I spent the day as I probably will spend much of tomorrow, watching several FIRST Robotics competitions online. As you may or may not know, I am a Mentor, or advisor, to our local High School’s robotics team, The Warlocks. We have been part of the program since 2005 and before that were half of a joint, two-school team.7a26762ecb4831364b5189d4e2b978c1_l

Take a stupid toy that I might buy to play with a puppy, and make it the center of a game that 1800 high school teams are set to play. What happens? Well, the entire stock of the toy instantly disappeared. The only outlet, Wal-Mart sold out in days and the manufacturer, importer, actually, had no plans to have more made. But, FIRST must have procured enough in advance to ensure the tournaments would go on.

Add to that a game that tries to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the landing on the moon by making all the robots play on a slippery plastic surface with hard plastic wheels. It’s the closest they could come to the low-gravity on the moon, while playing the game here on Earth. Okay, you need to use a little imagination.

But that’s been my life since the first week of January, when our team, along with every other team on the planet, were told the details of this year’s competition and given a common set of parts. The clock started ticking then, and we had six weeks to come up with a robot that we would ship to our first competition, finished or not, in March. This gives every team the exact same time to work on their entries, making Fed-Ex the referee, in a way. No delays, for problems. No extensions for snow days. If you can’t work on Sunday, work extra long every other day. There are no exceptions.

The pressure is real. It’s a simulation of the real world that the students will enter when they leave school and enter the workforce. How they learn to deal with it now will make them valuable employees in the future. Deadlines, parts shortages, computer systems that don’t work quite right, designs that looked good on paper, they are all the same things you’ll run into later in industry. The business model goes beyond engineering and manufacturing too. Team organization, publicity, fund-raising and accounting, budgeting, all need to be done and the kids are involved on every level along with their adult Mentors.

This isn’t a soap box derby, though. There is no rule that the students do all the work and the adults just supervise. We’re all in this together, no distinctions. Just as you might get your first job and have to work with people who are older and know more, the students are thrown into it to adsorb, learn by seeing, doing, hearing, or trial and error. Whatever works, works. It’s different for every student and every team. No model is wrong in FIRST. The only constant is one called Gracious Professionalism, a complex concept that FIRST founder, Dean Kamen, has come up with to express his goal of using the program, not to make better engineers, but to make better engineers that will use their skills to make our society a better place.

Gracious Professionalism dictates that winning is fun, but it’s secondary. Teams are urged to have fun while being courteous to each other. Overwhelming upset scores are discouraged, winning by a point is as good as 100 and better than embarassing the other teams. And they compete in alliances, three teams against three other teams, so that there is always cooperation with other teams in order to accomplish the goal. Competing at RIT

It extends to teams helping other teams off the playing field as well. If a team breaks down and needs a part, the call goes out and someone finds a spare to keep that team playing. One year, a team’s robot got lost in shipping and several teams got together to help them build a basic robot right in the pits at the competition so they could compete. A basic kit of parts was donated and spare parts collected until the job was done. Six weeks was compressed down into just hours.

So, we’ve built a robot. A pretty good one this year. We concentrated on managing our time from the very beginning and choosing a design in a process that got everyone involved and on board with it from the beginning so that time wouldn’t be wasted exploring too many other, divisive, designs. It must have worked because we’ve been a solid competitor and led the winning alliance at our first regional in Rochester a few weeks ago. Last week, we came close to repeating history as part of an all-New-York-state alliance in Philadelphia with the Newfane Circuit Stompers and a team from Colonie NY near Albany.

You’d think after all that, I’d have had enough, but this gets in your blood. I’ve been watching other regionals online this weekend. We can only go to so many. It’s expensive to ship a robot and bus a team of 40 people around the country, so we went to two of them. There is competitions every weekend for 5 weeks during the competiton season, so those we can see online, we can watch and get ideas. I even drove to Cleveland on one of our off weekends to see their matches. I could have gone to Toronto this weekend, but I had to draw the line.

Having won our regional at Rochester, we are now invited to the National Championships in Atlanta later in April. We didn’t think the team could afford to go, but some kind sponsors have stepped in and made contributions to send the team. We’ve got the Atlanta trip just about covered, but the coffers will be empty to start off the year next year, so we still need to come up with more money. Like every business in this economy, we’re feeling the squeeze and have to find ways to economize and make do. Reaching out to new sponsors will be needed in the coming months.Fingerlakes Regional winners

So watching other teams from all parts of the country is helpful to prepare for the Atlanta Nationals. There is four divisions there, so we may never meet many of those teams, but we’re sure to run into some of them. Thanks to the internet, we can watch and cheer them on from afar. After all, they might be the team we’re paired up with to win the Nationals…

Information on FIRST Robotics regional competitions you can see online is at this page.