Here's how A.W. Beattie's Robotics program is building the next generation of engineers

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Dawson Skelley set the rear hitch of a 100-pound robot down to the centimeter of where he wanted it, leaned back and thought about where he would be at this time next year.

His dream school is Johns Hopkins, but he has options. If he goes to school in Western Pennsylvania, California University of Pennsylvania is at the top of the list.

“Even if I don’t go to Johns Hopkins University, there are a lot of great opportunities,” Dawson said. “I could do well on the NOCTI test at Beattie, earn 20 college credits to go to Cal-U and finish my undergrad in three years.”

He paused for a moment to scan the Robotics Engineering Technology classroom, which had about 30 students working intently on their part of the robot.

“I think I’ll be in a pretty good situation no matter what college I go to after Beattie,” Dawson said.

The career center’s Robotics Engineering Technology classroom can be more than a little disorienting at first glance.

North Hills sophomore Bill Folmer said his first impression was that it would be unlike any other class he had taken.

One corner of the room looks like a wood and metal shop. Another section is reminiscent of a 3D printing startup company. The endless supplies and equipment are an engineering student’s paradise.

“Knowing now what’s in here, I know that this program is the best step I can take for my future,” North Hills sophomore Bill Folmer said. “This is everything I hoped it would be and a lot more, because it puts you in a position to understand what this field is really like and excel in it before you get to college or a career.”

The curriculum is “ambitious,” according to Robotics Engineering Technology instructor Mr. Purucker, and combining lessons with real-world situations puts each competency students have to perfect into perspective.

On any given day, students might be building a robot or a retro arcade game, fabricating aluminum or steel parts, 3D modeling a replacement bracket or bearing, exploring how to repair a 1960s turntable or coding an LED matrix display board.                          

“Typically, in school, you go step-by-step following a teacher, but it’s a little bit different here,” Deer Lakes sophomore Ella Graham said. "Bill might build a launching mechanism, but the way he does his will be completely different from everyone else. We make our own designs and follow our own plans. We get to be innovative, and we also build off each other’s ideas.”

The Robotics Engineering Technology program also has it quirks - most high school students would be surprised if asked to repair an animatronic chicken from the iconic Wholley’s Fish Market in downtown Pittsburgh.

An out-of-left field request is just another day at A.W. Beattie.

“That was definitely a cool project to work on,” Hampton senior Ben Marcouiller, who has his sights set on Carnegie Mellon University, said. “I don’t think you could get that type of real business experience anywhere else or the combined mechanical and electronic experience we needed to completely redesign and build all of the parts to get it to work again.”

The classroom’s physical environment is always in a state of flux.

Different equipment is used throughout the year as the focus changes from electronics instruction to designing and building a robot for the annual FIRST Robotics Competition to the end-of-year class projects.

“FIRST Robotics is more than robotics, engineering and manufacturing,” Ben said. “It’s an opportunity to be a part of a small business with hundreds of moving parts that culminate in a competition. If I didn’t do it, I never would have met the CEO of Google or the Dean of Yale.”

A new state-of-the-art CNC mill will arrive soon to complement the program’s already robust 3D printing capabilities and expose students to more opportunities.

“There will be a large learning curve for such a complex machine, but that won’t be a deterrent to RET students because they are accustomed to getting quickly up to speed with unfamiliar technologies,” Mr. Purucker said.

The one constant in the program is that students are encouraged to explore their own areas of interest.

Dawson is in the beginning stages of restoring a prosthetic arm.

“That’s definitely something I want to finish before I graduate,” Dawson said. “I just love seeing how things tick, and I love the satisfaction of when something pays off.”

The more you dig into student’s projects, the more unique they become.

If students have their way, there will also be a cloud-based, voice-activated storage unit and an automated walking taco maker in the classroom.

“Even if that doesn’t happen, it definitely won’t be for a lack of effort on the part of the students,” Mr. Purucker said. “I believe they can do it.”

Asked what they want achieve with more than two years left in the program, Bill and Ella said the possibilities are endless.

“If I could give any advice, it would just be to try everything,” Dawson said. “Don’t be afraid to do something new, because we have access to everything. I couldn’t imagine learning about robotics anywhere else.”

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