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McKeesport Robotics Team Heads to Championship

Local high school team also includes EA, EF and Norwin students

By Jason A. Mignanelli
The Tube City Almanac
March 30, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

The McKeesport robotics team poses after qualifying for a championship at the Miami Valley Regional FIRST Robotics competition at Xavier University in Cincinnati. (Submitted photo courtesy Team 1708)

The robotics team based at McKeesport Area High School is headed to the world championship in Texas next month.

Amp’D Robotics — McKeesport-based FIRST Robotics Team 1708 — was chosen to compete for trophies and cash prizes from April 19 to 22 at the annual FIRST Robotics Competition in Houston.

FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — is an international organization that sanctions science, engineering and robotics clubs and contests for high school students.

Co-lead mentor and former team member Jason Mols has been mentoring and coaching the team since 2014.  A mechanical engineer by trade who works for RE2 Robotics, Mols shares the mentoring duties with Derek Price another former member of the team.

“We are based out of McKeesport High School, but we have students from four local high schools on our team,” Mols said. Also represented are students from East Allegheny, Elizabeth Forward and Norwin plus one home-schooled student, he said.

McKeesport Area junior Cameron Goldinger and his brother, senior Dillon Goldinger, have been with the program since 9th grade. Their dad, Chris Goldinger of McKeesport, has now seen four of his kids go through the program.

“It’s a great program. My two older kids went on to pursue engineering careers but the great thing about the program is there is really a spot for anyone. You don’t have to want to be an engineer. Anyone with an interest in learning about tools or design or anything, they’ll find a sport for you. They don’t turn anyone away,” said Chris Goldinger.

The competition challenges teams to create robots that can autonomously perform tasks as well as perform functions under the control of student remote drivers.

“5,200 teams compete world-wide, and 1,000 get to go to the world finals,” said Mols.

One of Team 1708’s creations, “Python,” built for FIRST Robotics competitions. (Submitted photo courtesy Team 1708)

It was somewhat unexpected that the team would make the world finals, he said, because they technically weren’t seeded high enough heading into the Miami Valley regional tournament a few weeks ago at Xavier University in Cincinnati. However, an unlikely series of events transpired.

“McKeesport 1708 was specifically chosen by the first- and second-place teams to be in an alliance that is needed to win the competitions. Team 695 and Team 1732 could have chosen anyone, but they picked us,” said Ryder Alexander, a senior at McKeesport Area High School and one of the teams’ drivers.

Teams 695 and 1732 are from high schools in Beachwood, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wis., respectively.

“I think they chose our team because of our defensive driving skills and our kids’ knowledge of the competition,” said Chris Goldinger.

The 5,200 other teams are made up of students from all over the world and many of the other teams — unlike the McKeesport regional students — have unlimited resources at their disposal.

“Often times we are simply out funded by the other programs,” said Mols. “Some of these teams are working out of multi-million-dollar facilities. One of the teams works out of a NASA bay, and other teams work in Silicon Valley.  Our motto this year was simple, they might be able to out-fund us but they can’t out-engineer us.”

Team 1708 will have another opportunity to sharpen their skills and better prepare for the competition that they will face at the championships.

“We have a competition this weekend at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center beginning on Thursday, and ending on Saturday,” said Alexander.

It’s not the first time that McKeesport 1708 has made it to the world championships, but it has been a few years since their last appearance.

“The students fundraise year-round because these competitions can carry hefty entry fees sometimes upwards of $5,000 or more, and that’s not even including the cost to build the robots,” said Goldinger

“The unexpected trip to Houston, Texas, with this many students for this amount of time could cost between $20,000 and $30,000,” said Mols.

The team is seeking sponsors and donations to offset the cost, he said. Anyone interested in contributing financially to the team can contact the mentors directly at first.team1708@gmail.com.

Even though the students choose to dedicate countless hours to the program, the mentors are understanding and flexible with student’s who participate in other clubs and sports.

“Sometimes my kids work on building the robots five or six days a week.  My boys just go to cross country or track and field or soccer and then go straight to robotics. They are busy kids,” said Chris Goldinger.

Many of the students on the team have been with the program for six years and began as student members of the Lego League, another competitive engineering league on a smaller scale and for younger competitors.

The program’s popularity continues to grow with the success of televisions shows such as “Battle Bots,” and anyone wishing to view some of Team 1708’s past exploits can find them on YouTube.

Students are recruited to the team in many ways, but Mols said that they often go to events such as a Pittsburgh Pirates game at PNC Park and shoot T-shirts out of a shirt-cannon promoting FIRST Robotics. 

“Nothing attracts kids like a T-shirt cannon,” Mols said.

Jason A. Mignanelli is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh’s North Hills and a student at Duquesne University. He may be reached at mignanellij@duq.edu.

Originally published March 30, 2023.

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