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Set in motion

Rohan Cherlakola, 13, front, Luke Kastner, 14, standing center, and Matthew Gourash, 17, left, work on programming for team robots.Photography by Seb Foltz/ Butler Eagle
Robotics association powers up for championship

VALENCIA — The Mars Robotics Association has a robot named Schrödinger.

It's named such because of the name of the team that built it: Curiosity.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” said Josh Wollerton, a senior enrolled in Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School. “The cat was Schrödinger's.”

The name is a metaphor. Schrödinger's Cat is both alive and dead up to the moment someone looks inside its box.

Schrödinger the Robot works up to the moment it doesn't. However, when — and if — that moment happens, no one knows.

But Josh isn't worried about that. He and the 22 other members of the Mars-based FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) team have had a successful competition year. On Feb. 29, they'll be competing with Schrödinger in the Pennsylvania FTC Championship.

“We've been growing,” said Jeff Beckstead, Mars Robotics Association coach. “Word is getting out.”

Since starting just five years ago, the association now has two groups: FTC for seventh through 12 graders and Lego League for elementary and middle school students. Because Mars Robotics Association is a community league, team members can join from different school districts.

FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” The international organization aims to promote interest in the sciences among students, generating both competition and teamwork. FIRST uses two specific phrases, according to Beckstead.

“Gracious professionalism” means students compete with a professional attitude. “Coopertition” means students are flexible enough to sometimes join forces with other teams and sometimes compete against them. Matches are usually two-on-two, with each robot coming from a different team.The FTC tasks are quick, according to Josh. Each match at the championship lasts about 2.5 minutes. The first set is a round-robin. The top four teams move to the second set. From there, the stakes get higher.“Something will break,” Josh said. Team engineers play an important part in preparing for when something does.But just as important as building, programming and driving robots is marketing. In fact, most FTC competition awards have to do with team presentations, explanations and documentation, according to Mars Area Middle School eighth-grader Evan Szafranski.“I think a big part of it is marketing it to other people,” Evan said.Evan is a member of the Mars Robotics Association's marketing group, which is responsible for public outreach and recruitment. When the association sets up a stand at Mars New Year or Applefest, the marketing team arranges things. The skills associated with that are applicable in the real world. “(It's) learning how to run a business,” said Zoey Miller, a freshman at Shady Side Academy.The marketing team is also responsible for the official Engineering Notebook. “(We) basically document our journey,” Zoey said.FTC teams have Engineering Notebooks they develop each year. These books catalogue the team's events, mechanical and programming processes, marketing efforts, pictures, official forms and templates, presentation slides, fundraising and even uniform sketches.

Uniforms this year include lime green suspenders, bowties and vests with a black Martian head.“It helps us stand out a little,” said Clara Pitkins, a senior at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center.Evan, Zoey and Clara are part of a six-person marketing team, which also includes Kate Wollerton. Kate joined the team because of Josh, her brother. “It looked like fun,” Kate said.Each member of the marketing group learned about FTC through a team member. Together, they whole-heartedly believe students should consider joining the Mars Robotics Association.Some members of the Mars Robotics Association will be traveling to the championship early to meet with state Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-21st, in Harrisburg. Hutchinson is a big robotics supporter, according to Beckstead. Others will be driving to the competition Feb. 29.Members of Mars Robotics Association plan to take “coopertition” and “gracious professionalism” to heart next weekend. If another team needs an extra form or a spare wire, they'll be happy to loan what they can. They've done it in the past.“We've been very lucky,” Clara said. “We just want to help other teams succeed.”“It's not about the robots,” Beckstead said. “It's more about the team.”The Pennsylvania FTC Championship begins at noon Feb. 29 in the Red Lion Senior High School gymnasium in Red Lion. The public is welcome to attend.More information is available at www.marsroboticsassociation.org.

Lindsey Gourash, 15, left, Owen Anderson, 15, center, and Nathan Hale, 15, troubleshoot an issue with their team robot Schrödinger.
Josh Wollerton, 17, and Lindsey Gourash, 15, troubleshoot an issue with their team robot 'Schrodinger.'

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