Home-schooled students from North Hills advance in robotics competition | TribLIVE.com
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Meimei Lewis, 15, of Cranberry and Jack Giebel, 16, of Franklin Park work on Bladerunner, a robot constructed to build a wind turbine, for the FINS (Family Instructors of the North Suburbs) robotics team at Giebel's house in Franklin Park, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. Bladerunner helped the FINS team win a local robotics competition sponsored by BEST Robotics Inc., allowing the team to advance to the regional competition in Fargo, N.D.

A team of 27 home-schooled students from the North Hills will head to North Dakota to compete in the next round of a robotics competition that challenged students to build a robot capable of assembling components of a wind turbine.

The FINS team won top awards in the Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology Robotics Inc. contest at Grove City College, an achievement that earned members a chance to represent Pittsburgh in a national competition against 31 other schools in early December in Fargo, N.D.

The team’s name stands for Family Instructors of the North Suburbs, and its members won first place among 16 teams from Western Pennsylvania and Ohio in robotics and second in the overall BEST award, given to recognize overall excellence in design, engineering and marketing.

FINS built “Bladerunner,” a robot, in the Franklin Park garage of head mentor Dave Giebel. The team was given supplies and six weeks to build the robot, which then had to build a wind turbine.

“The competition, or game, this year was based on a wind energy theme with the main goal to build simulated wind turbines,” Giebel said.

“The robot had to travel from one part of a course to the next, transporting windmill parts like blades and hubs, navigating over a rough road or bridge. It then has to assemble or install the parts to complete the turbine assembly in three minutes.”

BEST Robotics Inc. is a nonprofit, volunteer organization that works to inspire middle through high school students to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology, said Tom Fitzmaurice, executive director.

Giebel said the team came together four years ago, and as the students grew into middle and high school age, they wanted to participate in a more challenging competition.

They were invited to join the BEST competitions by Mike Bright, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Grove City College and director of Wolverine BEST, one of BEST’s nationwide hubs.

“Every year, the BEST game is based on a real industry — renewable energy in this case,” Bright said.

Bright said at game day in October, each team must submit an engineering notebook describing its design and construction process. Teams then give a marketing presentation, and must build an exhibit. After competing on game day with their robot, winners are chosen.

Bright said FINS won the right to compete at the Northern Plains BEST regional competition, scheduled Dec. 4 to 6 in Fargo. “Teams from approximately seven states will compete there,” he said.

Wolverine BEST started in 2010 and includes 16 teams made up of home-schooled groups, private Christian schools and public schools. Grove City College sponsors the venues, builds the playing field and provides volunteers. Materials to build robots and operation costs are provided through sponsors.

There are 46 hubs nationwide, mainly concentrated in the South and Texas. Hubs are colleges and universities that sponsor the competitions.

Giebel said students must work with materials provided to them. The students worked in small groups simultaneously, to make the component designs on paper or with 3D modeling software.

“The robot was built out of construction materials such as plywood, PVC pipe, aluminum sheet metal, half-inch aluminum, nuts, bolts, screws, and electronic components,” Giebel said.

“More often than not, a particular part of the robot does not work as expected, and they have to come up with a new design in a short time frame. In the end though, these challenges are great learning experiences, and they also learn to persevere and overcome these obstacles.”

Chasity Capasso is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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