by Mad Rocket Scientist
During the last weekend in March, I was able to once again participate as Judge in the Seattle Regional FIRST Robotics Competition. This was my second year doing so, and I certainly hope I will be able to continue acting as a judge in these competitions for a long time to come as it is one of the best extra-curricular activities for kids I have run across in a long time. Granted it lacks the physical fitness of athletics, but the benefits are worth so much more than what you get playing basketball.
But first, what is FIRST? FIRST stands for “For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology“, and is an organization committed not just to promoting STEM, but also to getting kids to think about school after high school. The big draw to FIRST is, however, the Robot Leagues:
Junior Lego League (ages 6-9)
Lego League (ages 9-14)
Tech Challenge (ages 14+)
Robotics Competition (ages 14+)
You can, of course, read more at the above link (I’m not going to spend my time re-writing their marketing material).
The event I was judging was the Robotics Competition (the Varsity league), and is by far the most challenging of the four. Last year we had over 100 teams. This year they split the conference so there was a Central Washington competition in addition to Seattle. We still had 64 teams at Seattle. In the robotics competition, teams build robots to compete in a game (the game changes every year). Each team is given a robot kit, the rules of the game, and six weeks to come up with a robot that can compete. The basics of the game can be quite straightforward, but the rules can give an MLB umpire a headache; it is common to see robots disqualified before a match ever starts. The kit is a box of parts, with no instructions (these aren’t Erector sets or Legos with a set of ‘plans’ for a toy), and a list of which parts must be used in the bot (though not every part is required). The kit on it’s own is in no way complete enough to actually build a robot, so teams have to be able to get more hardware.
The teams are typically though not always made up of kids from the same school. At the core of each team is a group of kids who know carpentry, metalworking, soldering, circuit design, programming, controls, and mechanics. These are the kids who design and build the robot. Note that I said “core.” The largest team I’ve seen had over 100 members, the smallest had 5. And that’s not counting adult mentors, who we must ensure are acting only as mentors and not building the robots for the kids. A small team of five bright junior engineers can put together a winning robot -and I saw such a team last year, with a robot that was so fast, maneuverable and tough that I felt DARPA should be looking at it for IED missions in Iraq & Afghanistan – but such a team is very limited in what it can hope to accomplish within the FIRST competitions. The really successful teams have members who have talent at business, fund raising, public relations, outreach, and marketing. I’ll explain why this is important latter.
The game this year was a modified version of Frisbee golf. (Last year was basketball). The goal was to score the most points, either by tossing a Frisbee into a goal, or buy climbing a tower on the field. Different goals had different point values, and the higher up the tower the robot climbed, the more points it would get. (The games always have multiple, often unrelated ways to score – last year was score baskets or balance on a teeter-totter). Each match has six robots on the field, three per side (red & blue), and they get 2.5 minutes to score as many points as they can. The first fifteen seconds of every match is autonomous mode, where the robot operates under it’s internal programming. Once the fifteen seconds is up, the kids take over with usually two or three kids working together to control the robot via game controllers, laptops, or tablets.
Now, one of the interesting things about FIRST is the concept of Gracious Professionalism – which boils down to the idea of “We are going to win – not at any cost, but rather because we are the best and we can win fair & square.” A noble sentiment, but one FIRST has found a clever way to incentivize. Remember I said each match has six robots, thee per side? They are known as the Red & Blue Alliances, and during the Qualifying Matches they change every single match. In one match team A, B, & C are playing against teams X, Y, & Z; in the next it’s A, X & D against B, Z, & W – so the team you are against right now can, in five minutes time, be your wingman. So each team has a strong incentive to make sure that every other team is as strong as they can be. Over the course of two days, the only time teams are fixed together is during the finals. You see this most clearly by the fact that the kids root for other teams, and you’ll see the kids cheering for them and wearing their logos and colors.
Teams are ranked by the number of matches they are in where their alliance wins. Good robots tend to be high scoring, and tend to drive their alliances to victory. When the Qualification Matches are done, the top eight teams in the rankings get to choose two other teams to join them during the finals. If team 1 asks team 2 to join together & team 2 agrees, then the other top teams move up one rank & team 9 moves up to rank 8 & into the finals. Another reason to make sure everyone is as strong as possible, so you have a wide field of candidates to choose from during team selections. I will admit, once the finals start, the matches can get brutal. I saw one robot, in an effort to prevent another robot from scoring, get the crap beat out of it because the blocked robot had a very strong Frisbee launcher, stronger than the blocking bot could handle over & over again.
There is one final way FIRST encourages Gracious Professionalism, and that is through the Judges. There are a lot of judges at each competition, and Judges are chosen from among technical & business professionals, as well as community leaders. We give out about a dozen awards during each competition. The awards are for technical excellence, business excellence, & community excellence. These awards are important, because each year, FIRST gives out scholarships ($16M this year, and the amount grows by $1-2M/year), and being on a team that wins an award qualifies you to apply for a scholarship. Some of the awards go further, and a team that wins one of those is guaranteed a trip to the National competition, even if they did not rank during the games. Our job is simple, we are assigned a sector of awards, and we go out and talk to the teams (how we are assigned should be obvious). I can’t go into how we give out awards (the judges room is like Vegas), but it’s not a simple thing and we get into some pretty heated discussions. I will say that Gracious Professionalism is a factor in almost all of the awards. Teams that don’t exhibit it only hurt themselves. Teams that excel at it do things like help other teams that need it, loan out tools and spare parts, help teams with critical failures get back into the game, send out student mentors to rookie teams to help them make any final improvements or work out any last minute bugs, help out with the competition logistics, etc.
So what else should teams do besides build a robot and drive it? They should create a comprehensive business plan. They should create a marketing theme for the team and work that branding into the whole team, including the robot. They need to get community involvement and funding/sponsorships (robots cost money to build – more than you average car wash or bake sale will earn you). They should be conducting community outreach, and not just to promote FIRST or form and assist junior leagues, but to help out in general. (A lot of teams volunteer time to tutor younger kids in math and science, but that is hardly the limit of what they do). One team spent time lobbying for WIAA recognition, another worked to get shops put back in schools, another co-opted with the local Tech School to have their parts made (send raw materials and plans to Tech School and the CNC students would get some practice making the parts for them). One team was falling apart with just a handful of members, and had all their school support yanked out from under them. They recovered by building a good robot last year, and this year they held a free-throw contest between the robot and the star basketball player. The robot won – they team swelled from ten kids to over sixty in two weeks. Some teams formed an alliance and spend the money to build a practice field for any team to test their robots on. Suddenly you start seeing why they need kids good with business, marketing, PR and all the rest.
But the best things I see at these competitions are kids who would have been invisible or tormented in my generation, shining and excelling! Like the tiny little mouse of a girl was the team captain for the #1 team of the whole competition, a team that had over eighty kids, who obviously held this young girl in high regard and championed her when she drove their bot to victory. Or the pilot of one of the other top robots – a skinny, curly haired geeky kid carrying a control board as long as he was tall, walking away from the field after having played a master game, and girls in the crowd were screaming his name and blowing him kisses. Age of the geek, baby – indeed!
Gives me hope for the future.