Dec. 9, 2021
Enthusiasm builds for USC Robotics
Under the leadership of Tracy Smith, Upper St. Clair physics and robotics teacher, after-school robotics teams have formed at Boyce and Fort Couch middle schools and Upper St. Clair High School. She hopes the USC Robotics Club educates and inspires students to embrace technology and imagine what they could create using it.
“Pittsburgh is currently a worldwide epicenter for robotics technology. This is unbelievably exciting! Unfortunately, the majority of students in the Pittsburgh area are not exposed to skill sets that are involved in this industry. Some may not be involved because their school does not offer programs while others may not be involved because they don't see how content like programming, engineering, and robotics is relevant to future careers in their areas of interest,” she said. “I am doing my best, through various means, to make sure that Upper St Clair School District not only has diverse STEAM opportunities to participate in, but also to demonstrate to students how skill sets using innovation and technology can transfer to ALL future careers.”
Mrs. Smith first formed a robotics club at USCHS in 2003, soon after she joined the USC faculty. Through a grant from the Community Foundation of Upper St. Clair, she purchased a small number of LEGO robotics kits.
“That year I went to a FIRST Robotics competition and was wowed by what I saw... but also extremely intimidated,” she said. “Without having formal robotics education, starting a FIRST robotics team seemed outside of what I was capable of handling as a new teacher.”
Nearly two decades later, Mrs. Smith met with two FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) teams, as well as other former FIRST coaches, in the community who offered their support to implement FIRST Robotics at USC.
“I realized that another two decades could easily pass by if I didn't step up and take on the challenge to get involved with FIRST,” Mrs. Smith said. “I knew that our students not only deserve this opportunity but need more outlets to be innovative, implementing skill sets learned in the classroom and challenging themselves to try something new.”
In addition to revitalizing the USC Robotics Club at the high school, Mrs. Smith recognized the need to introduce robotics much earlier. Working with Dr. Timothy Wagner, USCHS principal, she proposed the USC Robotics Club reach out to the middle schools to help start FIRST Lego League (FLL) Challenge teams for students in grades five through eight. The plan was that the high school FIRST team members, as well as other interested students, could mentor the middle school teams.
“I couldn't let go of the idea that starting at the high school was too late. Mr. Matt Henderson at Boyce and Mr. Jason O'Roark at Fort Couch offered to join the initiative and are the dedicated FLL coaches at their schools,” she said. “Though the roll out during a COVID year did not go exactly as planned, this year we were successful at incorporating three FIRST Tech Challenge teams at the high school, four FIRST Lego League Challenge teams at Fort Couch, and four FIRST Lego League Challenge teams-in-training at Boyce.”
The outpouring of interest and support for USC Robotics has been incredible. At the high school level, more than 25 students are participating on official FTC teams and approximately 10 other students who attend club meetings to learn more about robotics.
“To say that there is interest is an understatement,” Mrs. Smith said. “Though most of the high school teams this year consist mainly of male students, I am working on having an all-female FTC team next year. I see the aptitude of female students in this school with respect to problems solving, innovation and technology and I know that USC females could have a dominating presence in the FIRST Robotics community.”
Boyce and Fort Couch middle schools have also experienced an enthusiastic response from students.
“At the middle school level, the response was overwhelming! We were not prepared for the amount of interest that we had starting off the school year,” Mrs. Smith said. “Unfortunately, due to COVID restrictions and limited resources, we were only able to accommodate 24 students participating in FIRST at each of the middle schools.”
For next year, Mrs. Smith is looking into how all interested students can get involved on a FIRST Lego League Challenge team.
“For this year, we plan on offering a second semester Robotics Club opportunity for students who were not able to be involved in the first semester, official FLL competition,” she said.
In addition to student interest, parents and staff members have shown their support and excitement for the program.
“The support from staff and parents is amazing! The amount of work that teachers and parents are putting into a successful first year of FIRST is heartwarming,” Mrs. Smith said. “As with all new programs, there have been hiccups in getting started. Luckily, hiccups haven't deterred the support and enthusiasm from staff and parents alike.”
There are multiple ways that parents and community members can support USC Robotics efforts – guest speakers, volunteer coaches and mentors, and community sponsors.
“We are always looking for guest speakers and mentors for both the USC Robotics Club and USC classes related to programming, engineering and robotics,” Mrs. Smith said. “The more practical applications the students are exposed to, the more relevant their formal education will be and the more likely they will be to get involved in various extracurricular opportunities related to innovation and technology.”
Volunteers are needed to serve as coaches and mentors for the many robotics teams.
“We do not have enough teachers to manage the large amount of team interest at the middle schools and the high school,” Mrs. Smith said. “Parent coaches and mentors play a vital role in having FLL and FTC teams. We cannot continue to grow this program without more parent and community involvement.”
The USC Robotics Club has corporate and community sponsorship opportunities for those willing and able to help support this initiative financially.
“We continue to look for company and community sponsors to help with the high cost of this technology-driven opportunity,” Mrs. Smith said. “In general, we are looking at minimum costs around $1,500 for each FLL team and $3,000 for each FTC team. As you can see, there were significant expenses to start involvement with FIRST this year.”
To date, more than one-third of the program’s startup expenses have been covered through financial support from the following organizations: Arconic, Eaton, KSG Orthodontics, Locomation, Mascaro Construction, RoCo Global, STEM4YINZ Learning and Thoro. The USC Robotics continues to consider other sources of funding such as grants and fundraisers as well.
Thoro, an autonomous systems company with customers worldwide, recently announced its support for USC Robotics. In addition to providing a financial contribution, Thoro’s engineers are sharing their knowledge of robotics engineering with technology classes and student teams as they prepare to compete in upcoming robotics competitions.
A team of Thoro engineers visited Upper St. Clair High School on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, to share their knowledge and expertise of autonomous mobile robotics. More than 100 students enrolled in the school’s technology classes attended the presentation.
“Investing in the next generation of engineers and roboticists is something that we’re passionate about; it’s how many of us got our start in this field. I was involved with a similar robotics program during high school, and our sponsor was critical to the enthusiasm, knowledge and success of my team,” said Leo Agafonov, head of field operations at Thoro. “We’re eager to share the inner workings of the software and sensors that power our autonomous mobile robots, especially since the students are familiar with our autonomous cleaning scrubbers that sanitize their hallways every day.”
For more information about USC Robotics and ways to get involved, visit www.uscrobotics.org.