Murrysville robotics team reaches tournament finals

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Robots bucked and tilted at the Southwest PA Regional First Tech Challenge -- a 30-team robotics tournament held Feb. 9 at Robert Morris University. Each team robot was placed in an "alliance" with two other team robots. The robot alliances then worked to take over a PVC-pipe rack by hanging rings on it, making sure to defend the ring positions from enemy alliances.

The Terabytes, a team out of Murrysville, lost in the final match. But the Terabytes were awarded the first-place Inspire award for excellence in design, innovation and creativity. Since inception in 2004, the Terabytes have become world championship contenders in the First Tech Challenge.

"First" is an acronym for For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology. The organization hosts an annual circuit of tournaments at regional and state levels. The six-month season culminates in the First Tech Challenge World Championship, to be held in St. Louis in April.

"You're standing there driving this 18-by-18 robot and you see what you've been able to accomplish," said Terabytes veteran Josh Kephart.

Josh, a home-schooled high school senior, actually drove the Terabytes' robot to a world record score during the Jan. 4-5 Northeastern Ohio Regional Qualifier. The Terabytes had been allied with Hacksaw, a team from Lyndhurst, Ohio. Together, the alliance bested the Girls in Black (Hudson, Ohio) and Blue Screen of Death (Peninsula, Ohio).

"It was a blast," said Josh. "We ran away with it at the end, but there were a couple of moments with software failures ... it's amazing how much adrenaline you get from something like this."

"What [First] decided was that kids are really into sports and their heroes are often those folks," explained Josh's father and team mentor, Luke Kephart. "First wanted to encourage kids to get excited about engineering, science and materials. So they created a sport around robotics."

The Terabytes were formed in 2004 as a "Lego League," a team for elementary school aged children that utilizes Lego parts in design competitions. As the Terabytes grew, so did their competition level. By 2010, the team became a part of the First Tech Challenge for seventh-grade through high school students. As FTC students, the Terabytes mastered a more advanced kit of robot parts to perform different game tasks in every season. In 2012, the Terabytes made it to their first World Championship during a crate-stacking game season. They earned 17th place out of 128 teams.

The Terabytes now boast a nine-member roster. Field function controller Nathan Schartner and field coach Nathan Slippy are high school seniors like Josh, but the Terabytes have a total of five seniors. Since First has no rules about how a team can be formed, the Terabytes came together as an organization of friends. They are both home- and public-schooled.

"Being a senior doesn't make you a captain," Josh explained. "I'm more of a leader this year than I was last year. Two of the other seniors and I are pretty much leading, but everyone contributes a ton."

Luke Kephart, CEO of the RIDC-based Extrel CMS LLC, mentors the Terabytes alongside Andy Alexander, Chad Vizino and Matt Peretic. Mr. Peretic is a Terabytes alum. He is in his first year of mentoring while studying robotics at Penn State University's New Kensington branch.

In addition to holding the competition circuit, First encourages its teams to get involved in their communities and make positive differences in people's lives. Likewise, the Terabytes are packing for a trip to Guatemala in March. While in Guatemala, the Terabytes will work at the Agua Viva children's home to teach middle school-aged kids about robotics, science and technology. On the home front, the Terabytes have been mentoring team Propel, a new team out of the Propel charter school in McKeesport. The Terabytes' outreach efforts have earned a Connect Award from First.

"A lot of kids never get to have this opportunity," Josh said, summarizing the Terabyte experience. "You're in a competition with your peers and excelling. It's really fun."

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Cara DeCarlo, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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