Team 63, “McDowell Robotics”, from McDowell High School in Erie, PA brought FIRST Robotics into Northwestern PA 20 years ago. It began in 1997, when Leigh Kostis, the McDowell librarian, received a letter about FIRST and recognized its potential. She started a team with only 14 students, 1 sponsor, and 1 mentor. The team attended the Rutgers Regional in 1997 and finished close to the bottom in the rankings, but the dream did not die there. The original team was surprised and impressed by the other teams’ eagerness to help. Their gracious professionalism inspired us to continue and to help other teams that need it just as we did when we began.
Helping Other Teams
In 2005, while promoting FIRST Robotics to other local schools, students at neighboring Fairview High School really took an interest. The following year, we invited them to join Team 63 since their school was not able to support a team. After a 4 year partnership, Team 63 was able to help position Fairview to start a team of its own. Team 156 was founded in 2010 with a sound business plan, secure sponsors and knowledgeable mentors. Our team has continued to offer mentor-ship to Team 156 since they started in order to help them succeed. In 2012, we began remote mentoring Team 3954, a team located in rural PA. The teams have used email and telecommunication to share ideas and knowledge. In 2016 we had a video conference with team 537 and offered some suggestions for their programmers.
Spreading FIRST to the Community
Team 63 holds numerous robotics demos throughout the year to get students of all ages interested in FIRST. These include Math Options Career Day for middle school girls, Career Options Night at McDowell High School and Science Clubs at the district elementary schools. We also do demos to get members of the community and city engaged. The largest of these are the Great Lakes Industrial Technology Summit, Celebrate Erie, GE Day, the Annual Zoo Parade, and the McDowell Homecoming Parade.
The team also uses unconventional methods through the world of sports to inspire people. The team demos our robot during intermission of the Erie Bayhawks D League basketball games and Erie Freeze indoor arena football games. After demoing the robot’s skills, fans at the games are given the opportunity to try the robots themselves. The team also helped build and fly the blimp at the Erie Otters hockey games.
Spreading FIRST is more than just demos; it’s also getting people hands on with technology. Team members mentor FLL teams and volunteer at the local FLL competition held at Penn State Behrend. The team also built an interactive FLL exhibit at the ExpERIEnce Children’s museum in 2009 and maintained it through 2012. The team also helped launch a pilot FTC program with 10 local teams in Erie in 2010. Team 63 mentored the Harborcreek Youth Services team and aided with the tournament that was held.
Team members volunteer their time teaching the McDowell Senior Citizen Computer Applications class, where basic computer applications like Excel and PowerPoint are taught. They also help teach the Autistic Night School classes which are held at the high school in the fall and teach basic, everyday skills. Members also volunteer regularly at the Erie Soup Kitchen, March of Dimes, Nothing but Nets, and at the Presque Isle State Park clean-up days.
Our team reached out to a local Lowe’s to develop a battery recycling program. Lowe’s typically only recycles small batteries, but worked with the team and now will recycle tractor and robot batteries.
In 2011 we became involved in the Nothing But Nets campaign. The team sponsored and participated in a Badminton Tournament and Dress Down Day for teachers at the school in order to raise money for the cause. Last year we have added collecting used ink cartridges for the Nothing But Nets program. The money raised goes to the purchase of mosquito nets that are sent to Africa in order to help fight the spread of malaria.
In order to encourage intellectual growth our robotics team funded a grant for underprivileged students to go on a DC trip. Through the group EXPOSURE people learn about the fundamentals of our government, racism, and equality. Though our funding they can bring this information to a wider student base to create a more aware generation.
We have also partnered with our school’s Library Literacy Club to support people that need organ transplants. In this program we are supporting a book-a-thon involving Barnes and Noble to raise money in honor of Marty Brown, the son of a teacher, who is on the heart transplant list.
Our most effective fundraiser is an annual Murder Mystery Dinner Theater. Team members are responsible for selling tickets to the event which is sponsored by GE and performed by their employees. We receive 100% of the ticket sales. Yearly we host a benefit show at Juniors Last Laugh Comedy Club where the team receives a portion of the ticket sales, holds a Chinese Auction, and a 50/50 raffle in order to raise money. Lastly, we hold “Robotics Nights” at various local restaurants where proceeds from each check are donated to the team.
While fundraisers supply the team with funds to travel, the majority of funding for materials and supplies comes from corporate sponsorships. In addition to the support from Millcreek School District and GE Transportation, we are lucky to have The PTR Group and Eriez Magnetics as major sponsors.
Members and Mentors
Team 63 could not be successful without mentors to guide us and new members joining each year. Team founder Leigh Kostis, who won the Woodie Flowers award in Pittsburgh in 2007, retired from FIRST in 2008. She left the team in the capable hands of Kyle Bucholtz, the McDowell Lead Advisor, and Kate Hrdlicka, an engineer at GE and our Lead Technical Advisor. Mikaela Billings is a teacher at McDowell High school, she is the media team leader. Jerry DeRosa, a retired GE electrician, joined the team in 2008 after being recruited by his nephew and was recognized in 2010 with the Millcreek Hall of Flame Award for volunteering due to his commitment to helping the community. Over the past few years, Joe Wakeman an engineer from GE, Joe McIntire,Will Corner a machinist at TriPro, Tom Kirdahy is a student services teacher, John Kieffer, Brian Borland, Rob Hodgson, Tom Albert, and Adam Jaroh an engineer with Cobham Mission Equipment became mentors after being recruited by team members. In 2013 Tina Raeke and Chad Rudinski, both engineers with LORD, James Spaeder a college student at Gannon, and Kyle Argeny a college student at Penn State, all of whom were former Team 63 members, came back to be mentors.Last year, Mr. Hoderny, a history teacher at McDowell, joined us.
Last year around half of our team graduated, but we are not lacking in interested students for our team. We have many new members from every grade level that have joined the team this year.
Who We Are
Of all the awards, the most significant to us has been the ones for Gracious Professionalism. In 2010 at the Pittsburgh Regional we noticed Team 117 was in need of help. Their team had gone the entire build season with no programmer. Our control team sprang into action, taught their students the basics, and had them on the field for the start of matches. In 2011 at the DC Regional, Team 1872 from Puerto Rico had a malfunctioning drive train and almost no tools. Members of our team immediately offered assistance by lending them much needed tools helping them to repair their robot.
Throughout the season and at competitions, it is our goal to do our personal best as a team while still remembering to inspire science and technology within our team and to other teams because we truly believe in the message of FIRST. We do not do the things we do to win awards; we do them because we want everyone to gain something from being involved in or exposed to FIRST. We recognize how valuable FIRST has been to our team members over the past 20 years, and hope to continue bringing FIRST to others for years to come.
- 2017 – Springfield, OH Miami Valley Regional, 6th place
- 2016 – Cincinnati, OH Queen City Regional Regional Semi-Finalist
- 2013 – Pine Tree Regional Regional Finalist
- 2012 – Pittsburgh Regional Creativity Award sponsored by Xerox
- 2011 – Washington DC Regional Quality Award sponsored by Motorola, Regional
- 2011 – Pittsburgh Regional Regional Chairman’s Award
- 2010 – Pittsburgh Regional Engineering Excellence Award sponsored by Delphi
- 2010 – Finger Lakes Regional Quality Award sponsored by Motorola
- 2009 – Pittsburgh Regional Woodie Flowers Award, Johnson & Johnson Gracious
- 2009 – Buckeye Regional Imagery Award
- 2008 – Pittsburgh Regional Johnson & Johnson Gracious Professionalism
- 2007 – Pittsburgh Regional Regional Chairman’s Award
- 2006 – Pittsburgh Regional Judges’ Award
- 2005 – Pittsburgh Regional Engineering Inspiration Award
- 2002 – Philadelphia Alliance Regional Regional Winners