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Unread 01-02-2017, 01:07 AM
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Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

This thought has been lingering in my mind for the past couple of years and now I'm gonna come out and ask for other people's opinions.

Whenever I go back and read old publications and watch older videos produced by and or about FIRST I hear a lot of things similar to "We saw a decline in American students interest in STEM". This leads me to believe that the original purpose of FIRST was to interest and get more "American" students into STEM.

I in no way mean to say that I dont appreciate having international teams, a lot of those teams do amazing work (Simbotics, OP robotics, Thunder down under, Orbit and Panteras to name just a few) but I feel that FIRST is starting to and actually already has scaled the globe with FRC teams everywhere from Canada and Mexico to now China and Australia. I don't believe it is necessarily a bad thing but I do believe that one day FIRST will become larger than ever expected and I wonder how FIRST will adapt to it.

In this video Dean Kamen talks about how "experts saw a dramatic decline in the number of American students interested in math and science in our country": https://youtu.be/A2L_CnaXypw?t=1m14s . I remember championships being called nationals or something before FIRST decided to go international. With the new china regional this year we are branching out into a new region which I personally believe is gonna grow extremely large over the next couple of years.

I would like to know the opinions of some other people on this.
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Unread 01-02-2017, 01:21 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

I think a better question to ask is what is the harm in branching out internationally? We're here for inspiration. Why limit that to one country? The lack of STEM majors in the US statistic was nothing more than a catalyst. What matters now is what results from it.

Also, as a brief aside, imagine if you were in a country other than the US, and you heard about this awesome program called FRC? Imagine how much it would suck to hear that you couldn't do it because you weren't American.
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Unread 01-02-2017, 01:29 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

I would love to live in a world that celebrates STEM as much as we celebrate athletics, which is what FIRST helps to do in every country it spreads to.

I completely understand your perspective in that FIRST was started as a response to a need in the USA for more people in the technical professions. That need that is shared by most countries I would think. While it's true that many other countries celebrate STEM more than we do (India graduates almost as many engineers every year as we have total in the USA), I believe every country would be benefited from having FIRST. The more smart people there are in the world, the better off we all are.

From FIRST's perspective, expanding globally completely fits with their mission statement. I hope every day that FIRST blows up globally and becomes a household name in the near future.

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Unread 01-02-2017, 01:40 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

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Unread 01-02-2017, 02:59 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

I understand that for you 'domestic' teams, international participation can be a touchy subject. Regardless, I'll try and explain why the international expansion of FIRST (and other programs, such as VEX) is important, and honestly should have been a goal from the beginning. For reference, I'm a recent high school graduate from Western Australia, now mentoring.

You mention that Dean Kamen is quoted "experts saw a dramatic decline in the number of American students interested in math and science in [the USA]". This is important, for sure, but something it doesn't cover is how this compares to other countries. The US is quite ahead of the ball when it comes to education surrounding STEM subjects, and have career opportunities and colleges to boot.

Comparing this with other countries, you can see why it's so hard to get programs like FIRST up and running (and sustainable) in other countries, below the University and College level. For example, in Regional (and even RA1) Australia, although the interest in STEM is quite high as compared to prior years, it's very hard to find programs that facilitate this interest at the primary and high school level. The rise of Lego Mindstorms, FLL, VEX and (more recently) FRC have seen engagements go up as students realize they are no longer 'region-locked' in their field.

If you were to limit this program to just the US, you would likely see other countries sprout up with similar programs, seeing that their governments and education systems are willing to financially support it. This is great, for sure, but it runs into a few roadblocks. Let's look at sports for example: Some sports are worldwide, and have teams competing from all over the world (soccer, basketball just to name a few). However, you look at others that seem quite similar in play, but are still kept to specific regions (America's NFL as compared to Australia's AFL, for example). Both have their specific flavour of the game, but there's important differences between the two. This means that if an American student wants to learn to play AFL, they would have to relocate to Australia to train and to join a team, likewise for the reverse. The same thing can happen if there weren't an international program to facilitate STEM competitions. Students would miss out on opportunities, not make as many friends, and feel 'locked' to their country. Sure, the skills are transferable, but you can shrink this scale down to individual high schools if you want to see what I'm getting at. If your school and another school both ran robotics competitions, but the competitions were local to each school, you wouldn't see much cross-talk between them. The goal is to bring the world together, not further divide it.

I've met a lot of students who start out with very negative views of the United States, but after attending Championships for the first time, they seemed much more open-minded and thought "hey, maybe I could end up there one day" instead of feeling like they will only have opportunities down under.

As for how FIRST will handle this situation, it's not my position to say. But I will add that here in Australia we have FIRST Australia, who deal with managing FIRST in our country, as well as helping other countries and communities get up and running. If you want more details about this, I would suggest talking to Team 3132.

FIRST will flourish in countries where the interest is there (just like sports do, you don't see many people in the US playing cricket, for example). For countries where it doesn't, maybe it will take more time, or maybe it won't sprout at all. International expansion is great, and we should be full steam ahead on getting more and more students involved. It's important that we also recognize that everywhere (and everyone) has their own culture and view from which they see the world. We should be searching for students, regardless of where they are, who have a passion for STEM. If, for whatever reason, they don't want to pursue STEM, then I think it's important we don't pressure them. We're here to embrace people's passions, not change them.
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Unread 01-02-2017, 03:33 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

The "international branching of FRC" is a good thing.
We consider ourselves part of this category of teams because we face similar hurdles when competing in the US Mainland, most notably at the FRC Championships annually.
However, as the mainland USA teams move forward as FRC has been moving towards more districts, more play, and district championships, teams like us are at a larger disadvantage with respect to needing a lot more resources in order to keep up.
The playing field is definitely not even and the disparity keeps getting wider and wider.
Teams that play in a district state championship are way more polished and get a lot more practice in preparation for FRC Worlds. We can name countless teams that started slow, only to get very very good by the time they got to st. louis this past year.
The biggest obstacle came in the form of an email right before Christmas where teams that play more than 1 event, would get no FedEx or transporatation/drayage support directly from FIRST. Besides feeling like we got blindsided, including the many teams we have talked to via text messages, social media, and emails......the bigger issue becomes how do we and international teams deal with participating in US mainland FIRST events, especially the Championships.
If the Championships rotated between different countries of participating teams, then it would be more fair. But that would never happen in the near future.
So in answering the original question, I'm not so sure that FIRST is the best thing out there to address students who have an interest in STEM, that is not part of the US mainland (or Canada).
IMO, if FIRST is to grow internationally successfully, it needs to first figure out how it will sustain and support current veteran teams that already participate vs. the priority to grow more teams.
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Unread 01-02-2017, 03:34 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

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I don't believe it is necessarily a bad thing but I do believe that one day FIRST will become larger than ever expected and I wonder how FIRST will adapt to it.
From the sentence structure used here, you are clearly nervous about it.

Can you articulate why?
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Unread 01-02-2017, 03:39 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

Purely for historical context, FIRST was started as U.S. FIRST (and I believe that may still be their name in some legal contexts). That's why until the recent (and much maligned) switch to the new firstinspires.org website, the url had been usfirst.org
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Unread 01-02-2017, 04:05 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

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Originally Posted by Lil' Lavery View Post
Purely for historical context, FIRST was started as U.S. FIRST (and I believe that may still be their name in some legal contexts). That's why until the recent (and much maligned) switch to the new firstinspires.org website, the url had been usfirst.org
As of their 2015 990 Tax Filling they are still US FIRST. That's why the F in "FIRST" is actually for "Foundation" and no "For"
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Unread 01-02-2017, 09:52 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

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Originally Posted by Lil' Lavery View Post
Purely for historical context, FIRST was started as U.S. FIRST (and I believe that may still be their name in some legal contexts). That's why until the recent (and much maligned) switch to the new firstinspires.org website, the url had been usfirst.org
Just to add a bit more historical context, I believe that the first non-US Team was Team 188 which is based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I know that there are some of their original team members who are still very actively involved with FIRST (their Mentor now leads FIRST Canada and several of the students are well know in the FIRST community).

Given that the earliest non-US team joined "back when dinosaurs roamed the earth" as my son would say and that my old high school is Team 610 (no robotics when I was at Crescent School) and they were part of the winning alliance back in 2013, I would make a case that at least Canadian teams have contributed to FIRST's current culture and that it has been "international" for a long time.

Of course, it's not that fair a comparison given how close Canada and the USA are as countries and neighbors. Does anyone happen to know when the first overseas Team joined?

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Unread 01-02-2017, 10:25 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

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Does anyone happen to know when the first overseas Team joined?
Kingston, Jamaica in 1994 - University of the West Indies & Jamaica College were the sponsors
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Unread 01-02-2017, 10:28 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

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Originally Posted by Jaci View Post
I understand that for you 'domestic' teams, international participation can be a touchy subject.
Honestly, not really. I have only heard of one or two people online not feeling well about international participation. Everyone I have personally met is ecstatic that teams from far off lands (including Canada and Mexico ) are coming to competitions. Foreign teams holding their own competitions is just the natural evolution of that.
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Unread 01-02-2017, 10:37 AM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

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Originally Posted by IrwinTan View Post
Does anyone happen to know when the first overseas Team joined?
The lowest numbered team (according to TBA) that is over the Atlantic Ocean was team 759, Systemetric, from Cambridge, United Kingdom. While their last season was in 2013, they first competed in 2002.

This team competed in solely North American regionals.

Feel free to correct me if anyone has more definite information

As for how FIRST will adapt ...
The districts system is a start, but as more and more teams from around the world (and North America!) join, there will simply need to be more levels of competition. My idea is this: Once any country has more than 3 or 4 regional events with 30+ teams, introduce districts. Once that country has over a few hundred or so (these numbers are by no means precise) teams, introduce a national competition run similarly to a district championship, where the X best number of teams advance to from the actual district championships in the country. This will give many teams a championship experience of sorts (maybe not as cool as Worlds, but still) as well as potentially bring back a single World Championship (something this site has been pretty vocal about...)

Just my 2 cents!
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Unread 01-02-2017, 02:23 PM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

My first reaction to the title was a replay of Edna Mode's "Is this a question?!" in my head. I decided not to post until I dissect the major reasons why my answer is a solid yes.

The mission statement is about inspiration. If you accept that FIRST and its robotics programs inspire in the U.S., what possible argument would change it elsewhere? The only issue is one of geographic scope.

FIRST and its competition has a number of core values, but the first and foremost is Gracious Professionalism. If teams are expected to help each other, what sort of example would it be for "USFIRST" to not offer a helping hand across international boundaries?

Another understated, but no less real core value is that of evangelism - spreading the program. Back when we were still getting feedback on our Chairman's submissions, one of the biggest dinks was that we had not (up to that point) started or mentored any other FRC teams. Same argument.

The final issue is whether this should be one program, or if each nation/continent/global region should be a separate program. While I have not done the math myself, robotics competitions seem to have an economy of scale - that is, the larger the program, the less it costs per team and per participant. This means that it is more efficient to have one international program than a number of smaller ones. Let's break down a few reasons:
  • Game design is expensive. Doing this once a year is much more efficient than doing it in each nation each year. And don't forget the Q&A, and the training materials with go with each new game. (Though it would be nice to say "Hey, let's build a robot to play Australia's 2017 game this summer.")
  • With suitable planning, field elements and game pieces scale up. The first few years of FRC, game pieces were straight COTS items; as time has progressed, the scale has enabled FIRST to specify the game piece (e.g. "floppies", triangular and square tubes, and custom-colored and -imprinted versions of standard items at a not-too-unreasonable price.
  • And not really part of the separate/divided question, but another case of economy of scale: The denser teams are packed, the less it costs for a team to compete. The cost of putting everyone on a bus and in a hotel is more expensive than the allowed balance at the bottom of a robot cost accounting worksheet. This means that the goal should be to have regionals and districts everywhere - the sponsor support required to fly a dozen teams across the world would appear to be enough to run a local regional and three times as many teams averaging twice as many students each.
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Unread 01-02-2017, 04:29 PM
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Re: Is the international branching of FRC, a good thing?

I've seen plenty of stuff from 'back in the day' that shows Dean/other FIRST people talking about FIRST as a way to 'catch the US up' in terms of STEM, and while this may have been a great sales pitch in the early years, I think it's fantastic that FIRST has expanded to include more international teams.

Why? Inspiration, particularly with regards to STEM, is not a purely American concept. Sure, the US should probably produce more engineers, and the huge number of American FIRST teams is making progress towards this goal. Other countries could also use more engineers, though -- the world needs more engineers and inspired young people in STEM, so I see no problem with FIRST expanding to include more international teams.

Another point that's particularly relevant is that the world today is a divided place, more so than it's been in recent memory. Xenophobic rhetoric is on the rise in many countries, mine included, and when you have a program like FIRST that introduces you to similar people from wildly different places around the world, it's something pretty special. FIRST gives you connections to people like you who live in countries that aren't on the best terms with your government, and I believe that if you can see the common ground and have a conversation, the world is better for it.

tl;dr FIRST builds bridges, and absolutely should not build walls.
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