(Okay, I apologize in advance – this is way longer than I intended. Once I started writing the story just sort of kept coming and I couldn’t stop. I think that there is a little personal catharsis and self-therapy going on here
The first FIRST competition I ever attended was the Championships in 1996, held at EPCOT in Orlando. This was way back when the entire competition was held on the little stage at the American Adventure Theatre in the U.S.A. pavilion at the back of EPCOT, not the big “Olympic Village” that sprawled all over the parking lot. We had absolutely no idea of what we were getting in to that year. No one on the team had ever seen a FIRST competition, or even a FIRST robot, before. The lead teacher was the only one that was able to go to the kick-off, so literally all we had was a kit of parts, a rule book, and a complete misunderstanding of what we were supposed to do.
We spend six weeks building a thing that vaguely resembled a robot – but only when you looked at it with the lights really low and your eyes all squinty. There wasn’t a straight line or square corner anywhere on it. It was painted with poster paints, and decorated with a big smiley face, with a few business cards stapled on (tape was forbidden!) to provide the required corporate logos. The chains connecting the motors to the drive wheel sprockets stayed on perfectly - as long as we didn’t try to actually move. We then spent the last two days of the build season taking the entire robot apart. You see, that was the first year that FedEx donated shipping the robot. The offer of free shipping was great, but there was a catch. The donation was limited to shipping three standard FedEx boxes of materials. You know, the ones that are 3x4x36 inches or 3x11x16 inches, or just big enough to hold a few pieces of paper. We thought that you HAD to use the donated shipping service – it never occurred to us that we could just pack up the entire robot into a crate and ship the whole thing as a unit, as long as we paid for it (the way virtually every other team did it). So we took the entire robot apart and made a pile of 5000 little tiny pieces, then poured all the parts into the FedEx shipping boxes and sent them on their way.
So we show up at the competition on Thursday morning and walk into the pits, which were in an open-sided tent in the back lot behind the U.S.A. pavilion. Our eyes got as big around as dinner plates as we looked around at all the highly engineered machines and teams decked out in team uniforms and/or styled t-shirts, and realized how completely out-classed we were. We found our pit and looked at the pitiful little pile of FedEx boxes on the floor waiting for us. Next to our pit on one side the Baxter Bomb Squad already had their machine out of the crate and was going through pre-flight tests, and on the other side the robot from a certain other unnamed team was sitting under a hand-embroidered dust cover and a velvet rope stretched across the front of their pit area to keep their students away from the robot. While most other teams spent the entire day practicing, we spent all Thursday re-assembling our little robot and getting all the parts to work again - or in some cases, for the first time. Our first exposure to the FIRST standard of gracious professionalism was having several of the engineers on the Baxter team loan us tools and help us rebuild the robot, for which we were eternally grateful (by the way, that year they built a very cool little custom suction cup out of polycarbonate that worked with the wimpy little 20psi pumps we had, and picked up the 24 inch balls like there was no tomorrow).
As Friday rolled around and we started the double-elimination rounds, we started to get our first taste of the competition. We won several of our matches, not too bad for a rookie team. We also discovered a huge tactical error we had made – not bringing a cart for the robot. The trudge from the pits out into the open area of EPCOT, dodging through tourists, and over to the American Adventures stage was about 150 yards. After about thirteen times of carrying the robot back and forth, it seemed like the robot was gaining significant weight (or we were just getting tired).
Meanwhile, that certain other team on the other side of us spent the entire day very obviously laughing at us as we trudged back and forth carrying the robot, while they gracefully glided their robot around on a custom-built cart. This was after spending all day Thursday laughing at us as we struggled to re-build our robot, while theirs sat under its hand-embroidered dust cover. But then late in the day on Friday we were up against them in a match and we won and knocked them into the “losers bracket” of the double-elimination competition. As we were carrying the robot back to the pits, we overhead one of their engineers complaining about “the crappy little robot” that had beaten them (yes, I still remember who they were, and yes, I admit that I can't help but hold a little bit of a grudge).
That was when we learned a lesson from the folks on the Baxter team and Larry Crawford from Team 120. They all told us not to sweat the occasional rough edges that may show up during a FIRST competition, and instead focus on what was really happening. The students on the team were getting a chance to apply all the theory they had learned in the classroom. They were getting a chance to work with adults as peers, and see how professionals worked. They were getting the opportunity to see other great and soon-to-be-great teams in competition, and hang out with them to make new friends and exchange information. And a whole new generation of technically literate engineers, technologists, scientists, and inventors was being created right in front of us.
With that perspective, we set out to get as much out of the event as possible. We met a whole bunch of up-and-coming new teams like The Baxter Bomb Squad, the X-Cats, Orange Crush, Technokats, Tigerbolt, Wildstang and a young Chief Delphi team (with a certain young lead engineer who was as enthusiastic and excited about the competition as one human being could possibly be – Dr. Joe Johnson). We had the chance to watch several of these teams go on to become some of the best-known teams in FIRST. As a young team, a lot of our focus was on the “competition” part of the program, and we really wanted to get good enough to take on some of the emerging powerhouses of FIRST. Chief Delphi, with their very impressive performances during those early competitions, quickly became a team that a lot of our students wanted to defeat, with the reasoning that “if we are ever good enough to beat them, we can beat anybody.” But in the process, we had a lot of discussions about HOW Chief Delphi got to be as good as they were, and the obvious emphasis they put on simplicity, creativity, and quality in their designs and their whole approach to the FIRST program.
I knew that the students on our team really understood what FIRST was all about when, two years later, our unofficial team motto changed from “we want to BEAT Chief Delphi” to “we want to BE
Chief Delphi.” And ever since, the whole focus of our team has been less on the competition itself, and a lot more on the build season and making sure that both students and adults get the most out of the entire experience.
So to all those teams that helped us during our early years to figure out how to focus on the most important parts of FIRST, let me say a big “thank you!”