FIRST Robotics Gives Us Hope In The Next Generation Of Hackers

A top scoring team in FIRST Robotics shows off just what some high-school students are capable of. Called the Simbot SideSwipe, their 2015 robot is a slick piece of mechatronic genius, which according to our tipster was built in just six weeks by the students.

The robot is essentially a remote controlled palletizing forklift, capable of collecting and stacking six recycling totes, and a green bin. It’s an impressive combination of mechanical control and fabrication — though it is worth noting, these bots are remote controlled — not autonomous.

To encourage learning, the team has posted their engineering report, and even the CAD model online. They obviously had quite a bit of funding judging by their component selection, but regardless, we’re seriously impressed with both the design and execution of manufacturing their robot — especially if it was really built in just six weeks. Just take a look at the following videos:

FIRST Robotics, (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a world wide foundation dating back to 1989 dedicated to inspiring our youth into the pursuit of science and technology. It is the world’s leading STEM engagement program for kids internationally.

The competition and robot entries have come a long way since we first covered FIRST 7 years ago!

[Thanks Marcus!]

53 thoughts on “FIRST Robotics Gives Us Hope In The Next Generation Of Hackers

  1. 4 year FRC participant here. All FRC robots are built in six weeks, and I’m going to brag for a minute here and say that this is far from the most impressive robot from last year, my teams included. But FRC is a very important program, and always needs more help and more funding, as most of the teams raise all of their own money. Although the budget only seems high because NI gives you the computer system, which they charge several thousand dollars for otherwise…

    1. Ex Student/Current Mentor Here. The competition rules only allow for a 6 week period to build, many teams do it in less to have time to allow the students to learn to drive and the programmers to debug.

  2. Send them to google science fair, send them tons of electronics engineering swag, send them to the whitehouse!

    Oh wait, that wouldn’t be a opportunity to lambaste people. Also i bet these kids mostly have non-rich parents, so they cannot as easily hire experts to manipulate the media.

    Seriously tho Hackaday, you guys should send swag boxes out to more teenager and pre-teen kids!

    Also, these kids are amazing.

      1. If hackaday wanted to provide some immediate tangible support to go with their lip service to STEM, they could denote when the hacks they cover are done by youngsters, and send them some swag.

        A hackaday t-shirt could have a surprisingly large [positive] influence on a young kids future!

  3. I really don’t like FIRST. I can get behind the idea of it (get people in school to build robots and learn about engineering), but after competing in it, I can tell you it falls FAR short of achieving this.

    The biggest issue is cost. My highschool used to compete regularly in FIRST, and We did fairly well. This proved very unsustainable financially. When FIRST asks thousands of dollars for entry, and even more for the kit of parts you MUST buy each year, before even taking into account the cost of building the robot itself, not very many schools can afford to participate.

    They have a very strict list of parts you can use as far as controllers, interface electronics (only two models of motor controller are allowed, zero-tolerance on what is allowed to interface with the robot in any way), motors, and other parts go, with much of the extremely expensive electronics being repurchased every year in the kit of parts (like their expensive-as-hell custom-made CRIO controller and associated control electronics, and often the laptop used to talk to it).

    Our last robot was by a HUGE margin the lightest and cheapest of the lot, having been mostly built from scrap aluminium and plywood/lumber (and as many reused parts as we were allowed), but it still bankrupted the club to the point where the next year we had to ask for 150$ entry just to offset the costs. The same story was repeated for everywhere in our area, as other highschools sold their stuff and got out. (we bought many of their parts on the cheap) Pretty much the only schools that could afford to continue competing were a couple of absolutely filthy rich private schools and universities, who had enough money to burn that one built a machine shop into a mobile trailer and parked it outside. (their robot was made entirely out of CNC’d UHMW, and was worth it’s weight in gold)

    If FIRST wants to achieve their mission, their price needs to come down a LOT.

    1. Similar thing with robot competitions in Poland. Year after year it’s pretty much the same teams/robots fighting each other. You can forget about achieving any good score in line-follower and sumo/mini-sumo/nano-sumo categories unless you can spend serious $$$ on parts like motors, wheels, sensors, machined or 3D printed elements.

    2. I’m a volunteer for FIRST in Tampa, Florida. Yes, FIRST is a bit expensive but all the money goes back in to the program and the incredible scholarships. It costs $5,000 to register a team. This covers the kit of parts (no, it isn’t extra, you just have to pay shipping if you don’t pick it up at the season kick-off), entry into the regional competition (a huge production), a huge support system and the generous scholarship program. Is that expensive? How much do you think it costs the high school football team each year? The question is why does the school underwrite the costs of football while forcing the FIRST teams to pay their own way? Part of it is alumni and booster organizations. Many fathers and even grandfathers played high school ball and are more than happy to support their kids in the same field. Not many parents had the opportunity to build robots in high school, so there’s not the multi-generational support system in place (yet).
      There are a ton of grants available to help teams out. There are also many local businesses willing to help out as well. Most importantly, it takes work on the part of the team members. FIRST isn’t just about robots. I often tell my kids that we could accomplish the same goals raising show goats. FIRST teaches discipline, planning, organization skills and self-sufficiency. Earning your own way is just one of the valuable lessons FIRST teaches.
      Our team’s robot last year utilized the screw mechanism from a garage door opener ($15 from the Habitat For Humanity surplus store) and a right angle gear reduction from a broken angle grinder as the crate lifting mechanism. Our box gripper was made from a recycled store display. We went to the Orlando regional and finished very well against teams from all over the world.
      As for the ‘extremely expensive electronics’, most of it comes in the kit of parts included in the entry fee. The restrictions on control hardware are in place to insure that everything is uniform and will work with the field. Imagine if every bot used a DIY solution for radio control- it would be chaotic and the chance for interference would be high. Just like restrictor plates in Nascar, standard control equipment insures an even playing field for everyone.
      When you take all that into account, FIRST is a bargain!
      Also, there are no universities competing in FIRST- it cuts off at high school.

      1. 5000 is far to much to expect from a highschool club, especially considering that it doesn’t take into account construction costs. You can preach the merits of first all you want, but it doesn’t help the schools that can’t afford admission.

        As for the expense of control systems and the kit of parts in general (why am I buying this again each year?), the harsh restrictions (only two models of motor controller?!) on what can be used aren’t justified by reduction of interference, they’re so that you HAVE to buy the kit of parts that pays for all the money FIRST burns. Even if you’re worried about interference, an off-the-shelf solution would cost a small fraction of the bloated FIRST-developed CRIO system and it’s peripherals. (ever heard of the Open Source Motor Controller, or the rasPi? You can even keep connecting all the robots over wifi, though that didn’t stand up to interference too well a couple years ago, when someone’s inefficient code saturated it and crashed all the bots in one of the competitions we were at)

        As for “local businesses”, whatever excuse for where schools will find the funding helps you sleep better at night. Been there, tried that, it doesn’t cover a whooping 5000$ plus construction, transport, and other associated costs.

        And football is not a valid scapegoat, sorry.

        1. Still there, still doing it and I sleep great, thanks.
          We had a local team based out of the Boys and Girls Club last year. These are typically lower income, minority youth. They raised the $5,000 through donations and grants. They spent about $150 extra on their robot. It was made out of wood and parts from Home Depot. They showed up at the regional with an assembled robot with code. More experienced members from other teams jumped in to get their code in order. Many of us dropped by their pit to offer spare parts to improve their design. They were able to compete and they left beaming like they’d won the whole thing. That’s the lesson of FIRST that you obviously missed- our robots compete but we’re all on the same team. It’s really not about the robots or winning- sorry if your faculty adviser gave you the wrong message.
          I’m not scapegoating football- I’m blaming the administrators that put athletics over academics. I’m blaming the media who cover high school sports and ignore robotics and intellectual pursuits. I’m blaming a culture that celebrates physical prowess over education. I’m also blaming folks like you who fail and blame others for their failure. Sorry, real life is expensive. In your years in FIRST, did you never hear the terms ‘co-opertiton’ and ‘gracious professionalism’?
          $5,000 is chump change when it’s spread over a whole team. My nephews play hockey and my sister pays thousands a year so two kids can play a game. I have 20 kids on my team this year. That’s $250 per kid without grants, fundraisers or donations. Most high schoolers spend more than that for a single night of prom. Your excuses and bitterness are weak.

        2. BTW, Last year there were 5 motor controllers which while not fantastic in choice, gives you a wide range of options. Additionally the price of the RIO has gone down significantly as the roboRIO is much cheaper than the old CRIO.

          Now about the cost of everything. Our team is not affiliated with any school as they don’t want to pay for us yet for the past 12 years we have been competing. We have to pay our own rent, utilities, competition fees, construction costs, and transport. No grants won’t cover the cost, and business sponsorships won’t completely do it either. If the team is to succeed, they have to be willing to constantly raise funds and looking for ways to make money. It honestly isn’t a bad thing that it is like that either. All that means is that the students have to learn what it is like to be in a business and that every purchase or activity weighs into your ability to reach end’s meet.

          1. No doubt: some amount of financial hustling is good for them. But most FIRST teams are less than 10 kids. How many are on a football team?
            I agree the schools and booster clubs need to reset their priorities. Other activities (like science/engineering clubs) should have comparatively equal moral support and some financial backing.

      2. FIRST is not NASCAR and should not model itself like that.
        “Why are our controllers clashing with each other and how do we fix it?” Is a more really real world problem solving exercise than building a robot to stack pallets.

    3. Yes, FIRST is somewhat expensive, but it’s worth every penny. The skills I got from being on a FIRST team more than payed for the cost of the program by helping me get a good internship as a college freshman. Also, consider that anywhere else that teaches you the engineering and machining skills that first does will cost WAY more. And for schools that can’t afford the high costs of the robotics competition, FIRST also has other contests that have lower costs. FIRST was hands down more important for my education that anything else I did in high school.

    4. As an FRC mentor, I’m surprised the word “sponsor” appears nowhere in your post. Our team has a dedicated business subteam that secure sponsorship from companies to ensure we can afford to compete (I can’t think of a team off the top of my head that doesn’t). Many companies out there even have an application for sponsorship specifically for FIRST teams. Our school gives us absolutely no money for this program, everything is paid for by a Department of Education grant, sponsorship, and pay-to-play fees we charge the parents (we’ve never rejected a student because their parent(s) couldn’t afford it).

      The strict list of parts is for a few reasons:
      1) Safety. The people running the field system need to know that they can disable your robot reliably. They don’t know that if you’ve built your own motor controllers or control system.
      (Don’t get me wrong, being the leader of the electrical subteam, I’d love for my students to be able to build their own motor controllers. So we do it in the off-season, for fun.)
      2) Compatibility. How long would it take you to implement the software on your own choice of embedded computer and prove it to work reliably with the rest of the field system? How many people would it take?
      3) Evening out the playing field. Having a set list of motors and a specific battery (or rather, batteries with near-identical specifications from several manufacturers) ensures that no team has a massive power advantage over another.

      Additionally, have been more than two legal motor controllers for a while. Six if memory serves me well, and next year there should be eight.
      The two new ones were specifically added, I believe, to provide a less expensive option for struggling teams.

      You don’t have to repurchase the control system every year either. Some teams do, so that they don’t have to remove it from an old robot, but it’s not a requirement. If the control system changes, the new system is included in the kit of parts at no additional cost.

    5. Unfortunately high cost is always going to be a problem with any project involving big hardware. There are more accessible competitions like VEX for schools that can’t afford the high cost. VEX will still teach students a lot of the same lessons they will learn from FRC.

      I know how difficult it can be to fund these projects, the event organizers always do their best to lower costs but there is a limit to what they can do and still stay alive and grow in size.

      If you think FRC is high cost then I hate to break it to you that 3-4 years down the road when some of these students head of into universities and colleges equivalent projects have costs around $250 000 in budget. Of course these projects have more avenues of funding such as research grants, faculty support and what not but its always difficult to fund these. All good things come with a cost.

    6. I was also a participant in FIRST, and this was a good part of our difficulty.

      What really bugged me was how shoddy the national competition’s playing field was considering the massive amount of money it cost to be there.

      I personally saw a team lose in the final rounds of the national competition due to garbage tier workmanship on the field.

      It was the game several years ago where at the end of the round each team built a mini pole climbing robot, first to the top that hit a plate connected to a switch got points.

      I saw one teams smash into that top plate, bounce off, hit it again, bounce off, no points. It had no trouble in previous rounds.

      Between rounds myself and the metal shop teacher decided to take a look at that particular pole. They used completely different fasteners all around to attach the movable plate, unless you hit it just right it would bind and could not be pushed up, extremely shoddy workmanship. We tried to bring it to the attention of the officials but we just got threatened for going on the playing field.

      That same teacher later pointed out to me the dude who put the field together drinking out of a brown paper bag outside.

      1. Given the entry fee assessed to each team, there should be more coming out of it. Run the numbers. $5000 times.. Say 20 teams. What are you getting back for that collective $100000? What are you PAYING for? The kit can’t possibly cost that much. And if it does, someone on the other end is either taking a cut or not doing a very good job of cost reductions.
        “But we have to rent the venue”
        The special Olympics does not charge 500 per runner to cover costs of a big sports arena. The arena donates the space for a worthy event.
        No one, anywhere in the system should be charging a fee for services or time. It’s all volunteers. Sooo.. Where is that money going every year?
        At least with the oft mentioned football you know the money goes to jerseys, helmets, pads, balls, and field maintenance.

        1. Take off your tin foil hat Emery. The venues are not free by any stretch of the imagination. Lighting, sound, rigging, field transportation, training for event coordinators, food for volunteers, electricity, internet, etc. is where the money goes at a local level. A portion of the money also goes to fund the championship event in St. Louis, transportation, and even full-time employees to develop code, coordinate donations, manage 501c3 assets, etc. There are so many events now that it’s impossible to have the organization be run strictly by volunteers.

          Many state events are funded by a collective group of district events. A percentage of the money collected at the qualifying district events ($1000) is used to fund the state championship events (free of charge in most cases) and to provide assistance for teams that advance to nationals.

          You really sound like you’ve got quite a bone to pick with FIRST. Any reason why? If you have questions, I’d be happy to answer them.

          1. I’m not wearing tin-foil and not calling conspiracy.
            My point is that if the event organization hustled as much for sponsors ascthey expect the kids too (and I DO expect kids to hustle for sponsors), much of that could be free.
            It works for a LOT of other organizations with similar needs (large venues, crews, food, etc)

    7. I’m teaching a robotics course at Tokyo Hackerspace. One of the first things we discussed is building from kits. It’s a good way to start out, since a lot of hard stuff is done for you. But you loose out on that experience.

      While I love the IDEA of FIRST, it really misses the mark.
      By not letting teams choose or build their own controller, they loose out on those EE and programming skills. By forcing them to rebuy a lot of parts every year they prove ita not about being a good engineer (good engineers copy, recycle, and make use of EVERYTHING).

      I saw the writing on the wall when they tied in so deep with NI that there was no way out for teams not wishing to push the NI model.
      FIRST is about making engineers.
      FIRST is about making engineers who depend on NI in the future.

    8. You should check out BEST Robotics,
      Like FIRST, it is a six week program, but it costs nothing for a school to register and compete. In addition, BEST loans the team the core kit (Vex electronics, motors, etc) and gives each team a set of supplies to use for the robot.
      In terms of the robot, the biggest different from FIRST is that BEST requires that the robot be built from a limited set of materials, so a team can not spend the big $$$$ to get an advantage. Teams compete on basis of design and ability to create parts from stock materials such as plywood, sheet metal, polycarbonate sheets, and PVC.
      The past few challenges can be seen here:

    9. Fortunately the robot competition that I was in in highschool had no entry fee. The only cost were the parts like the motors, controllers, and batteries which the school would re-use each year. The rest was built from scrap – we used a steel lawn chair for the robot’s frame.

  4. because of the dislike for first robotics I am surprised nobody has mentioned VEX or even for the younger kids FLL both of which are great for getting kids into this type of stuff.

  5. Yep, six weeks- the most stressful, nerve wracking and absolutely wonderful six weeks of the year!
    FIRST is an amazing organization that changes lives. Here’s my story-
    I got involved in the maker scene about five years ago when I attended my first Maker Fair. I’m in my mid-forties and didn’t have contact with kids. I was actually a little scared of teenagers! I met three kids at the fair who blew me away. They were smart and polite and incredibly helpful. They were set up in the booth next to me and I got the chance to see them in action and get to know them a bit. They were from a local FIRST FTC team. I also met the organizer of the fair who turned out to be the regional director of FIRST in my area. We hit it off immediately and stayed in touch after the fair.
    A few months later she called and asked me if I was interested in helping the team with an off-season hackathon. Normally I’d have said no way, but I was intrigued by the kids I had met and wanted to learn more so I agreed to help. What a great decision! I jumped in with both feet and haven’t looked back.
    One of the kids I met at that first maker fair graduated and became an Americorp Vista member working with the local FIRST organization. He started a new team based at a local library. When he asked me to come be a mentor for the team I jumped at the opportunity. I also started working with the regional director on her and her husband’s side project to build makerspaces in local schools and libraries. We’ve gone from being a nonprofit to a full-fledged business that provides maker-related programs and training for libraries and schools interested in starting makerspaces. We also launched the Foundation for Community Driven Innovation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping fund local teams and producing STEM and maker events in our area.
    I went from being guy who hated his job and spent his free time putzing around the shop scowling and yelling at clouds to having a career I absolutely love and spending my free time working with kids and making positive change in my community. I smile all the time. I’ve become a ‘makervangelist’, going to maker and educational events to spread the good word of learning and doing. I owe it all to three amazing kids, one very talented lady and her awesome family and FIRST Robotics.
    If FIRST can do that for a grown man, imagine what it can do for the kids in the program. I’ve seen kids graduate and go to college who wouldn’t have without the lessons learned in FIRST. It’s the most level playing field imaginable, with many leadership and tech positions filled by girls as well as boys. I had a student last year who started her high school years living in a car. She graduated valedictorian with a scholarship. I know kids who were on the ‘wrong track’ with booze and drugs until FIRST showed them their potential. I’ve seen bullies become good leaders, aimless gamers become contributing team members and shy kids come out of their shells and shine. FIRST changes lives!

    One slight correction- while the main portion of the competition is remote controlled, each round starts with a 30 second autonomous period where the bots can score without human control. Six weeks isn’t a lot of time to build a bot and program complex autonomous routines, but for the teams who have the time, the opportunity is there.

  6. I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned the rampant cheating. The stupid Wi-Fi control system has a large number of proven, verified flaws that make it easy to selectively DoS any competing robot. FIRST has acknowledged this indirectly, but never done anything about it, and their policies prohibit sharing the network communication logs with anyone. Open logs would go a long way towards establishing trust.

    But the bigger problem is that most teams have adults doing significant work for them. The big sponsors want their names out there, and often do most of the design to ensure they’re seen associated with a success. And parents do a LOT of work, from code to FEA, you name it. A lot of high schoolers are thankful for the experience, but if you were on a team reflect and ask yourself: did you come up with the ideas, designs, and actually implement them, or did some adult do it?

    I’ve talked to dozens of coaches for both FTC and FRC, in multiple states and regions, and roughly half admit they did the design and/or fabrication. About three quarters of the remaining teams admitted that “so-and-so’s mom made that,” or “my uncle gave us the design.” Even assuming the rest did honest work, it’s a sad proportion.

    Also, ask yourself, why is it that most of the same teams go to the championships every year? Look at the sponsors – most of them make some product or service that FIRST uses, and the most of the ones that don’t have engineers doing everything for them (BAE I’m looking at you).

    VEX is an alternative, but those are some awful people running that company. And when they were IFI, supplying the FRC electronics, they too had a regular spot in the championships, next to the sleazy EasyC people.

    I’ve seen the corruption and total disregard for the kids in my home state of Maine, FIRST’s home NH, absolutely rampant in MA (Rt128 belt teams are the definition of privileged snots), and more of the same in VT, OH, VA, NY, and FL.

    Disclaimer: my kids are 4 and 7, but I’ve coached or mentored teams almost every year since FIRST started, just a couple gaps when moving between jobs. I’ve led teams to states regularly, and once to Worlds. I’ve been to Dean’s house for dinner and drinks a few times, and Woody and I go way back. Not one of those “the kids can’t possibly do that” people, since I’ve seen first hand that they can if you let them.

    1. While I agree that some teams have it much easier than others, FIRST is doing quite a bit to make sure communications are solid between robots and the field. The vulnerability discovered years ago has been addressed and a detailed document describing how the control system works has been released. If you’ve ever worked championship or gotten to know the people behind the system, you’d realize what happens during those 5 days. The guys at NI are constantly logging data using military-grade wireless acquisition systems. They can tell you in which direction an iPhone trying to communicate with the field is. If you watch the recordings from championship, you’ll see guys with orange hats sitting at each table during semis/finals on each field. Those are the guys recording and processing data, ensuring nobody messes with the system.

      Few people realize that every team must be very up-front about their finances. The IFI guys specifically are very smart people, but whether their arrogant-ness overwhelms that notion, however, is up for debate. There seems to be lots of jealousy amidst teams when it comes to championship. Many teams qualify because of Engineering Inspiration or Charimans, but this means that only about 1/3 of teams qualify because of robots. This is important because to a “scrappy, home-grown” team, the well-established, well-managed, well-funded teams may seem to have an unfair advantage. The reality is that the “top-tier” teams push their students the hardest and are constantly (read: year-round) improving on their designs, knowledge, and connections.

      I’ve mentored teams for almost a decade and have worked with a wide spectrum; Boys & Girls clubs with no funding and kids who were blown away when I showed them a drill to a team which has long-standing ties with a machine shop and mentors who care. The experience is what you (student), and your mentors make of it. Many coaches/mentors have no idea what a robot is or how it should be built. They just know that they received funding from and they have to go through with the project. The hell with the kids. This is usually the kind of person that ends up ruining the experience for everyone. Please try to not be this person.

      Feel free to email if you have any more questions. I love the program, but not blindly.

      1. Good analyses. Side question in reference to one of your points:
        The hypothesis of all of these robot building contests is that kids learn various twch skills through building a machine for competition.
        A rule is that once graduated, they can no longer participate.
        Thus, the entire core of the team must refresh yearly, with a complete cycle every three to four years.
        Now, presumably, the more experience members would pass on their skills and equipment as they graduate.
        However, it seems safe to assume that not all of that transfers. I.E. no team should “get better and better” every year. At least not at a rate faster than any other. And certainly not to a significant amount.

        So the idea that a team could “be working at it for years” implies that they in some way cheated the process (the mentor/coaches had). In a truely level field, in which the participant pool had a four year turnout, no team should be capable of maintaining “top tier” for a significant number of years.
        A professional sports team can win the championship one year and end the following year in the bottom third.

        1. You’re correct. As per the rules, students that graduate are no longer permitted to participate in FIRST after they graduate. Your hypothesis leaves out one crucial point, though. Neither mentors nor sponsors are not required to swap out every four years. It is absolutely feasible (and legal) for teams to continue working on projects for multiple years as long as the work done on the competition robot happens during build season AND all of the “prior art” used on it is accessible to all teams.

  7. Once you get past the FRC financial hurdles, it’s a blast to participate in. I would call it the single friendliest competition I have ever seen. But you could always tell which schools had money just thrown at their team, which schools had massive fundraising branch to their team, and lastly which schools were hurting for the funds to be there.

  8. Generally, I like the idea of FIRST. It provide students with the opportunity to create something awesome from nothing. However, the more I get into these competitions, the more I see that FIRST is a competition for bored mentors and teams with money.

    I’m currently a mentor for one of the smaller, struggling team. My students make the everything by themselves, mechanical, electrical and programming. The school made the decision that the faculty and mentor roles only facilitate and provide advice. At the end of the season, I know that while our robot doesn’t stand a chance when compared to others, it’s still made by my students through and through.

    Countless times, I go to the pit and see grown men (mentors) fiddling with a school robot or nerding on the computer trying to debug (or maybe program) the robot’s autonomous mode while the rest of the students look at what’s happening. That’s when I questions what FIRST is really about.

    I took a quick glance on the write up and can you tell me when high schools started teaching control (PID) algorithms for motor control not to mention manufacturing with riveted aluminum sheets?

    1. I’ve also walked through the pits and seen the same things. It’s disappointing. I also know the pain of watching kids spend days on a design that I knew wouldn’t work- you just have to let them fail and stress that the process is the purpose. Learning from failure trumps winning with ‘help’ every time.
      A beautiful bot doesn’t always mean adult interference. We have an amazing mentor in our area who teaches the kids fabrication and metal working skills. He’s a machinist’s machinist capable of beautiful and precise work. He regularly opens his shop to teams, shows them the tools and techniques and lets them go to town. These kids build some impressive machines under his guidance. I’ve also seen a few young prodigies who have grown up with computers and are capable of amazing feats of coding.. A beautiful, well programmed robot doesn’t necessarily mean that the adults built it. Of course, sometimes it does. That’s life and dealing with cheaters is part of gracious professionalism. Ultimately, the community knows who builds and programs their own robot.
      But yeah, it really gets me mad sometimes.

    2. The average technically-inclined high school student is able to manufacture with rivets. As a FIRST alumni that just graduated last year, I can say that my team used both PID algorithms and riveted aluminum sheets, and I don’t see a problem with it. In terms of programming, if a student is curious about better ways to control motion or do other tasks, the primary role of the mentor should be to teach them what they know. If the goal of FIRST is to teach kids about science and technology, it seems rather contradictory for mentors to not teach the students about advanced techniques. I know personally that my experience on the team would have been much worse if not for having passionate mentors with the knowledge base to teach me about PID loops and other advanced programming techniques to use on our robot.

      1. I just got through showing our kids how to program a PID loop! I (the mentor) put together a program that simulates what a PID loop does, and the kids took it from there. I admit it, I programmed something and I’m not a student. I also admit it, the kids used my example and integrated it into the robot code. Does this mean that I programmed the robot? What’s the difference between them working on an example I made and an example they found online?

        Just because the kids don’t know something doesn’t mean a mentor can’t show it to them. Kids are quick to learn, which is why this program is so important. Many mentors don’t realize that complaining about other teams in subtle ways also teaches the kids to do so. This is something that you should NOT be trying to teach to kids.

        Here’s another question for you. If the kids are stumped and ask for your help debugging a problem in code, is it cheating if I point to the module causing the issue? Should I let them try and figure everything out themselves and watch them get frustrated, or should I point out the issue and why it came about so they can avoid making the same mistake again? Hint: One is being a terrible mentor and the other is the opposite. You decide.

        1. Actually, both of those options are not right.
          The best way to teach is to not show and tell, but to guide exploration.
          In the “real world” they won’t have you as a resource to solve their problems, or do not out where the problem came from. All they have is their eyes, ears, hands and brains.
          When a compiler is throwing out errors, don’t tell the what it means and where the problem is. Show them how to FIND OUT On THEIR OWN what it means and where the problem is coming from.
          Show them how to divide problems up in order to eliminate the WORKING from the NOT working. Show them how to insert debug statements.
          Let them find the problem. Show them the tools to do so.

          In your PID code example, yes, showing what the PID loop does is great. Then you gave them the code. On its own, this not bad. As you say, they could have used Google to find it and copy it. Is that what you did?
          The problem is that you have them the code. Did you explain how you worked it out? How you built the code up? What problems did you have in trying to implement it?

          Usually, when I teach introduction to Arduino or other embedded stuff, I show them how the blink example works. Then make them modify it on their own to FLASH Morse code. Then I show them the button example. Then make them integrate that into their program. Finally I ask each person to explain how their own version works. We always end up with several different ways to attack the problem. And each method was them thinking entirely on their own.

          I use similar processes when I am teaching metal working, welding, electronics, English as a second language.

          1. … You’re suggesting I do the same thing I mentioned before. Sounds like we agree!

            The code simulated an input and showed them what the variables did to the output. I explained how the code works and what each response means in a system. I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re asking me to do.

            Using the tools that FIRST and NI have given us, we’ve moved past the “blink and LED” example and now work on much more complex systems. You have to remember that we only have 4 years to get the kids up to speed and can’t dawdle with Arduinos!

        2. I think what’s best when teaching people, is to give them a little bit of time to figure it out. Then maybe a hint, explain a couple of things and get them to think about what they’re doing in the right way. But if they’re still stuck, give them the answer and explain why. The idea is to lead them to it, rather than just telling them.

          There’s a value to working something out for yourself, and it’s very rewarding, a lot of where the reward in stuff like this lies. But butting your head against a wall isn’t very educational. It just needs a light touch.

          1. Agreed. As much as possible guide to discovery. But to me, giving them the answer is an absolute last resort. It signifies that you have given up on the ever figuring it out on their own. Hints are great. Eventually, strong hints. But sometimes you just run out of options. In the case of giving them the answer, you’ll have to test their understanding of it again sometime at a later date, or observe that they encountered similar issues and could nowxsolve them on their own.

            @war: I’m not sure what you said lines up with what I said. You said “the kids used my example and integrated it into their code” now one can argue that it is not much different than using a library written by someone else. But you DID do the work for them. They were not (apparently) given the opportunity to apply what you taught the to try writing their own code first. I never give my code to students. (Partly because I know I am a terrible coder ;) I only show my code after they show me theirs (working or not). But hand them a file or let them copy directly off the screen? No.

            Then you say “just because the kids don’t know something doesn’t mean a mentor can’t show them”. Sure. Why not. Obviously getting started in anything is overwhelming without a guide. Demonstrating the concept is great. Handing over your code?

            Finally, in your response: ” we have 4 years…” “We can’t dawdle with Arduinos”
            Wows. First I’m not suggesting you use Arduino. It was merely the item on which I chose to base my example. It was the METHOD of guided learning I was focusing on.
            Regardless, “Dawdling” with Arduino is not wasted effort in the least. They might just learn more about hardware and programming that way than anything else. And 4 years is certainly a lot of time. If you have not worked it into your curriculum between competition cycles, you are really doing a disservice to your students.

            Just as a general note: I think the word ‘dawdle’ should be on the list of not to be used words in the education process.

  9. The one area that is a problem for FIRST is that it can’t attract generalized support. This problem is that the type of competition is too complicated to follow; the changing alliances and the multiple modes of keeping score and the significant changes in competition scope prevents casual supporters from becoming invested.

    By way of example, Nolan Bushnell originally created a Space Wars type of video game, which flopped. It was difficult to learn, difficult to understand. When he followed it with Pong he found that the much simplified rules and goals made it widely understood and approachable, allowing it to penetrate the population at large. The same is also true of most sporting events – there is, at any time, one obvious goal, a primary object to keep track of, and usually one person or group in the lead at any one time, with a generally clear view of the play on the field. There are some complications in details of rules, but these are explained by officials while the action is paused, allowing the spectators to be brought up to speed. In FIRST the competition is divided 6 ways on a field that blocks the view of the competitor agents with no easy way to determine the scoring status of any of the agents during the event. The majority of the rules are not related to playing, but construction and financing and aren’t of general interest to spectators.

    A larger problem to overcome is the majority of the desired audience can’t relate to the effort or execution of the competition. Most anyone can understand almost all sports and can picture how they would participate – even if physical or financial limitations prevent it. Throw a baseball, drive a race car, ski. It’s transferable/relatable. But program a robot? Build a motor-mount It’s pretty disconnected.

    FIRST’s intention to create a robotic competition that is an alternate to typical school sports is a distraction. It should drop that entire concept and work on developing team-building: fund raising, business management, publicity, design management.

    The main absolute turn-off is National Instruments using its participation as a way to drive future engineers into using that craptacular flow-chart based programming method. All good for making multi-threaded apps, it makes collaboration nearly impossible, so that parts of the software are difficult to divide to multiple students. And terrible Help files.

    1. Hence Battlebots is quite popular; very easy to understand and enjoy as a spectator. Winners are generally easy to spot ;)

      And yes.. NI… I have gear grinding rants about some of the things they do to and with otherwise awesome products that just make said products horrible/useless/overpriced/bloated.

      Their involvement is strictly “these high school kids will become college kids and use our products for their overly funded research project. Then they will get out to their first job and encourage their companies to switch to NI.”

      1. By the time they get to work, whatever NI stuff they’re using will be obsolete, and they’ll be wise enough to pick whatever suits their needs.

        Still, an increase in people doing electronics in general will help them a bit. If they move the event to China next year.

  10. I was active on my high school’s FIRST team in Toronto in 1994 and 1995 (Back then it was Canada FIRST; I don’t know if it is a separate competition still). It was an amazing experience, and although I knew I was going to go into engineering, it definitely cemented my intentions.

    Now, I’ll also add that, from what I am hearing about the competition these days, it’s changed a lot. Back when I was involved, there was no software involved, except for what might be used to help design the robot. And I use the term “robot” loosely, since it was more of a drone radio-controlled arena-side by two of the students. As far as equipment, the first year I was involved, we got the radio control system, which provided switching-control (that is, forward, off, and reverse) to I believe to a maximum of 4 actuators. Oh, and those actuators? They were Milwaukee cordless drills, and the power supply for the system used a pair of the drills’ battery charger docks wired so that you plugged the batteries in and that connected power to the rest of the system. The drills’ gearboxes really were not up to the punishment that was delivered to them, and I remember that during the competition, when a team would get knocked out, if you were still in, you’d send over a delegate or two and make your case about why they should give their drills to your team so that you could survive to the end! I still have the VHS tape of the competition somewhere (I guess I’d better digitize it soon!!!), and you can just hear the gears grinding away during the finals as the robots lurched around. One of my friends and I were the two primary hardware designers, which also made us the pit crew. It was a ton of fun.

  11. What is going on with some of these comments? I was in FIRST in high school (06-08) and it was a wonderful experience. Yes, I know it has limitations and it definitely is not perfect, but please consider the following:

    1. *High School* students get 6 weeks to build and test the robot before competition.
    2. Not all of the students are juniors/seniors. Those who are have to worry about college stuff.
    3. High school students who participate in FIRST are generally also taking all AP/IB classes and have otherwise busy schedules (yes, I know in retrospect a lot of it was a joke, but it didn’t feel like that then).
    4. The entrance fee IS relatively expensive, but the bundled parts are a godsend to most teams.
    5. A lot of schools don’t adequately support their teams (I’m not talking money). We worked out of a storage closet, and had to hide our minimill and cutting tools when we weren’t using them. The slightest sneeze from an admin would have shut us down.
    6. I had to drive to a different school after classes (which was much more ghetto, but had a fantastic teacher) just to join a team. Back then at least, few schools had teams.

    FIRST is often the first time most students have ever built anything, or worked with semi-serious tools. Just getting the mechanics, electronics, and code together working with just a few hours a night over 6 weeks is tough. Sure, the best funded, best supported (i.e. real engineers or college students tutoring/doing the hard stuff) might be able to roll their own controllers and communications, but that would put FIRST beyond the reach of 90+% of the teams (which IMO have the people who benefit the most from FIRST).

    YOU might have been the exceptional student that could have handled it on their own, but if that’s the case, why not apply that ability to making another part of the robot better rather than recreating the function of a working part? There’s TONS of sensor stuff that can be done.

    FIRST is the first real engineering challenge most students ever face. It shouldn’t be a surprise it focuses on the larger problems of figuring out the best way to accomplish the challenge within the given limitations and how to approach and work problems as a team while smoothing over the “little” stuff. You’ll learn the (admittedly critical) minutia later in college.

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