Introduction: How to Start a FIRST Robotics Team
When we're not tinkering, or designing makerspaces for libraries, we're working withFIRSTteams. Avid fans and supporters, we've been involved with FIRST for nearly 10 years, from helping provide snacks at our son's FIRST LEGO League team when he was 12 to foundingFIRST Tech Challenge Team Duct Tape in our garage 8 years ago, to volunteering as event and program organizers, and mentoring teams today.
FIRST is a STEM education program that uses robot challenges to build science and technology skills and interests for youth ages 6 to 18, in a character driven program designed to inspire self-confidence, leadership, and life skills . With support from a bunch of generous Fortune 500 corporations, educational and professional institutions, foundations, and individuals, FIRST provides more than $22 million in college scholarships to high school kids in the program, and serves over 400,000 students in 80 countries. The suite of programs includes FIRST® Robotics Competition (FRC® ) for students in Grades 9-12; FIRST® Tech Challenge (FTC® ) for Grades 7-12; FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL® ) for Grades 4-8; and Junior FIRST® LEGO®League (Jr.FLL®) for Grades K-3.
Key to FIRST program success is a concept called "Gracious Professionalism". As defined by Dr. Woody Flowers, who developed the idea, “It is how we should strive to act, whether we are being watched or not, and in a way that would make those we admire most proud. Gracious Professionalism demands that we treat others with kindness and respect, communicate with one another clearly and honestly, and resolve conflicts and misunderstandings immediately.” It's essentially Instructables' "Be Nice" policy. What's not to love here?!
Almost everyone agrees FIRST is an awesome youth program, but because it involves robots and tools and funky games and meetings and such, people who would be great at working with kids in this program either don't think they actually would be, or feel it's too daunting to take on.
So Eureka Factory is going to help out here, because we really believe in this program and because everyone we know who has ever worked with FIRST (including us!) feels the experience is as amazingly rewarding for them as it is for the kids they help out. Starting with this 'ible, we'll be running a series of FIRST How-Tos over the summer, that we hope will help new coaches, mentors and teams get a good start, and become successful and sustainable teams. We know there are a few FIRST teams on Instructables, and we hope they'll join in here with some of their how-to's, too!
Now let's get started on building a team!
- Community Networking for FIRST Teams
- Competition Readiness for FIRST Teams
- FIRST Mentoring
- FIRST Teams Guide to Effective Outreach
Step 1: Gather Your Materials
The essentials are:
- Knowledge about FIRST - This is the most useful page at the FIRST website for learning about all four programs:http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms The accompanying chart here gives a succinct view of the different programs - there's four - and the age/grade ranges they serve.
- Kids - If you've already got a kid, and you think she or he would be interested in a playing with robots, then that part is squared away.
- Some willing adults - Willing adults can be the usual suspects - parents - and some unexpected ones: local business folks, engineers, tech folks, makerspace denizens. Although tech folks are great, mentors and coaches don't have to be "techies" - a common misconception that sometimes discourages participation. The Non-Engineering Mentor Organization (NEMO) has some terrific resources to help in that area.
- Space -For almost all the programs, your run of the mill garage will work for meeting and work space, but makerspaces are also great places for hosting team meetings, and many libraries are now open to providing team meeting space. If you have an accommodating school, that's a plus.
- Funding -Funding, depending on the program, can be covered out of pocket, by team fees, through local sponsorships and donors, or a number of available FIRST grants.
Step 2: Get Organized
It might seem that the next step would be to register your team, but after having founded and run a team (FTC Team Duct Tape) and mentored others for the last 8 years, our recommendation is to get organized first. Gather interested adults and students, make sure everyone is on board, and understands the FIRST program, and then put together some foundational docs so that everyone is on the same page from the start. (sample docs are courtesy of Team Duct Tape)
Set expectations early and clearly, and codify with ateam handbook and related documents that outline meeting schedules, student and adult roles and responsibilities, and rules of conduct. Having a solid and well documented team infrastructure makes it easier to manage a team and ensure its sustainability over the long term.
Recommended documents include:
• Parent Info Sheet – with expected meeting dates and times, contact information, conduct requirements (of students and parents), Youth Protection Policy information, and competition schedule, and travel expectations • Parent/Student/Coach agreement – outlining expectations of each
• Team Meeting Info Sheet – a student version of the parent info sheet
• Code of Conduct – FIRST Values focused, emphasizing “Gracious Professionalism”, GPA requirements or recommendations, library specific requirements, and the consequences of inappropriate conduct.
That might seem like overkill, but taking the time to have some solid infrastructure and committed support will pave the way for an enjoyable team experience for everyone.
Step 3: Host a Team Orientation Meeting
Whatever type team you decide to organize, host a Team Orientation meeting with mandatory parent attendance. At this meeting:
- Review what FIRST is, and specifically the program for your group
- Review team documents together and have students and guardians sign team agreements together
- Consider team name and theme
- Consider team roles, although it may take a couple of meetings to settle into those . A FIRST team is like a small company - there's plenty for all types of interest, from web design for the team website, to costuming for the team look, business development for fundraising and financial planning and more.
- Consider meeting days and times: Decide on a specific day and time for team meetings and then ensure everyone has the team meeting and season schedule and that they can commit to the time needed to be have a fun season
- Play a team building game
- Eat, drink and be merry!
Step 4: Register Your Team
Ok, NOW you can register your team!
Once you know you've got sufficient interest and support from youth and adults, a meeting space, and a decent grasp on the program of your choice, hie thee over to USFIRST.org, and select the program for which you want to register a team.
For Jr. FLL and FLL, it's a fairly straightforward process.For FTC and FRC, the high school level programs, there's a few extra steps, but nothing an Instructables fan can't handle. When you hover over the "Register" tab in the left hand menu bar for FTC or FRC, don't click on the drop downs that appear but just click on the Register option itself, and then follow the directions on that page.
Even if you don't have funding yet, register the team as soon as you're able (if registration is open for the season), to be eligible for rookie and other team grants that may be made available to registered teams. Registration must be paid prior to ordering robot kits or participating in any competition, but you've usually got till just before season kick offs to do that. All listed program volunteers have to abide byFIRST Youth Protection Policy(YPP) requirements, although documentation of existing library staff screening typically satisfies YPP requirements.
Step 5: Business Planning
Like any quality youth sport or activity, running a FIRST team costs money, particularly the high school level FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition programs. Registering early ensures eligibility for a number of FIRST grants for new teams and veteran teams alike. Teams can also run their own fundraisers throughout the year, and should consider creating a sponsorship package and actively recruiting sponsors and donors.
In-kind sponsorship can be extremely valuable for the high school teams, so don't overlook donations of materials, food, team shirts and tools.
Step 6: Meeting and Building
There’s no right or wrong way to host meetings, although there are some best practices, starting with the cardinal rule: Have Fun!
The best way to do that is to provide some light structure with plenty of hands-on time for all involved. Sometimes that means not having all students at every meeting. Youth with no interest in programming will become bored and restless if there’s nothing for them to do while waiting for programs to compile. Those mostly interested in programming may become frustrated by the design and build process. So it can help to break meetings up a bit during the season, holding separate programming and build meetings, and sometimes meetings just for those interested in team marketing or the FLL research project and presentation, for that program..
Meetings can be held once a week or more. FRC teams, with their short six week season, can meet daily for several hours a day. Jr. FLL teams might just meet for 30 minutes once a week. A good rule of thumb for meetings, for almost all ages is:
- Housekeeping/Admin - 15-20 minutes – Start with a project timeline, planning backwards from the first competition date, and help team members set milestone dates. During the admin portion of each meeting, do a status check and set reasonable team goals for that day. This is the time to field most questions, concerns and ideas.
- Build & Project time – 2-5 hours, or more, if it’s an FRC team. This is the meat of the meeting, and it can be helpful to have team members work in smaller groups of 3-5 students on different aspects of their build or projects. A team historian is also important, helping document the team season with photos and video. Having an adult on hand for each group helps keep things on track and moving forward, but it’s important that the students do the work, and adults serve primarily in an advisory or learning guide capacity. Snacks are also an important part of the Build & Project time, and a vital part of strengthening the team through the community building act of eating together. Plan to have a lot of food on hand! Robotics teams fuel their creativity and learning with voracious appetites!
- Wrap Up – 30 min. to 40 min. – This is the time to teach responsible use of library facilities (and any facilities, really) and respect for those who will use spaces after the students. Making this a routine part of every meeting helps keep materials accounted for and spaces organized and clean.
Step 7: Encourage Community Outreach
Outreach is an important part of FIRST team involvement at every level, and part of what teams are judged on at competitions. Teams that share what they learn, learn it better, and are typically judged more highly at events. Teams can demo their robots and show off their engineering and team development prowess at Maker and Science Festivals, school and community STEM events, and the extra drive practice comes in handy at competitions!
Step 8: Be Competition Ready
The best way to prepare for a competition (for FLL, FTC & FRC - Jr. FLL is an "expo" rather than a competition) is to:
- Read all instructions and communications from FIRST and program Partners, which provide important information throughout the season about registration, grants, scholarships, game and competition information.
- Review updates weekly with team volunteers and with students where relevant.
- Be intimately familiar with the game manual and game rules, and make sure that students are familiar with them as well
- It’s very helpful to impose a “build freeze” a week before competitions, to prevent last minutes tweaks from turning into endless redesigns, which can take a perfectly functioning robot and turn it into a doorstop at a competition.
- Create (and use!) event day check lists that cover everything from game day responsibilities for volunteers and staff, to food plans, to materials lists for batteries, chargers, spare parts, and other items.
On game day, arrive on time, set up the team area (pit), and hold an all-hands meeting before things take off. Remind students to be Gracious Professionals, to be present, and to stay till the end of the event.
Step 9: Celebrate!
Win or lose, have a party!
Make a community event of it, and showcase students and their season achievements with friends and family. Run videos of tournament matches, display student work and any trophies that may have been won, and let the students share the robot build and run their robot for guests. This is a great way to recruit new team members and volunteers for the next season, and to keep the emphasis where it belong, on the fun of the build and the game, and on the joy of the discovery process.