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Sunday afternoons for the students of Pitt County Robotics are anything but lazy.

Walk into the workshop attached to C.M. Eppes Middle School in Greenville over the weekend, and there are likely dozens of students from eight different high schools working together to build a robot that can lift and place blocks for competitions across the region, state, and country.

Pitt County robotics is home to two teams – Boneyard and Pitt Pirates – who compete in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, an international STEM gathering. The competition features multiple events ranging from building robots with legos for elementary school aged kids to the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) for high school students.

The two Pitt County teams are comprised of 75 high school students who act as engineers, programmers, marketers and drivers. Last year, both teams made it to the worldwide competition in Houston.

Alannah Napast, a sophomore at South Central and a founding member of Pitt County Robotics’ first FTC team, was inspired by her time on both the FTC team and Pitt Pirates to pursue STEM in the future.

“I feel like when I’m older, I should mentor,” Napast said, “keep (FRC) going, keep changing kids lives.”

Competitions consist of two rounds: autonomous and teleoperated. The competition starts with randomized alliances of three robots acting on their own with pre-programmed code to lift cubes onto a see-saw in a video-game style event, followed by human operators controlling their robots to do the same actions, as well as pile up cubes for “power-ups” and other tasks. The alliance with the greatest amount of points after the two rounds wins, and these go on for several qualification rounds.

In the final rounds, the game is the same but the top teams pick alliances out of other teams that they scouted out during qualification rounds.

High school students work on robotics construction. Sara Kiley Watson/EducationNC

Pitt County Robotics is run by husband and wife duo Bill and Ann McClung. Bill is an engineer at Nutrien and Ann was a science teacher at South Central High School. She now works at the Center for STEM Education at East Carolina University. Both started with the program 11 years ago as founding mentors for the Pitt Pirates.

“It sucks you in,” Ann McClung said. “You do it one or two times, and then the next thing you know, you’re mentoring and hanging out with these kids, trying to figure it out and having a good time.”

But it takes more than just the two leaders to juggle the variety of teams, including younger groups. Teachers, community members, and even current high school team members act as mentors both to the FRC teams and FIRST LEGO league (FLL) teams.

Yasmin Parker, a high school junior on the Boneyard FRC team and winner of a volunteer of the year award, helped her younger siblings set up an FLL team which won a rising star award. Being on Boneyard pushed her to be more confident, and act as a leader throughout her three years on the team.

“I want to be a civil engineer when I grow up, and I want to make an impact on the world,” Parker said. “Like Puerto Rico right now, it needs to be reconstructed, so it’d be cool to be a part of that.”

 

FTC already competed at the state level in Greensboro, coming in seventh place out of 37 teams.

The robotics teams still have time to prepare for district competitions in early March, although their robots had to be sealed and ready for battle by Feb. 20.

Being a part of Pitt County Robotics gives kids access to learning how to be leaders and use power tools, but it can also be a serious stepping stone for college. All 11 seniors on the Pitt Pirates team have been accepted to college, with three acceptances to the honors college at East Carolina University and one student receiving a full scholarship to Rice University.

Sara Kiley Watson/EducationNC

Seven of the 11 want to pursue careers in engineering, and most are going into STEM fields. Of previous years graduates, two are on the robotics team at MIT and one is on the University of South Carolina robotics team.

“Being in robotics and all, it helps you grow as a person,” said Nicholas Kruchten, a sophomore at JH Rose High School and a member of the Boneyard FRC team.

Sara Kiley Watson

Sara Kiley Watson is a graduate student of environmental studies and journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a product of Wake County Public Schools, having attended Hunter Elementary, Ligon Middle, and Broughton High School. Her work has been featured in Popular Science, IndyWeek, and ExitEvent.