Can Everest Make It?

Lower Merion High School’s robot, Everest, faces a big challenge

By Sean Woodruff

When his body is fully extended, Everest towers over almost everyone. His steel skeleton sits upon a sturdy base with wheels and a single claw protrudes from his neck.

But right now, he is asleep. Most of this robotic behemoth is covered beneath a large plastic shroud.

Everest’s elevator mechanism, which allows him to grow to eight feet tall, is broken and the young engineers of Lower Merion High School are scrambling to fix it before the end of the night.

It’s the evening before the Mid-Atlantic-District Championship of FIRST, a major event in the world’s largest youth robotics contest (FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

If these students and their robot do well enough over the three day competition, their team will qualify for the World Championships in Detroit later in April.

But everything depends on Everest’s elevator. Without it, he won’t be able to perform a critical move at a tomorrow’s event. He needs to be able to lift boxes more than 6 feet in order to secure an important source of points.

Tonight, the lab is electrified with a sense of subdued activity as students in safety glasses hasten to make adjustments. Another group tinkers with his claw to make sure he has a strong and consistent grip. Others sit at computers, optimizing his code.

The focused murmur is occasionally interrupted by the buzz of an electric saw.


It’s day one of three in the District Championship. A sea of people in color coded t-shirts are gathered in Lehigh University’s Stabler Arena. The “Gearaffes” wear orange, “Wolfpack Robotics” wear navy blue. The Lower Merion High School students, nicknamed “Dawgma” wear a distinctive deep maroon.

Maya Levitan, Dawgma’s Team Captain, stops by the Pit, where Everest is inspected and fine-tuned between matches. “It’s like in NASCAR”, Maya says.

Maya is the shortest person in the lab, but she’s poised and confident. She watches carefully as the robot is unpacked. Luckily, the elevator was fixed last night and seems to be working correctly. Nothing more can be done but hope for the best.

Satisfied, Maya enters the arena and is confronted by a wall of sound. An announcer speaks enthusiastically into a loudspeaker. Pop music blares in the background. Teams fight over the remaining sonic real estate with various chants.

An opposing team begins a cacophonous cheer. “Blue Alliance!” Clap. Clap. Clap-Clap-Clap. Their voices crack as they stretch the limits of their adolescent vocal cords.

The members of Dawgma begin to bark and howl back, embodying their school’s mascot. A student in a full Bulldog costume coaxes them on from the lower bleachers.

It’s time for Everest’s first match of the day.

Each match is between two alliances of three teams: Red and Blue. In these early matches, the alliances are pre-determined and change every game. Right now, Everest is wearing red.

The most compelling part of the game is the Scale, a large teetering see-saw on which the robots must balance bright yellow cubes. Tip the Scale to your side, and your Alliance gains control, earning 2 points for every second that you maintain the advantage.

Two similar mechanisms are on the floor called Switches. These are important too, but without control of the Scale, it’s almost impossible to win.

“3…2…1…Power up!”

The match begins and Everest zooms across the field, beating everyone else to the Scale.

These first 15 seconds of the match are completely autonomous—they are also critical to the game.

“It’s really hard to catch up if you lose control of the Scale early,” says Paul Leeds, a junior.

If anything goes wrong, Everest is all alone.

But Dawgma’s hard work last night paid off. In one smooth motion, the robot extends his elevator up and drops the cube onto the Scale, gaining control for the Red Alliance. Everest is standing tall.

For the next two minutes, human drivers take control of the robots. The Blue Alliance gains brief control of the Scale, but not for long enough.

Paul was right—their opponents were unable to overcome the early loss and Dawgma ended the first match with a 100 point lead. The entire team shoots up in excitement.

There are 12 more Qualification matches to go and this early success has boosted the team’s confidence.

The matches continue over the next two days. A win. A win. A win. A one point loss. Another win.

The team’s energy is palpable and Paul smiles a goofy grin.  It’s looking like they will be ranked high enough to be Alliance Captains.

During the final day of competition, the top eight teams get to choose their alliance for the remainder of the games.

But choosing who to pick is a complicated strategy question in and of itself.

Maya and Annie Liang, a Sophomore, are tasked with scouting out the best teams to work with Everest.

In between Dawgma’s string of wins, Maya and Annie take meticulous notes on each match and log information in an intricate set of Excel spreadsheets. These scoring algorithms are nuanced and complex—a Dawgma alumnus dedicated weeks to set them up.

As Annie and Maya carefully discuss their plans on the bleachers, Dawgma scoops up six more wins.

An enthusiastic parent swings a Dawgma sign and dances after every single one.


Back in Dawgma’s lab, before the final day of competition, Maya and Paul reflect on the semester so far.

It’s taken a lot of commitment to design and build Everest from the ground up. The team met for more than 15 hours each week.

“This year, we decided to pull out all the stops,” says Maya.

Instead of playing it safe and building a robot that specializes in just one task, Dawgma built Everest to be a versatile competitor.

“We bit off exactly as much as we could chew,” Maya says while adjusting her glasses.

Paul jumps in: “Yeah, we were up until midnight before the last preliminary competition.”

They built two robots this year, which allowed them to tinker with multiple design elements simultaneously. They even built a mock playing field in a spare classroom to practice driving Everest.

So far, their work has paid off. “This has easily been the best year so far,” Maya says.

The team is good natured, and lives by the FIRST’s mantra of “gracious professionalism”, which states that learning and communal growth are more important than winning.

Dawgma has even helped other teams with their code.

But there is also no denying the stakes at tomorrow’s competition: prestigious awards, ego, and of course—how a good ranking will look on college applications.

Most importantly, tomorrow’s performance will decide whether Dawgma moves on to the World Championship.


It’s the final day of competition. After two long days of Qualifications, Dawgma has come out strongly ahead.

Now ranking seventh among 125 teams, Maya and Annie get to pick their carefully selected dream team as the Blue Alliance: The Pascack π-oneers (π as in “Pi”) and the Mechanical Mustangs.

The Quarterfinals are three back to back matches against someone else’s dream team. Tensions are high.

Quarterfinal Match 1 of 3

The first Quarterfinal match is a little hard to watch. After two days of working flawlessly, Everest seems tired. The elevator that the young engineers worked tirelessly to fix is now stalled.

Everest tries to reach up to the Scale, but strains only a few inches away. What once appeared a towering behemoth now looks more like a toddler trying to reach the counter on his tip-toes.

He spends the rest of the match trying to hold control of the ground Switches, but it’s not enough. They lose 263 to 386.

Dawgma only has six minutes to repair Everest before the next match.

Maya sits stoically, trusting the technicians down in the playing field to fix their robot before the next round.

Paul shifts a bit on the bleachers.

Quarterfinal Match 2 of 3

Luckily, the technicians know Everest in and out, and he enters the second Quarterfinal match good as new.

As if make up for his previous flub, Everest places an impressive two cubes on the Scale during the all-autonomous portion of the match, creating an insurmountable lead that gives the Blue Alliance its first Quarterfinal win.

The team’s barking and howling becomes deafening. A human “wave” makes its way around the stadium.

Quarterfinal Match 3 of 3

The third match starts even better than the second. A robot on the opposing alliance loses connection for more than 40 seconds, allowing Everest to swoop in and tip the Scale.

“Last year, things like that happened to us a lot,” Paul says, obviously proud that Dawgma has learned how to be more consistent.

The team screams each time Everest balances another cube on the Scale. Maya creates a megaphone with her hands, amplifying her cheers.

In the last ten seconds, the Blue Alliance has more than a 100 point lead. Everest does a victory lap around the field before the clock even runs out.

High fives and hugs are shared all around. Dawgma is now the leader of a top 4 alliance—this is a big deal.

“We’re also in the running for a control systems award,” Paul says.

“Yeah, the judges have been to our Pit several times,” Maya says. She allows a smirk to breach her natural humbleness. “We’re probably going to get the award.”

Semifinal Match 1 of 2

Spirits are high going into this match. Dawgma’s cheers easily drown out their rivals’.

The match begins and Paul sits on the edge of his seat, his eyes glued to the chaotic flurry of yellow cubes in the arena below.

These six robots are top-notch and the whole match looks like a well-coordinated dance.

Unfortunately, the Red Alliance is just a bit more coordinated. It’s not looking good for Dawgma.

The rival chant begins to gain steam as the Blue Alliance’s defeat becomes inevitable.

“Red Alliance!” Clap. Clap. Clap-Clap-Clap.

As soon as the match is over, Paul hunches over.

The team members look back and forth at each other. “We usually lose the first match,” they try to reassure themselves.

Semifinal Match 2 of 2

The arena is more packed than its been the whole event. It’s hot—and humid with the sweat of more than a thousand people.

“Who let the Dogs Out” starts playing on the loud speaker. One Dawgma member swings her head back to the others.

“Stand up!” she shouts. “Are you listening to it? It’s our song!”

It seems like a good omen for the next match. The team begins to bark again.

The Bulldog mascot does his best to keep up the energy, but three days of dancing has begun to take its toll.

One of Dawgma’s alliance members calls a time out. The Mechanical Mustangs’ robot, Cutlass is having a technical problem. “It looks like his claw is broken”, Paul says.

“Red Alliance!” Clap. Clap. Clap-Clap-Clap.

The barking fizzles out.

The match begins, but Paul looks a little worried. “I don’t know if it’s fixed or not…”

Everything starts well, but Everest accidentally knocks a cube from the Scale. Cutlass stutters along, and his injured claw fumbles several cubes.

Maya claps in encouragement, but most of Dawgma is silent. With thirty seconds left Dawgma’s alliance is more than 100 points behind.

But the Blue Alliance has one last trick up their sleeves.

The Pascack π-oneers’ robot, Dragon, begins a dramatic transformation as two huge wing-like platforms fold down from its body. The robot extends its neck and latches onto the Scale.

There is one more important source of points in the game. If your robot lifts itself a foot off the ground at the end of the match, your Alliance gains extra points.

It’s a difficult task, and the only thing in the game that Everest can’t do.

But he can be lifted by robotic comrade and Dragon’s platforms were specifically designed to carry other robots up to victory. Maya and Annie added Dragon to their dream team for just this reason.

It’s risky, but it’s their only chance.

The clock counts down. 4— Everest climbs onto the platform—3—he secures his placement—2—the platform begins to rise…

At the last second, Everest topples. Down with him goes Dawgma’s chance at competing in the Finals.

Everest lays motionless on the ground as Paul and Maya give a few conciliatory claps from the bleachers.

“I think I have to go change,” says the Bulldog, drenched in sweat.


Although they didn’t make it to the final round, the whole team is proud.

Dawgma finish the regional championship ranked 6th out of 125 teams, and they did end up winning the prestigious “Innovation in Control Award”.

Even more impressively, Dawgma’s performance secured them a spot at the World Championship in Detroit.

Detroit is a long trek from Ardmore, but the team is ecstatic.

“I’m definitely going to go—even though I’ll miss a lot of physics class,” Paul says.

The Hackathon at the Museum

Contestants gather each year to create apps for the Museum of Art

By Sean Woodruff

Visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art often feels like stepping back in time. Its galleries are filled with 2,000-year-old ceramics, 100-year-old paintings, and statues crumbling with age.

But in a backroom of the museum, the environment feels more like a Silicon Valley startup than a 142-year-old fine arts institution.

A dozen people sit in front of computers, their screens a flurry of movement. If you look closely, you can catch glimpses of paintings by Monet and Degas as the programmers toggle between windows of complex code. The coders are here as part of the museum’s Hackathon, a six-week long competition to design innovative new apps that integrate technology with art.

The team that comes up with the best app will take home a grand prize of $2,000.

“It’s really about finding new ways to connect people to the art, and finding new ways to connect with each other,” says Ariel Schwartz, Associate Director for Interactive Technologies at the museum.

According to Schwartz, the program been a big success so far. What started as a small weekend event three years ago has grown to include almost 100 contestants.

Today, the museum is hosting a “Hacklab”, where the teams can test out their apps in the galleries and collaborate with museum staff.

Snacks and soda line the tables at the edge of the room, but they are left mostly untouched. The coders are too busy discussing plans with their teammates and tapping away at their keyboards.


Lacy Rhoades furrows his eyebrows. An app developer by trade, and a recent Philadelphia transplant, Rhoades thought the Hackathon would be a great way to get to know people and contribute something to his new city.

But his team has been struggling to come up with a workable idea. The biggest challenge, he says, is walking the line between engagement and distraction.

“I don’t want our app to be too game-like,” he says. “I don’t want people’s eyes to be glued to a screen.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Rhoades spent some time exploring the museum, which gave him the inkling of an idea. He was struck by how much of a personal relationship he felt with certain galleries.

“After I walked through the museum, I felt that I was changed, but also that the museum was changed in a way too. I want to catalog that feeling,” Rhoades says. “I want to create a collective virtual memory for the museum.”

Rhoades envisions an app that can track people’s journeys throughout the galleries. “Imagine seeing the virtual footsteps of people who have walked here before,” he says.

Visitors will also be able to publicly tag and comment on art pieces they feel particularly connected to. This way people can look at the app and get a sense of the history of personal connections within each gallery.

He’s excited about his idea, but he rubs his eyes as he thinks about the work left to do.

“I’m a bit of a procrastinator,” he says. But admitting that seems to give him a renewed sense of urgency and he turns back to his computer screen.


At the next table over, Yilin Wu lets herself subtly smirk. “We have a great idea,” she says. She speaks quietly, but without mumbling—she deliberately enunciates every syllable.

Their app, called Art Mind, is a recommendation system that will match people with works of art that they will enjoy.

“It’s like Tinder for art,” she says, “It will help you find the works of art you’ll love.”

The app will show visitors 10 works of art before they enter the galleries. People then swipe right or swipe left depending on whether they like each piece. Based on those preferences, the app will use a complicated machine-learning algorithm to build a custom museum tour for each person.

Even more impressive is that the algorithm learns over time. So the more that people use the app, the better it will get at recommending art.

If Wu’s team has time, they also wants to implement a forum feature, so that people can start discussion threads about each art piece.

But even if they don’t get a chance to implement that feature, Wu is confident that her team will make it past the preliminary judging round on May 16th.


Another team sits in the corner, deep in discussion. They are debating the best layout for their user interface. Rob Mruczek strokes his bright orange beard, which almost seems to glow underneath the fluorescent lighting.

His team has integrated their app with the music streaming service Spotify to create a social network based on music and art.

“The idea is that people can share songs that they associate with specific works of art,” Mruczek says. Other people can then vote on those songs, creating a crowdsourced playlist to pair with each artwork.

One benefit of a music focused app is that it encourages people to look at the art instead of down at their phone.

The app also provides a way to bring a piece of the museum back home with you. Now, once you listen to a particular song, you can think back to the work of art you saw while listening to it at the museum.

Mruczek scrolls through the app they have built so far with satisfaction. It looks polished and professional.

“Music and art are both really personal, so we thought it would be great to combine the two,” he says.


Schwartz, the organizer of the Hackathon, beams as he walks away from the clatter of keyboards and back towards his office. He’s proud of the way the Hackathon has grown, and is inspired by the contestants’ imaginations.

“We never know how fresh minds will attack the challenge, and we’ve been rewarded every year with approaches we’ve never thought of,” he says.

With so many innovative and ambitious projects, it’s hard to know whom the judges will award the $2,000 grand prize.

But the judges aren’t the only ones to select a winner. On May 25th, the five finalists will have the chance to showcase their apps to the public. Museum visitors will then get to choose the recipient of the $500 People’s Choice Award.

Regardless of who wins, Schwartz thinks that everyone involved in the Hackathon is important. To him, it’s not just about the final product, but about community building and creativity.

“We’re turning around the thinking of what a museum does, and should do,” says Schwartz. “It’s really exciting.”