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  #16   Spotlight this post!  
Unread 10-08-2010, 11:17 AM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

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Originally Posted by Alan Anderson View Post
I can't quite see this as a positive idea. The bigger picture goal is to spread the FIRST culture throughout society, and keeping college-age students closely tied to FIRST would likely end up making them more insulated from the rest of the world. If we want to transform that world, the professional engineering societies need them more than FIRST does.

The way I see it, sustainability shouldn't mean keeping individuals in FIRST longer. It should mean giving teams the ability to survive even when specific individuals leave. It should mean giving them the ability to survive even when they lose specific sources of funding. It should be about team continuity, not about personal lifetime commitment (though such commitment can be a large help in making the rest happen).
It doesn't have to be an either/or thing in college. Having FIRST actively involved on campus every year will create even more interaction with the professional societies. A college FIRST program would jump at the chance to work with all of the other engineering societies on campus to promote and celebrate eWeek, for example.

If we could get just 10% of current FIRST students to give 4 years of mentoring after college, teams wouldn't have a problem finding new mentors when old ones get burned out, move, or have to focus on other life commitments. One person, fresh out of college working some place that hasn't been exposed to FIRST can get that company involved in just a year or two. It would help provide a constant influx of new leadership, mentors, and companies.
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Unread 10-08-2010, 12:29 PM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

I'm basically with Alan on this one. I do not think FIRST should be in college for many reasons.

These students need need to focus on school and move on to new and fresh experiences. A time will come when they will return to FIRST as educated and experienced mentors. It may be in a future job or when they have kids but the day will come.

There is a large pool of potential mentors out there right now that are fresh and motivated. They just need to be recruited. They need to learn more about FIRST type programs. If properly presented they will come. And when they come there is a possibility that due to their presence funding might improve. Either because their company has an allowance to give to initiatives that their employees are involved in, or they may know someone that can donate, or they have some talent in fundraising.

In a little over two weeks MIT will be releasing the 1st in a series of short videos that you can use to help with mentor recruitment. It is from an effort called the MIT Mentorship Initiative.

Stay tuned.
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Unread 10-08-2010, 12:43 PM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

Sustainability is a real issue in FIRST. I think there are several contributors.

Most teams rely on a single "Angel" sponsor for the majority of their funding. When that Angel disappears, sustaining their team becomes very difficult.

For instance, a number of long-term teams in Michigan (6-7 years) are in major trouble because the sponsorship from some Michigan automakers is drying up.

At the same time, many companies are only interested in starting their own team - not sponsoring an existing team for any large financial amount. Bringing a new long-term big-money sponsor on board is very difficult.

Diversifying your sponsorship is key, but it's very difficult to keep a divese base of sponsors intact - the time requirements are large.

A FIRST robotics budget is simply above the amount of money that most people can fundraise every year. $15,000 (a reasonable budget that would allow you to be competitive) is incredibly difficult to fund-raise.

Probably my biggest gripe is something we've run into the last two years. When we started raising our entry fee I've heard a number of comments about how "pay to play" sports don't cost as much as robotics.

Schools think nothing of building a track, a soccer field, a baseball field, and a football field. Bleachers, lights, and then maintaining all that year round. In addition they eat a huge chunk of teams expenses (travel, equipment). Schools are the "Angel" investor in terms of sports. That's why so-called "pay to play" is still so inexpensive. Selling this sport to the schools and getting their decision-makers (the union leadership and the administration) to buy-in should be a huge focus.

I've presented a lot of problems and not many solutions: they are all problems our team has fought with over the last 4 years and continue to fight with.
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Unread 10-08-2010, 12:47 PM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

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Originally Posted by eagle33199 View Post
It doesn't have to be an either/or thing in college. Having FIRST actively involved on campus every year will create even more interaction with the professional societies. A college FIRST program would jump at the chance to work with all of the other engineering societies on campus to promote and celebrate eWeek, for example.
I'm not against the idea. I just don't think it has a lot to do with the topic of sustainability.

Quote:
If we could get just 10% of current FIRST students to give 4 years of mentoring after college,...
I don't see how extending the "student competition" model past high school would lead to that happening. Forming teams to solve technical challenges is intended to expose students to the excitement and satisfaction of real-world science and engineering. That's not necessary for college students who have (mostly) already chosen their path. If we want to increase the availability of mentors, we need to expose them to the excitement and satisfaction of mentoring.

It seems to me that an emphasis instead on more volunteering might be better. College students who haven't yet gained the experience (and occasionally the social maturity) to be effective mentors will still be able to help regional/district competitions happen smoothly, and in an intermediate position between student and mentor they can get a more appropriate perspective on what good mentoring entails. Rather than giving them a technical problem to solve and the technical resources to help them solve it, give them a people problem and the social resources to help them meet the needs of the organization. Form a "FIRST Volunteer Corps" and make training available. Hold seminars on Tribal Leadership or something.
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Unread 10-08-2010, 12:51 PM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

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Originally Posted by Tom Line View Post
Probably my biggest gripe is something we've run into the last two years. When we started raising our entry fee I've heard a number of comments about how "pay to play" sports don't cost as much as robotics.

Schools think nothing of building a track, a soccer field, a baseball field, and a football field. Bleachers, lights, and then maintaining all that year round. In addition they eat a huge chunk of teams expenses (travel, equipment). Schools are the "Angel" investor in terms of sports. That's why so-called "pay to play" is still so inexpensive. Selling this sport to the schools and getting their decision-makers (the union leadership and the administration) to buy-in should be a huge focus.
One thing I have to ask, why the willingness to be the "Angel" investor for sports but, in many cases, not for robotics? What do sports provide that FIRST doesn't and how do we need to change to provide that.
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Unread 10-08-2010, 01:12 PM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

Teams failing for financial reasons can't truly be helped from the outside; you can give them a large grant as a band aid, but when that dries up they often die.

Teams really need the attitude from the inside that fundraising is easy, fun and required. Our team has raised $50k the last few seasons without too much hassle.

What seems to be lacking is a central person leading the team longterm, and with longterm goals. Invested Mentors more or less.

On the technical side, the same issue exists; high schools kids are capable of a lot, but without technical mentorship they simply can't compete with the teams that have a good deal of technical mentorship (and then top notch students from working with that mentorship).

What I'm getting at is if FIRST is to continue growing, or in my opinion truly sustain the teams it has at a more competitive level, we need mentors, and we need lots of them. FIRST's efforts should be put into that, and teams working with government should be stressing that. We need a way to recruit more mentors at the national level, word of mouth currently is insufficient for the bottom half of teams that are struggling. It's unfortunate that this has gained FIRST a reputation for being amateur (I've heard that a LOT from engineers in industry and college students). Some people I've talked with don't want to mentor a FIRST team because they already believe it to be amateur based on what they've seen. It's an unfortunate cycle. If FIRST brought the floor up and reached a more impressive technical level, I feel we'd open ourselves to a wider mentor pool, many mentors just want to come and show up and help without having to be responsible for bringing a team from way down to way up.

It's been my dream for years that each high school would hire an engineer to run a team, budgeting a $100k a year for his pay and the team's entire budget is a huge initial investment for schools, but the payout is immense. This is the government policy we should be working towards; obviously that's not an easy one.
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Unread 10-08-2010, 06:04 PM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

San Antonio FRC expereince

FRC came into town with 457 in 2000
499 and 653 come in a year after that in 2001
Zero growth until a break through year with NASA funded, Texas High School Project funds in 2009
The following year new teams formed from Boeing grants in 2010
During that those two years 457 had gone dormant due to the lead teacher and founder retiring from teaching. The transition plan failed as the potential lead also transferred out of the district. So in 10 years of just a few teams in our area and just recent years of high growth, no team in SA has folded due to lack of funding.
News Flash 457 is coming back this year after being gone for 2.

Key to some of the success and growth/revival has been teacher training during the summer and teachers from successful veteran teams moving to new schools/districts and forming a team of their own. The later definately being in the organic growth mode. The program that I now direct, Texas Institute for Educational Robotics, TIER. Has conducted 90 contact hour STEM teacher institutes focused on educational robotics. We teach them software, have them build kit robots (VEX & Tetrix) ideas for lesson using robotics in the classroom, how to write a team business plan, grant writing tips, the importance of an elevador speach.... The point being that community developed programs can do a lot more to sustain teams than far away funding programs. New money has been very helpful in starting new teams.

As Jane and others who have posted recently, FIRST in Texas is about to fund 40 new FRC teams (190 FTC teams) in the State and San Antonio is about to double our FRC teams in a single year with 6 or so new rookies.

Workshops/mentoring/veteran team support/ great ideas from white papers on CD and this and other threads are going to be part of the mountain of work that sustains this spike in growth and hopefully also spurs more moderate growth in future year.
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Unread 10-08-2010, 08:03 PM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

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Originally Posted by IKE View Post
While asking "FIRST" for a solution seems like the thing to do, I would instead paraphrase a famous leader:

"Ask not what FIRST can do for you, ask what you can do for FIRST."
Ike,
I don't think anyone wants to look to FIRST for the solution but... FIRST has to be involved in a formal way. If FIRST isn't, then the regions/areas/teams/competitions can be branded with a different acronym: DOT - Doing Our Thing. In other words, drift and separation can form, esp. as FIRST spreads internationally. As the veteran teams strengthen and mature into more and more high caliber HoF-worthy teams - they certainly know how to address sustainability and are very willing to share what they know. The problem is - there are not enough. For example, not in a state the size of Texas. Think beyond that and into other countries where FRC is just beginning to develop a root system. Here's an example - off seasons. Look at how off seasons help strengthen teams, including pre-rookies and rookies. Where are the off seasons and how is their importance and value being studied and acknowledged by FIRST? Look at that, recognize it and talk with the partners about helping partially fund or fully fund an off season event. FIRST doesn't have to be officially involved in an area off season but the folks who are making money available sure could be. For a very good, wise, and effective purpose.

I often talk about pulling in the WFAs, the Senior Mentors, the HoF teams, the visionary leadership from the teams, themselves, and working closely with the official decision-makers of FIRST in getting the importance of sustainability and consistency in building robust teams who build robust robots who build robust teams out there. Watching the program move into more of a mainstream mode - look at the partnerships that are happening with FIRST and powerful companies that can spread the word and are doing so. Goodness. But what needs to run ahead of and follow along very closely on the heels of development of new teams, new venues for competitions, new growth - must be the strength and wisdom of experience. That strength and wisdom of experience helps to fortify the new foundations being planned/laid/tested and there is not enough of it. It can only grow and develop and become robust enough to run ahead of and follow on the heels of the new growth - by having support and recognition given to it.

What I mean by building a sustainable team and/or region means - bringing all of the skills needed to the table to make that happen. Funding is important. How to use that funding is as important. How to set short term and long term goals to plan how to use that funding and then implement it is just as important. But - that's just one piece of the complex pie. Just one piece - there are several. All of those should be addressed, examined, explored, and worked with - by partnerships within the FIRST community, among which are the FIRST powers-that-be and their sponsors and partnerships.

It's too late to turn back - the only way is forward. Together - with a plan.

Jane
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Last edited by JaneYoung : 10-08-2010 at 09:41 PM.
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Unread 10-08-2010, 09:11 PM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

I've been tempted to post about "oh, teams fail for money reasons all the time" and some kind of silly counterargument or whatever, but with some hesitation I think that's a little silly. Enough teams fail for every reason that we might as well focus on all of them. I even have some "hypothetical" examples in there not based on any real world cases I'm a part of at all.

Fundraising on its own looks and can be very easy, especially for autonomous 501c3 teams. I think 501c3's have by far the easiest time with funding and it's not a coincidence that many big and successful teams exist this way. However, it sometimes gets a lot harder. Teams in school districts often have to have money donated to the school "for robotics". That alone cuts off some sponsorships. Sometimes the district has to approve every kind of fundraiser you do, and may prohibit particular fundraisers. Sometimes the paperwork takes a month so you can't even do any after a particular point.

The way around this particular problem fundraising wise is usually to be a big force. Get a lot of student interest and a lot of students with scholarships. Win regionals, Chairman's, and trophies to get a lot of respect and media attention for the team and school. Once you're successful enough to impress the school board they can help you get around some of these restrictions when they realize your club takes thousands more to run than the baking club. The problem is this generally is a bit of a chicken and egg thing. You need to win to get attention and respect as an organization, but having that helps you get the resources to win...

Leadership is a big thing. Most teams can't survive leadership changes, or the loss of a head mentor. I don't think there's really a way around this, other than to stop adding hundreds of rookies every season. If all the regions had ton of dedicated mentors just waiting for a robotics team to pour their soul into, no team would ever fail. If a team actually loses a dedicated mentor to a school budget cut or a layoff at a sponsor shop, that's really just a bad situation you usually can't get out of unless you've built up a large dream team of mentors already.

Sometimes your district can really bite you too. This has happened to a few teams I know of. Robotics teams are a large drain on resources relative to any other club, and schools are hesitant at best to put robotics teams on the same pedestal they put athletes, which is stupid but inevitable. What do teams that want to be sustainable do if they get hard limits on school time every week? What if they get 2 hour workdays, 5 days a week for example? That's the big question I don't have an answer for.

I think the best things we could do to try and help these teams with sustainability problems:
  • Teach teams how to fundraise. Grants are giving a team a fish, teaching them how to fundraise effectively and around their district's policies will keep them going. (on a related note, anyone got any tips for my team?)
  • Help teams get more mentorship, and stop starting a billion rookies unless those rookies all have good mentor support as well. There aren't many ways to really combat the second problem though, sometimes you start off GREAT and get unlucky.
  • Get some information and pro tips out there to help teams work with their district, or better yet, have some of the better off teams write letters or talk to "uncooperative" districts about how great robotics is aand why they should be supportive.

Sorry for the long, rambling post.
I hope some of the content up there was useful to someone. I think I'm just really frustrated right now and this is my way of getting that out.
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Unread 10-08-2010, 10:21 PM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

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Originally Posted by ebarker View Post
I don't want to sound like I'm shrugging anything off. I just think we, the community of FIRST'ers, need to some up with a concise way to help help teams understand how to run a sustainable organization independent of input from an 'HQ'.

#1 - thank the sponsors
#2 - get some press coverage
#3 - do presentations all throughout the off season
#4 - ??
It's difficult to do that when HQ's outwardly visible goal seems to be "start as many teams as humanly possible".
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Unread 10-08-2010, 11:54 PM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

Quick thought: Instead if grants, dollar-for-dollar endowments. Instead of giving a team so much money, give it as much money as it fundraised, up to a certain point (maybe $10-15k). Good alternative to straight grants, makes getting funding easier while acclimating a team to getting funding, so they aren't a fish out of water when the grant runs out.
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Unread 10-09-2010, 01:24 AM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

What I'm seeing is that there are 3 distinct sources of non-sustainability, and a wide range of solutions. This is just a summary post; feel free to add to it or take issue with something I say as you will.

1. Funding.
--Solutions vary depending on team situation, ranging from find more sponsors to convince the school/district to let them raise more (or fund them more). Grants are a band-aid, not stitches. A matching grant, as Basel proposed, would be a longer-term patch, but not necessarily a permanent fix.

2. Leadership/Mentor/Student Involvement.
--Students are relatively easy--recruit more. OK, so you do have to convince them that non-nerds can do it, but that's not much of a hurdle. The bigger problem is if a key leader has to step down and there is no succession plan. The best bet is to have several mentors; second best is to have a definite plan such that if Head Mentor A is transferred to a point five states away, Mentor B (or, in the case of teacher-advisers, some other teacher at the school) steps up for a while.

3. School/District Involvement, or Lack Thereof.
--Which is worse: the district ignoring you, other than "Oh, we have a robotics club? That's nice", or the district stepping in and placing limits on you, along with their funding your registration? Either way, it's got the potential to be bad. Awareness is key here. While I wouldn't suggest kidnapping a superintendent or principal and hauling them off to competition, telling them a) that you exist, b) that you want to keep existing, and c) that you'd really, really, really like them to show up at your competition on X date is certainly acceptable, and in fact encouraged. Community awareness helps too--administrators are more likely to listen to the people that pay their salaries (aka taxpayers for public schools, parents for private schools) than to students.

--Independence from a school district is another option, but you really need help to get started if you're going that route so that you don't run into any serious trouble with the law (IRS tax codes and non-profit status come to mind).
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Unread 10-09-2010, 06:58 AM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

[quote=EricH;976637]What I'm seeing is that there are 3 distinct sources of non-sustainability, and a wide range of solutions. This is just a summary post; feel free to add to it or take issue with something I say as you will.

1. Funding.

2. Leadership/Mentor/Student Involvement.

3. School/District Involvement, or Lack Thereof.

[quote]

One word: Alumni

I have always wondered if/when FIRST could become self-sustaining. As the program graduates more and more students each year it builds an alumni base who knows what the program has done for them, and if they return to help, what they are doing for the kids involved today. Here is how I see them helping in all 3 categories you specified.

1. Funding.
Many alumni go to college and likely make some decent money (50k+) coming out of school. Some of them will eventually go on to make substantially more than that, and maybe even a few will start the next Google, I-Robot, or Facebook. Even if an alumnus doesn't own a company they are still the best person for convincing the company they work for that sponsoring a FIRST team is a good idea. I think it will take alumni being 10-15 years out of high school before they have enough pull in their company or own a business that could substantially help teams. However, FIRST has grown exponentially, and therefore the number of these alumni is currently growing exponentially. On 177, most of our mentors are FIRST alumni. These alumni request support of the team and also donate a couple hundred dollars out of pocket also, usually in the form of robot parts.

2. Leadership/Mentor/Student Involvement.
As an alumnus I actually find mentoring more fun than participating as a student. I think many alumni would find this and therefore be willing to mentor. If alumni are willing to mentor and lead at least the technical portion of the team, it takes the load off of the high school mentor and hopefully allows them to avoid burnout. If you benchmark teams with 10+ years of sustainment I would bet they have a dedicated teacher and engineering mentor who successfully divide up the workload. A teacher will be more likely to start a team if they know they have help from someone that has done this before. Again, 177 has many mentors who are FIRST Alumni and this helps with our sustainability by knowing what to expect every year, operating efficiently, and having. I should clarify that these alumni are 6-13 years out of high school, not the kids that graduated last year. This is an important note as I do not think FIRST should be asking kids in college to be starting or help save teams. In the student involvement area, alumni probably can't do much here except maybe talk at a school assembly about what participating has done for them or ensure that a team is fun for the students so they tell their friends.

3. School/District Involvement, or Lack Thereof.
Just like alumni speaking at a school assembly to recruit students, alumni should be used to gain district involvement. Again, if someone is a product of the process, requesting support of the process is a lot easier if the product is standing in front of them. Alumni should be encouraged to go to Board of Ed meetings to stand up for the program. If the alumni lives in town, that is even better because they are also a taxpayer. On Bobcat Robotics we also try to keep track of what the program has produced. We like to note that students graduating from the team combined have received over $500,000 in college scholarships related to FIRST.


There are many methods and resources which could be used to ensure sustainability of a team. I think alumni are one which is not used as well as it could be.

-EOB
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Unread 10-09-2010, 08:39 AM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

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Originally Posted by Cory View Post
It's difficult to do that when HQ's outwardly visible goal seems to be "start as many teams as humanly possible".
FIRST's stated goal is to do exactly that - start a team in every school.

Most schools have a football, basket, baseball team along with a marching band and other programs. They are very costly and in this part of the world they are paid for by booster organizations. The facilities and fields owned by the school but the operational and maintenance cost are paid for by the booster organizations and/or team fees.

Teams's are autonomous entities and not under teleoperated control by HQ when it comes to fundraising.

Sports and music programs do not go to their 'HQ' when they need money. Why should we be any different ? It isn't because of cost. The per student cost of our robotics programs is on par and several cases less than that of the sports / music programs.
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Unread 10-09-2010, 08:42 AM
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Re: Sustainability In FRC Teams

No one is saying FIRST should pay for teams, but maybe FIRST should stop giving so much less help and attention to teams that exist for more than one year.
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