Introduction: How to Get Involved With FIRST Robotics!
FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It is an incredible organization which organizes and runs 3 different robotics competitions including FLL (FIRST Lego League and Jr. FLL), FTC (FIRST Tech Challenge), and FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) and promotes interests and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). They have inspired thousands of kids across the country and now across the world to pursue a variety of STEM careers, and they partner with several different Universities to offer generous scholarships. They are a certified 501(c)(3) non-profit and they do an amazing job of creating equally intense and fun competitions. I love volunteering with them and there are a wide variety of ways you can get involved and help whether you are in a technical field, non-technical field, were on a FIRST team yourself or are just learning about FIRST.
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Step 1: Choosing the Right Role
So you have decided to volunteer with FIRST, but where do you start?
There are 3 primary ways to get started with FIRST:
1) You can coach a team. This involves helping and running a team, including helping them to get sponsors and funding, helping them practice their presentation, get tools/work space, overseeing the robot building and a lot more. This is a very dedicated and (depending on the level of competition) very demanding position. If you have engineering or technical experience or you already have a lot of FIRST experience yourself, this is a great way to really make an impact and dive right in. However, this isn't something you probably want to jump into without getting some other experience first.
2)You can mentor a team. This is similar to coaching except the team already has a coach and you are just acting to supplement their knowledge. You volunteer with the team when you can and help them with whatever skills you have. Maybe you're an engineer and you can help the team design a great robot or help them with best practices for actually constructing it. On the other hand maybe you have a lot of experience with tools and you can teach the team how to use things such as a drill press, band saw, 3D printer etc. However, even if you have graphic design experience or are just artsy you could be great at helping the team get print materials together to promote themselves or do outreach in the community. These are just a couple examples, the point is many people have a specific skill they can contribute part time to help out a team and aid them on their way to greatness.
3) Finally, If you don't feel you have enough time or skills or experience to fully coach or mentor a team you can volunteer at the competitions themselves. This is what I have been doing now for years and I absolutely love it. Almost all the competitions at all levels are frequently looking for willing volunteers. There are a variety of roles and there is something for everyone even if you have no technical knowledge or experience at all and have hardly any idea what FIRST is all about.
I have the most knowledge about the tournaments so that's what I'll focus on in the next few sections but if you are interested in getting more info on mentoring or coaching I can definitely point you to some great resources and where else to look to get help.
Step 2: FLL, FTC and FRC Oh My!
If you have decided on jumping right in and helping out at a competition than great! I'll tell you exactly how to sign up! First thing to do is to think about if you have a preference for volunteering at FLL, FTC or FRC.
FLL/Jr. FLL: This involves using lego robots to navigate on a unique course each year(also made out of lego parts) that is set inside a wooden table/box. It also involves the kids researching a project/solution to the particular year's theme/problem and presenting it in front of judges. Additionally they are judged on teamwork and sportsmanship through what FIRST calls core values. This is for the youngest kids and Jr. FLL is for even younger kids.
FTC: This competition is for students in grades 7-12 and is a big jump up from FLL. They are challenged to design, build, program and operate a robot in a floor alliance(they compete with another team) game format. Unlike FLL, FTC robots are not made out of legos but instead use a kit of parts given to them by FIRST. This kit includes actual metal parts and a variety of motors and other pieces. These robots are also bigger than FLL, the competition is even more intense and it's even more fun!
FRC: In First, this is the top level. This is for high school students and is similar to FTC however, the robots are significantly bigger and heavier (up to 120 lbs I believe), typically involve much more machining, often even professional machine shops and tools are used to fabricate parts. They also receive a basic kit of parts from FIRST, but most teams buy many additional parts and build their robot completely from scratch. This is known as the "varsity sport for the mind" and it is fantastic just to watch! Teams have just 6 weeks to design, build, program and test their robot for the year's game/challenge.
Next, How do you actually sign up for a tournament?
Step 3: Create an Account in VIMS
Signing up for a tournament is really easy! The website used to be usfirst.org and is now firstinspires.org, either will take you to the website. Pretty much anything you want to know is on their website. When you get to the site, it should like the picture below, just click on volunteers.
Next click on the read more link under "It's easy to get involved", like in the screenshot I posted.
Next on the right hand side you will see a link that says "Register to volunteer(VIMS)" click that. VIMS is the FIRST Volunteer Information and Matching System, they like their acronyms. It is simply a way to view and officially sign up to help at tournaments in your area.
Finally, click on create FIRST account, agree to the Terms and conditions then fill in the information as necessary.
There is only one more thing that needs to be done to volunteer, and that is a background check as part of the FIRST YPP or youth Protection Program. There are instructions on the website that walk you through the process and FIRST will cover the cost. You can find that step by step walkthrough here: YPP
Phew! alright time to sign up!
Step 4: Sign Me Up!
When you log into VIMS, you'll see a screen very similar to mine, although it will not have any tournaments listed. Simply click Apply for an event at the top of the page. You should see a page like my picture, select which level you are interested in (FLL, FTC or FRC), your location and hit search. That will take you to results. Click on select next to any tournament that interests you. Now simply click on any role on the left that you would like to perform and then click add and be sure to also choose your availability at the bottom. When you are done, just hit apply for selected roles! You are now a FIRST volunteer, welcome to the family! From here, the local organizers should contact you shortly before the event but if not be sure to simply show up on time and contact the local organizer if you have any questions at all!
Step 5: Additional FIRST and Robotics Resources
Well I hope this helped you guys to understand a little more about what FIRST Robotics is and how you can get involved! If you want to know more about anything FRC related I encourage you to check out the Chief Delphi forums which is a very large and well known forum started several years ago by a FIRST team: http://www.chiefdelphi.com/forums/portal.php
You can also check out the FIRST Robotics Network group on Facebook as well as the official FIRST, FTC, FLL and FRC pages on Facebook and twitter.
If you are interested in robotics in general or building some yourself, Robot builder's bonanza is a fantastic book to get started, and you can get it here. If you're really interested in robotics I highly recommend getting an arduino starter kit and looking into local resources at your library and makerspaces in your area.
Now go get out there and be inspired, watch competitions, volunteer and have fun!
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