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SHARP Robotics: Growing The Next Generation of Technology Wizards

April 21, 2017

By Meg Campbell

On any given day of the week, the 30-member team of Sarah Heinz House’s SHARP (Sarah Heinz Advanced Robotics Program) team can be found designing, building, and testing robots. The team is primarily comprised of high school students, though they’re known to admit highly interested middle schoolers from time to time.

When I visit them, they have been there nine of the past 10 days.

“We come in all the time,” shares Katrina, one of the team’s seniors.

“We never go home,” interjects Lily, another senior.

“We come in every evening and work on this. The building opens at three thirty so some of us come at three thirty and some of us wait until six or later to come in,” Katrina goes on to explain.

“Sometimes we meet on Sundays,” offers George, a 15-year-old sophomore.

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“This past week we’ve been here every day except for Thursday, because Thursday the building was closed because of snow,” says Katrina. “We were here on Saturday from nine [a.m.] until ten-thirty [p.m.]”

“It was a definite 12 hour, 13 hour day,” adds Lily, another senior on the team. “And instead of not coming in on Sunday, we came in at ten, ten thirty-ish and stayed until seven.”

It’s not always quite this busy. The team’s First Robotics Competition (FRC) season is in full swing as they prepared for this year’s competition.

The team eagerly shows me the game animation. All of the teams from Pittsburgh and the area – around 30 total – meet to watch it together and get the rules of the game. Rules typically cover the size and weight of the robot, as well as what types of motors and electronics they can use.

“So if you can’t tell, it’s Steampunk-themed, which is pretty cool since it’s robots,” Katrina says.

After showing the game animation, they bring over the robot and to demonstrate how it picks up and places gears and climbs (yes, climbs!) a rope. Even though it won’t get up to speed on the course, its top speed is 17 feet per second (a little bit more than 11.5 miles per hour)

The entire frame was milled and put together with rivets and gussets by the team in their workshop at the basement of the Sarah Heinz House. That evening, 10 students and two mentors work on building the second robot – the one that they’d actually use in competitions. The one upstairs is their first draft and practice model.

Some mentors are alumni of SHARP that are now in college, but most are from local companies who enjoy giving back.

“The one thing that we’re lucky about – the students really do everything, but we have a lot of mentors,” explains George. “As you can see, no one’s really standing around. Everyone has a job, anyone can do anything.”

Katrina leads unofficial tour. “We have a mill that we got last year. It’s really nice and we got a new band saw as well Our previous band saw was – “

“From World War II! Used to build bombers!” suggests George with a laugh.

“- It was with us for a long time,” Katrina finishes with a smile.

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Katrina and George begin to show off the workshop and are joined by 16 year old Kevin.

SHARP has three subteams – mechanical, electrical, and programming.

“If anyone wants to join they can join,” says Kevin. Regardless of what classes they’ve taken or what their background is, SHARP will teach them the skills they need to be successful. While the FRC team is geared toward high school students, classes in early robotics start as young as preschool at the Sarah Heinz House.

“Every Saturday morning we have open robotics, so any kid in the building can come in and learn. While they’re doing that we’ll be working on either of the robots in the back, so they can see us and what they can do in the future,” says Kevin

A younger student pops his head around the corner.

“Hey Kevin. Question. Will this explode?” he asks with a grin.

“Make sure you use the right speed,” Kevin replies, unfazed.

It turns out, when you’re building robots from scratch, that question is bound to come up occasionally.

So, when will things slow down?

“We’ll get sleep in May,” says Katrina.

“Will we?” Lily asks. “May is May Not Robot, so hypothetically we don’t do robots, but we also run a competition that we design in May.”

Katrina explains, “It’s not really a firm rule, it’s more of a suggestion. Summer is our off season. We’ll work on building our skills and have programming classes and build fun things. We’ll also go to outreach events about every week.”

“We do outreach events where we go to Children’s Hospital, Market Square, we spend a lot of time also trying to get others out there interested,” elaborates George.

That outreach is clearly working. In the eight years since the team began, they’ve grown from seven to an average of 30 participants.

Keep an eye out for SHARP around town and learn more about how you can get involved on their Facebook page.