York County robotics team win shows what STEM can do

Robots on "Planet Primus" only have two minutes and thirty seconds to navigate unpredictable weather and terrain and collect cargo for their spaceships before another sandstorm hits.

This was the task at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Mid-Atlantic District Championship, a regional robotics competition held at Lehigh University April 3-6, according to a news release.

TechFire Robotics of York — a nonprofit community robotics team including 26 students from 10 schools — won first place collectively with two other teams and will advance to the national championship April 24-27 in Detroit.

"It really drives interest in STEM and puts it in a really exciting realm of gameplay," said the team's coach, Tom Traina.

Dallastown Area, Central York, Eastern York, West York Area, York Catholic, Susquehannock, Kennard-Dale and York Suburban high schools were represented as were York County School of Technology and York Country Day School.

The regional championship was the culmination of five weeks of competition, in which the top 36 teams from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware competed using robots they designed and built.

TechFire, which has won four out of the past five years, competed three-on-three on a 27-by-54-foot field, "like a basketball court," Traina said, with 125-pound robots.

To prepare, the team builds two robots at $7,000-9,000 each, funded by donations, said team member Jagr Krtanjek, 18.

The York Country Day School student said having a second bot allows them to practice — which they do for 36 hours each week — because the competition bot has to be untouched after the 6-week building process is complete.

Gov. Tom Wolf came out to the event to highlight the importance of STEM education, and "I actually taught him how to drive the robot," said Krtanjek, who said the governor was surprised by how well he did.

“These students have created amazing robots, but imagine what advances will happen over their lifetimes and careers," Wolf stated in a news release, urging more work to be done to advance education in science, technology, engineering and math.

More:Two York County teams head to state robotics championship

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf visits the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Mid-Atlantic District Championship, a regional robotics competition held at Lehigh University April 3-6. 

TechFire Robotics of York (pictured) won first place, and will compete again in the Detroit, Michigan nationals April 24-27. (Photo by: Daphne Frownfelter)

Wolf's PAsmart initiative recently awarded its first $20 million in grants to support computer science and STEM education in elementary, middle and high schools and professional development for teachers, the release states.

The funding will benefit 765 schools across the state — with opportunities in camps, after-school programs, esports teams in high-need areas, pre-K-2 classrooms and a mobile fabrication lab for coding and robotics.

Traina said the championship teaches students time and project management, how to work together as teams and integrated design — which is so critical for the country given the decline of technical jobs and workers. 

Members of the Tech Fire robotics team practice for the upcoming World Championship event in Detroit, Thursday, April 18, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

More:Middle school outreach, apprenticeships needed for tech education

"It’s the most optimistic I’ve been about the future," he said.

Krtanjek appreciates the "gracious professionalism" taught in the competition and said it's very useful to have that collaborative aspect in the workforce. If a team's robot breaks, they help fix it so that team can compete at its highest level, he said.

Wolf is proposing an additional $10 million for the initiative this year to expand career and technical education for adults and job training programs.

TechFire will be out and about at Give Local York's Big Give Day in May, and any eligible student can apply to join the team or work for the nonprofit, Traina said.