STEM Career Tours

Inspiring the pursuit of science, technology, engineering and math literacy, skills, and careers.

Category: Entrepreneurs

Ascender: The Startup for Startups

Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic’s AP Computer Science Principles class recently toured the offices of Ascender in Pittsburgh. Ascender is the next step in evolution of venture capitalism growing out the work the company did under the name Thrill Mill. Instead of merely providing funds for companies to begin work on making a viable product, Ascender takes this much farther. In addition to capital, they provide everything from mentoring and leadership to office space and team building resources. Moreover, they are continuing to find ways to do so much more.

Leading the tour was Jennifer Sharpe, Program Manager for Ascender, who also gave an informative and stimulating presentation on everything that Ascender does to help make STEM based industry in the city of Pittsburgh grow. As a part of the presentation, she had the students participate in an exercise mirroring the process by which companies are selected for Ascender’s incubation chamber. The students were given three pitches by various potential companies, including team members, and the product idea. After careful consideration, the determination had to be made as to which idea was most viable to make a profit.

Jennifer also included information on “Thrival,” Ascender’s yearly music festival and innovation conference. Part of the mission of Ascender is to help usher in a new wave of modern industry. By converting an old Steel Mill into a place where people can come together with new ideas, Ascender is poised to help bring Pittsburgh into the here and now of STEM industry.
After the presentation, the students were able to walk around and see first hand the office space and workstations the ascender has to offer, as well as a few of the companies currently utilizing Ascender’s services to make their dreams a reality.

TechShop Pittsburgh

Grow a Generation 2016 STEM Careers Tour TechShop 7One of the last stops on our June 2016 CWNC STEM Careers Tour was TechShop Pittsburgh located in Bakery Square in Pittsburgh’s East End.  TechShop Pittsburgh is a do-it-yourself makerspace, where you can create anything that you can imagine.  There is equipment for woodworking, laser cutters, 3D printers, a metal shop, sewing machines, a waterjet cutter, an injection molding machine, and a plastic extruder.  For a membership fee you have access to training and use of all this equipment, but you can also pay-as-you-go for workshops, classes and camps.  Entrepreneurs, artisans and inventors are all welcome to create their masterpieces.  You bring your idea, and TechShop provides the access, knowledge and speed.  There are currently ~500 members at the Pittsburgh site and membership starts $150 per month.  With someone to teach you how to use the tools you can get from idea to creation in very little time!

Our guide, Justin Harvilla, began as a member at TechShop Pittsburgh, joining to have a place to do sculpting.  After being a member, he joined the staff.  He provided us with a great tour of the facility, giving us an overview of all the equipment available at the facility.  After touring, we were treated to a demonstration of the laser cutter.  The laser cutter enables carving and whittling of cardboard, glass, wood and other materials with amazing accuracy.  Laser cutting directs a high-power laser through optics. The focused laser beam is directed at the material, which then melts or burns the material, leaving an edge with a high-quality surface finish.  As opposed to being controlled manually by hand wheels or levers, the laser is guided by precise programmed commands.   Etched Grow a Generation LogoAdvantages of laser cutting over mechanical cutting include an easier ability to secure the material as it is being machined and a reduction in contamination of the material.  Additionally precision may be better, since the laser does not wear during the process.  As a souvenir of our visit, our guide presented us with laser cutting the the ‘Grow a Generation’ tree.  So cool!

The visit to TechShop Pittsburgh was amazing. We were all inspired by not only the endless possibilities to create at TechShop Pittsburgh, but also by the community-based environment.  

Check out the upcoming workshops.   

Astrobotic: Revolutionizing Space

Grow a Generation Tour of Astrobotics

 “Build, then build some more,” was the advice John Thornton, the president of Astrobotic gave the students touring his facility Friday as part of the Grow a Generation Space Robots Exploration Day.  It was a hopeful message, encouraging students to develop the skills they need to enter a new era of space exploration, science, tourism, resource utilization and mining. He spoke of an industry that is undergoing revolutionary growth in the United States, China, Russia, and India; start-ups and universities competing with nations to land on the Moon; private industry offering a decreased cost to get off planet, and the current state of robotic technology that makes off planet terraforming and mining possible.

The kids were captivated by the demonstrations of a new zipline Astrobotic is testing to enable the robotic exploration of the caves and sub-surface caverns of the Moon. The company’s offices had a Mythbuster’s workshop feel.  One an engineers, Steve McGuire (a Beaver County graduate from Ambridge high school), excitedly pointed out the fishing reel they used to create their prototype. Parents (yes – I made the parents build) and kids had spent the morning building models of Curiosity, Cassini-Huygens, Robonaut, Spirit and Opportunity, the Phoenix Lander and Sputnik out of cardboard, duct tape, Lego Mindstorm parts and sensors, network cable and spare parts.

Grow a Generation at AstroboticsA high point came as each student got to use an X-Box controller to drive the lunar excavation robot. The robot was about the size of a golf cart with tires to grip the lunar surface and Kevlar scoops to dig into the soil.  Imaginings of one day visiting the moon filled their minds as they operated one of the robots that will lay the groundwork for future human colonization.

We asked about the path to become one of the roboticists that worked at the desks and typed diligently at their equipment monitors.  They were some of the best engineers in the world:  mechanical, electrical, computer programming, avionic, robotic, composite materials (some great questions and answers were the different benefits of titanium, carbon steel, aluminum, Kevlar, and in lunar conditions).  The key to employment was not only good grades and honed math skills, but a portfolio of projects each had passionately built or collaborated on. Parents and kids left inspired to find more opportunities to build, and build some more.

In that spirit, I list below the better engineering and design opportunities I am aware of.  Grow a Generation is available with online tutors and coaches if your children, teens, and young adults want to pursue some of these with assistance and support. Otherwise, enjoy as you build, and build some more!

Grades PK-3

Build for the joy (record great achievements with photos (now 3-D scans) before giving them to someone or donating them for another’s use).

Jr. FIRST Lego League

Get inspired with Sylvia’s Mini-Maker Show

Grades 4-8

Build for a purpose (collaborate with others, particularly those in need, to create apps, bookshelves, Minecraft virtual worlds that educate others (for example, a walkthrough to understand where your community’s water comes from).

FIRST Lego League

VEX IQ Challenge

Mission: Solar System (NASA and PBS’s Design Squad Nation have teamed up to create a series of fun, space-based engineering challenges for children in grades 4 to 8.)

Grades 8-16

Build with a passion (get crazy, pick what you are passionate about (slushy machines were an example of an Astrobotic applicant), and start building).

Arduino (Start with the TED Talk, subscribe to online forums (check out the Mars Rover Replica), and start making.)

Bots IQ Challenge

Real World Design Challenge

FIRST Robotics Challenge

Vex Robotics Competition

Seaperch Underwater Robots

Moonbots Competition


Products to Buy (Hint – ask grandma for Christmas gifts)

Lego Mindstorm EVA

Make an Arduino-Controlled Robot (Make: Projects)

Vex IQ



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