township native Ellen Simon said. “When it goes up, you just can not believe you’re watching this massive robot that was built by high schoolers lift off the ground. I mean, people go crazy. ”

Her homechooled sons, Ty and Ian Orsag, are part of the leadership for the Titanium Titans, a robotics team in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) international youth organization. Ty, who is ready to graduate and start studying at Swarthmore College, serves as business lead and safety captain, and Ian, a sophomore, is the team captain.

Based at the Armory Youth Center in Canonsburg and including members for a dozen South Hills-vicinity school districts, the Titans have the main focus of preparing formidable entries – that essentially means building them from scratch – for robotics competitions in Western Pennsylvania and beyond.

“FIRST calls it a varsity sport for the mind. You have all the excitement of the sport, all the team spirit, “Ty said, noting one exception to what fans might expect otherwise in a gymnasium:” There’s no booing. I’ve never heard anyone boo at a FIRST competition, not once. “

There was plenty of cheering, though, when the Titans were selected for the Innovation in Control Award from among 40-plus participating teams in the Smoky Mountains Regional this spring in Knoxville, Tenn., In addition to finishing eighth in the overall competition.

One of the assigned tasks was for robots to aim at goals with their cargo, which in this case was spheres resembling oversized tennis balls.

“We used a vision camera to track the hub, which is the goal, and then it calculated the distance,” Ian said. “And so we were able to shoot from pretty much anywhere on the field and get really good accuracy. That was one of the things that helped us win the award. ”

Each year, FIRST announces a “game,” or series of robot-related activities, in which teams will engage during competitions.

“We then talk strategy for the next couple of days, and then we actually start designing the robot,” Ian said, via computer. “After we have a basic design in CAD, we then start manufacturing the parts for it.”

In addition to learning how to build industrial-sized robots, the Titanium Titans undertake further activities to sustain what actually has been incorporated as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, most notably raising money. Although adults participate as mentors, the operation is run by the students.

“It is a sport, but it also trains our participants to enter the workforce,” Ty said. “We are also getting experience in things like grant writing and talking to sponsors and making cold calls. That’s all really great experience. “

Another component is outreach, and the Titans conduct workshops for youngsters in kindergarten through eighth grade, using age-appropriate Lego kits to teach the basics of robotics and associated tasks such as coding.

“Typically, either we create our own little game for them to play with Lego block pieces, or we do competitions where they have to build robots to physically push each other off the board,” Ty said. “That’s a super-popular one.”

Along with the Armory Youth Center, the Titans also have space as an outreach center at Donaldson’s Crossroads in Peters Township, where they will run summer technology camps. Some are also planned for local elementary schools.

To enhance their visibility with an eye toward recruitment, team members are participating in Canonsburg’s annual Fourth of July Parade and Whiskey Rebellion festivities in Washington, plus other events such as the Upper St. Clair Rotary Farmers’ Market, scheduled on Thursdays throughout the season.

For more information about the Titanium Titans, including joining the team, visit titaniumtitans.org.

Harry Funk is a Tribune-Review news editor. You can contact Harry at [email protected]

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