Congrats to Highlands High School and their robot, Honeybadger, the Grand Champion of the 2012 Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ competition April 14 at Westmoreland County Community College. I’ve emceed the finals of the event since its inception seven years ago. Back then just six schools battled. This year hundreds of students from more than 40 schools competed from all over the Pittsburgh region.

The idea is to get young people interested in science, technology, education and math by giving them an incentive to build and battle with robots. The teams have to do more than simply design, manufacture, and operate the “bots;” they must document all their work, just as engineers do in real manufacturing settings. Corporate partners who work with the students, their parents and teachers to build the best bot. The local chapter of the NTMA, the National Tool and Machining Association, brought the event to our region to get out in front of the aging of our workforce and introduce a new generation to the thrill of making – and, yes, destroying – things.

Plum Senior High School Students posing with their champion robot “Still ‘N Shock 2"

By all accounts, the strategy is working. Surveys of the youngsters who have participated in BotsIQ indicate that they’re more likely to choose engineering as a career. All of this is all the more important given the growth in manufacturing jobs in our region. Last year, more than 50 manufacturers expanded in our region or were attracted to set up shop here. In addition, manufacturing employment is growing faster here than it is across the state or nation. A lot of the same skills apply to the energy industries that are expanding in our region. We are going to need to educate, train and attract a lot more skilled workers if we’re going to keep up.

Although Highlands took the top prize because of the performance of their bot and their attention to detail in documentation, Plum Senior High School’s “Still ‘N Shock 2” won the actual competition, beating Kiski Area High School’s “Bruce Wayne” in the final match of the day. But a three-way tie for “Best Sportsmanship” is worth noting. Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, Hempfield Area High School and Mapletown Junior/Senior High School were honored by their fellow competitors for their willingness to help other teams and make sure that every bot that came to compete was able to compete. It’s an award in the true spirit of the power of Pittsburgh to innovate and collaborate to make things happen.

You can find out more about BotsIQ at their website, www.botsiqpa.org. You can also check out a video (below) I produced at last year’s event.  Better yet, encourage your local high school or career & technical center to create a team and battle for bot supremacy. Sure, it’s fun to win a competition like this, but it’s even better to participate in a program that’s going to make our region a better competitor in the future.