College Students: How is your experience in FIRST?

Fellow College Students,

For the longest time I’ve been searching for the right balance of FIRST and college life. I’ve seen many who burnt out because they were too involved in FIRST, and I’ve seen others who are just having their fun. Some believe they can start a team and run it when they enter college as a freshmen, but many examples are telling me that college students should avoid the responsibilities of having to manage an entire robotics team.

So, in the hope to collect more data, I post this question to all you college student out there. How is your experience in FIRST? How involved are you in FIRST? How is FIRST affecting your school work? Do you honestly thing college students can handle the load of being a student, and being a team leader?

These are just some questions I want to post to get this discussion started. As we go deeper and deeper into the discussion, I will ask more questions and see where they take us.

Now, if you wish to remain nameless when replying to this thread, go ahead and send me a PM. I will post your responds for you.

A Fellow College FIRST-a-holic,
-Ken Leung

This year, which is my third year in college (out of 5), I founded a FIRST Robotics club at my school (Drexel). I organized getting others to mentor teams in the area; I couldn’t mentor a team since I was in Turkey for two weeks during build season visiting my boyfriend and I also was assistant stage managing a show. I also volunteered at the Richmond Regional, and I will be volunteering at the Philly Regional. During the fall, I was judge at two FLL tournaments. I actually wish I was a little more involved.

It’s actually not bad for me to be heavily involved in FIRST, because I’m on co-op September to March, prime pre-season and build season time :]

Hope this helps answer your questions, Ken.

I decided to take my first year of college at the Purdue University programs here in Kokomo (its cheap :)) and that gave me the opportunity to come back and be a mentor with the Technokats, the team that I have spent my previous 4 years of high school with. Really I just showed up when I could and basically made college more of a priority. Although FIRST isnt something I could just stop doing after sacrificing a lot to do it the last 4 years. I guess my goal this year was not really to be a factor on robot design and building, but to get the newbies and the kids that are getting to the point of taking leadership positions more excited about FIRST or help bring them in. I’ve been very impressed with the students that have taken over leadership positions who were just little freshmen when I was at the point where they are now. Also freshmen involvement has been VERY high compared to previous years. That picture that was posted earlier shows that. The kid up in the air is a freshman and the kid that sacrificed his body pretty much is a freshman also. Im really thrilled to see these young ones getting excited about FIRST so quickly. So I’ll stop rambling now and come to the conclusion that even though I wasn’t there that often, I made my presence felt and contributed to helping the new kids gain acceptance and new found interest.

I guess I give it my best shot Ken.

So far I’ve have mentored my hometown team on the weekends. Home is two hours away or I’d help more often. This has probably been good for my schoolwork because I would be there to often if I was closer, and had a car.
I probably averaged 8 hours of work a day when I was home.

I’m at Kansas State and the closest other team is at least an hour and a half away so I have no one close to mentor. I thought about starting a team here but decided to at least wait a year and probably should wait until I have a vehicle.

Kansas City will be having a regional next year so I am hoping to be able to help there. And it will be easier to create more teams in our state. I am setting a booth about FIRST up for my colleges open house where hopefully I will be able to spark some interest.

As far as competition this year I have watched 3 1/2 competitions. VCU, Portland, and part of UCF webcast and then went to help teammates scout at SLR. I won’t be able to travel with my team to LSR, open house weekend and calc test, but will be a championship to at the least cheer my team on.

A team could be led by a college student but it would be very hard. I think it is nice to have teachers and engineers leading the team for certain reasons. The studies part wouldn’t be a problem. It would just take some self-discipline and a little caffeine.

Teachers and professionals are way better with dealing with school administration, securing funding, and a lot of the important parts of starting and maintaining the team.

Right now I’m addicted and excited. Between watching the finals from the different regionals this years game is awesome and I really can’t wait to go to Atlanta.

I would like to get more into the volunteering and mentoring aspect of FIRST but I haven’t found a good way to tackle it. Between time, nearness of events, having no car, and serious lack of funding I’ve had trouble this year. Any insight on this would be great. How did you start volunteering and mentoring once becoming a college student? Especially for people that aren’t close to an event, SLR is the closest at seven hours away.

I am a college freshman this year, and I started a rookie team. Kind of. We didn’t get our registration fee, and the feeling of failure constantly nags at me. We didn’t give up as a team. We decided to use this year as a practice year. We are building a robot, and want to hold a competition in the fall. But what if i can’t manage that either. I’m the only adult our team has, so it’s up to me to do everything. I love FIRST. I was only on my high school team for a year (didn’t know about it until then), but FIRST has been the best experience of my life. I know being a team leader affects my school work, but not always in a negative way. If fact most of the time it’s “I have to do my work, because then I can play with robots.” It’s really frustrating sometimes being the only adult. Because everything that doesnt happen (like not getting a registration fee) is my fault. Sometimes I want to go shout over the treetops to all the sponsors that think I’m going to give up at this. So what if nobody around here has ever heard of robotics. Wait till I’m through with them. I think being able to handle everything depends mostly on the person, and other things affecting them, like stuff at home.

I’m sorry if that was a somewhat scatterbrained response. The lack of money around here is rather frustrating. I’ll try and clarify later, it’s just there’s so much I want to say on this topic that my brain keeps jumping all over.


I’ve been a college student for about 12 years (along with working at Xerox). It gets a bit stressful during the season. There never seems to be enough time but I just cannot think of doing without my FIRST fix.

chuckle A bit stressful?!? My husband’s working full-time at our team’s sponsor, and in school full-time. We have a college student and 2 teens on the team. Build season was tremendously stressful. So glad it’s only six weeks.

I am actually on another side of the college student involvement in FIRST. I choose to stay away from FIRST, and try to concentrate on the school work and make that my top priority. I attended my hometown teams kick-off event, and went to a few hours of a build session. I even had a “FIRST fix” by going to a team 134 work session. I ecstatically look forward to the Pennsylvania Robot Challenge, and hopefully at least one more 2004 competition. However, I have noticed now that Regionals have begun, I regret my actions. I sit in front of my computer non-stop watching VCU, Portland, and UCF; in addition to being on the phone continuously receiving updates from BAE and Pittsburgh. I deeply miss the involvement in the build season and the competition experience. However, I have yet to figure out how I will balance college and FIRST.

… I apologize for the rambling.

I was being modest. :wink:

How involved are you in FIRST?

Currently handling a good deal of the administrative tasks of Team 891.

How is FIRST affecting your school work?

Aside from Calc 2, I’m doin’ fairly well, dean’s list last semester…we’ll see this semester.

Do you honestly thing college students can handle the load of being a student, and being a team leader?

Yes. It’s all about time management and priorities - if you want to do it, you can do it.

It’s honestly a very daunting and incredibly challenging task. Our program at Purdue University is almost entirely college student run. Back in high school, I came from a program where the engineers did the vast majority of the design and manufacturing work, and had the students do the assembly end of it. Nevertheless, I felt extremely inspired and thought I had a really good experience. In retrospect, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

When I came to Purdue I faced a rather rigorous application and interview process which allowed me to become a technical advisor. It was 461’s 3rd year in existence, with very few returning undergraduates around to be mentors. I struggled as an advisor significantly due to my lack of design experience, but nevertheless came to discover that my true engineering passion didn’t lie in electrical, but rather mechanical engineering. However, I quickly realized that the time commitment, the lack of appreciation by those I was working with, gave me little choice but to choose to not return the next year, which I planned on doing descretely.

But dagnubbit, somehow those high school students found out, and IM’s starting pouring in:

“Matt, you can’t leave!! You’re such a good advisor!”
“Matt, we need your help next year, you can’t leave us!”
“Matt, I know you’re leaving, but I just want to say that you made a really big impact on my life.”

How do you walk away from that?
The short answer is that you don’t, and I’ve been significantly involved ever since. I wasn’t “underappreciated”… high school students (myself included at that age) do really appreciate what mentors do… they just don’t realize how much it means to hear it.

As for how involved I am… the answer is “perhaps is a bit too much.”

Last year, we started to do a lot of differently, including:

  • Begin to use the donated CNC equipment at our high school.
  • CAD our entire robot in Inventor.
  • Take pride in machining parts correctly by using precise measuring insturments.

The CNC stuff was actually a lot of patient trial and error by a very small handful of high school students, but the CAD and precision machining was an initive that I had to start myself. While previously we had to do a lot of CNC work using Purdue’s facilities, I realized that a lot more can be done by hand with proper training. While some people scoffed at the idea of high school students possibly CADing models, creating drawings, and making precision parts with the tools at the high school (which I confess has very nice facilities), it worked out rather well.

This year I worked along side some other talented college mentors including Raj Daftuar and Carl Agnew to start a lot of other initiatives, including:

  • Creating an AutoDesk Inventor Tutorial Guide to be used by both college and high school students. (That’s 100% Raj, I take no credit except giving him encouragement)
  • Planning and preparing for machine shop training and certification for both college and high school students.
  • Planning a lecture on DC motors and their application in FIRST roboticsfor the course at Purdue, ME 497f.
  • Developing the Knowledge is Power (KIP) engineering introduction tutorials for our high school students on gear ratios, mechanics of materials, drive train design, electronics fundamentals, wiring standards. (Software written by Carl Agnew, lessons and quizzes written by myself, Caleb Fulton, Matt Auter, and Raj Daftuar.)
  • Created the Westside Boiler Invasion Approved Parts List to standardize all of our bushings, bearing, material, fasteners, gears, sprockets and chain distributors.
  • Created a comprehensize chart standarding critical engineering data (weight per foot, moment of inertia) about common material shapes (box, L, extrusion, round stock, tubing).
  • Wrote in PHP the 461 Time Clock to allow student to track and compare their hours of participation, schedule abscenses, and keep up to date about meeting times.

As for the time commitment, we’re meeting at the high school twice a week during the fall, and 6 (basically 7) days a week during the build season. It’s definitely a lot of time commitment. The short story is that I don’t have much of a choice, there’s a handful of college students who are really able to commit the amount of time needed to inspire and teach students while building a well designed, competitive robot.

As a whole at Purdue, there’s a low return rate for our technical advisors. The amount of time commitment that you need to have for academic success and the amount of time that you need to dedicate to be a good FIRST advisor is about the same. Significant sleep loss occurs, and grades do take a hit.

I would not be able to commit at the level I am at right now had I not recieved a lot of college credit from advanced placement exams and the foreign language department here at Purdue. Essentially, most of the advisors and FIRST involved college students at Purdue that I know are spending at least an extra semester at Purdue, which may or may not be directly related due to their involvement in FIRST here on campus.

Being a college mentor on a college run team is a very serious commitment. Right now, we have over 40 college students committed to make this happen. We started out under the wing of another large student organization at Purdue, which is the way that I’d suggest others go about it. Starting a team on your own is very difficult. Shannon Schnepp wrote a very good paper on how Purdue started their team 5 years ago. I suggest you read it so that you’ll have a good understanding of what’s needed to accompish your goal sucessfully.


When I was a senior in High School, I knew that I wanted to continue with FIRST… so I picked a school that would work around my FIRST schedule:

Year one: classes from September - June
-Ok, taking classes and doing FIRST is a major pain in the @s5… kudos to you guys who do that successfully
-I was on a new team so I took the time to ‘learn their ways,’ I purposely shy’d away from having any definate responsibilities and only promised them a Chairman’s Award entry
-I concieved the idea for the Beantown Blitz last march while staring at a wall during Physics class, I proceded to ask the Dean of Engineering if he’d be interested… he said ‘yes,’ it all started from there (most of you know the rest of the story :wink: )

Year two, three, & four: work jan-june, class july - december
-This is perfect; for build, competition, and off-season event planning time… I’m working (granted, working is still tough… but at least you know it’s only a ‘40 hour week’ and you won’t have any surpise term papers to finish. Life is a bit more predictible)
-I go nuts about FIRST while I’m working, and I concentrate on School when the FIRST stuff is a bit at a lull
-While I’m in class though, I organize pre-season and do other ‘team leader’ type stuff… I’m in the process of making that a Work-Study position for a few hours of each week. This will help with time-management a little more.

Year five, class august - april
-I don’t know how I’ll feel about things my Senior year, but I’ll probably have a lighter team responsibility and pay attention to classes. I do have the rest of my life to enjoy FIRST, but I have to make school a priority.

So all in all, I’m not a typical college student. I’m working at DEKA on the iBOT right now as a intern, and working there… haha, it feels like your workin on a FIRST Robotics Team all the time. They are truely a unique company.

Ok, back to living the dream.



This is my first year in University (University of Waterloo, Canada). My involvement with FIRST went up and down. I started out helping to create a Kickoff game with other students at the University (all FIRST alumni). But, school kicked in near the end of it, and I started to drift a little back. Then I hit my work term (Jan - April) and decided to help out the rookie local team (only one in the area). But I joined about a week and half into the build. I thought since I was on work term I would have plenty of time. It was good for days that they worked late, and weekends, but other then that it was a pain. Because I get off work at 5 I have to get to their build site (walking) and also eat dinner. And the students did a lot of work during their lunch time, which I couldn’t make.

So, it wasn’t as much time as I would have hoped. Hopefully next year when I am in school during the same term, I will be able to get out more often. I can choose to go to class, but not work.


I had a bit of a non standard time.

I swiched from Herndon to a private, distance learning program my junior year of high school. Here in Fairfax County, if you are not a student then you arn’t suppost to participate on the sports teams or extracurricular activites. I was fortunate in that our lead teacher was willing to let me continue on the team. It did, however, prevent me from going to Nationals my senior year (2002).

I graduated the spring of 2002, and just worked retail and had a good time for a year. I purposfully did not participate with my team in 2003, to avoid issues with friends still on the team and such. I met up with a rookie team, 1123 and went to a few meetings, then I broke my car (for 7 months) and was unable to get to their build site to help.

It was durring this hiatus from active participation with a team that I started chating with other FIRST-a-holics online and became good friends with some of them. So much that I was able to fly out to San Jose and stay with the Golds and volunteer at the Sillicon Valley Regional. I was so not ready to go home that I asked my grandparents if I and some friends could stay with them at their house in LA for the LA regional. They agreed, and 5 or so of us went down to LA and volunteered again.

That volunteering experiance was a fundamentaly diffrent experiance then the one I got while as a student.

This year, I started classes in Emergency Medicene at NVCC and rejoined 116 as an adult mentor. In the fall, we’ve always done a mini competition, and I had a group of kids. The type of work I did was rather different. I’m only two years out of high school, but my viewpoint has changed dramaticly. I was doing alot of project management. I don’t have the knowledge to do the detailed engineering equaitions, but I have the general knowledge to get a rough estimate in my head. So I was guidling these young adults (alot like me) through the engineering design process, yet I’ve never had a formal class in it. I think I did an ok job, because my group was about as far along as anyone else was when we ran out of time and had to move on.

This spring I was working 24 hours a week, taking 13 credits at NVCC, and going to most of the meetings. I had class durring times that the team met, but I went to my classes instead. As it got near the end of the build season, I began to better understand the time commitment that Dave and Mr Tripp and Jack and Heidi and Ms Bobzine made to be there all the time.

It was also diffrent in that it was a part of my life, not what my life revolved around.

My experiance in FIRST in college has been overwhelmingly positive. I think I’ve also been able to pass on some things I’ve learned, at least in the shop. (I love making things :D) I may go away to nursing school this fall, but thats still a maybe. Either way, FIRST will be a part of it, but not the deciding factor in everything that it was while I was in high school. (I think thats maturity… From me!?!)


I’ve been a FIRST mentor since leaving high school. I haven’t been involved; I’ve been comitted. (i.e. look at your basic bacon and eggs breakfast… the chicken was involved; the pig was comitted)

My school work has suffered tremendously as a result of FIRST. But you know what? I don’t really care. My life is much more enriched, and I hope the kids’ lives are better for it, too. I have good enough grades that I don’t get kicked out of school. I consider FIRST a better preparation for teaching than any class I’ve taken. And I’m happy, which is all that really matters in the end.

If you feel that you can handle FIRST and don’t mind the sacrifices, I say go for it. 20 years from now, I doubt you’ll look back and say, “I wish I had graduated one semester earlier instead of doing FIRST.”

I’m going to be terribly open… this subject is very close to home, and I’ve given it a LOT of thought. I’ll try to keep my thoughts conherent, and the rant-factor as low as possible. :wink:

College FIRST is a roller coaster.
Ups, and downs.

-There are many awesome moments, incredible positives, and times where you just love your involvement/can’t get enough.

-There are also times where you’re sick of your team, your school, FIRST, and you have a few choice words for Dean “freaking” Kamen and his “every college freshman should get their university involved” speech. :wink:

Really, you just have to make sure the ups outnumber the downs.

Everyone’s experiences are unique.
It depends a lot on the team structure, support, and a TON of other factors. Some teams make it easy to be involved, others make it difficult.

I think it is 200% different to be a college student involved on an existing team, than being on a college team. (i.e. DJ being on 45, vs. Me on 229).
So obviously experiences vary with that. It all comes down to responsibility…

I imagine it is waaay easier for DJ to say “I have a big test to study for, I can’t work this week” than it is for someone like Matt Adams (or myself… ;))
Often times, it becomes easy to say things like “my team is counting on me, I NEED to get this done”. In my opinion… this pressure is almost too much.

I remember back in HS, when our mentor would say “That’s it… I’m never doing this again.” We all looked at him with our big HSer “bambi eyes” and said stuff like “You can’t quit… we NEED you”. Inevitably… he’d be back again.
I never thought I’d be one of those people threatening to quit every year, but being dragged back over and over again. (again… the ups and the downs… when you’re down, it’s easy to threaten you’re never coming back). Mentor burnout sucks. It sucks a lot as an engineer, and ohhh baby does it suck as a college student.

Beware. Make sure your involvement is manageble. Make sure the resources are there to make your involvement EASIER on you (and your GPA) instead of HARDER. It can be a slippery slope. When “someone has to step up… it might as well be me”.

Another thing to consider…
As a college mentor, are you in FIRST for the right reasons??
I was not.

It took a couple serious kicks in the butt (thanks man ;)) before I realized that I wasn’t actually a college mentor… more like some over-aged HS student.

There are entire teams of over-aged HS students, and this isn’t a terrible thing… but every team needs a few people who are… (at the risk of sounding terribly arrogant) beyond that.

There is a big difference between being an actual college mentor, and being a college-wannabe-HSer. The amout of effort it took me to bridge the gap is… incredible. (okay… you can all quit snickering… I know I’m still working on it).

Maybe other people have an easier time with this, and maybe I’m just weird but…
I spend every day trying to be a better mentor, and making sure our HS students are having a positive experience. I only hope I can do as well for them, as my mentors did for me.

So… do I regret my involvement in college-FIRST and 229?
Well… yes and no. I would be a very different person… VERY different if the last 3 years of my life had been FIRST-less. A lot of interesting opportunites have opened up for me, I’ve met a lot of VERY interesting people, and been exposed to a lot of interesting things. (Note my choice of adjective ;))
It’s been fun, but I do wish I had stayed a little bit higher up on the slope.

So along with Matt… I’ll proclaim that I’m too involved.

I still wish Dean Kamen would get up on stage and say:
“To all you HS seniors… I have some HW for you… next year, when you go off to your respective institutions of higher learning… I want you to make sure, you do what is best for YOU. Settle in, get comfortable at school, make friends. Make sure you keep your grades respectible… and if you find time to stay involved with FIRST… GREAT. Volunteer at a regional, help a local team, drag some people to the nearest event. Do whatever you can to help this program, but only do what you can, and not more.”

Fat Chance.

Then again… lots of people warned me and… it didn’t matter. :wink:


PS - I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of my thoughts with this post. Feel free to get in touch if you want more ranting, or if you just want to tell me off.

PPS - Matt Adams is my hero. :wink: Keep fighting the good fight buddy.

going straight from high school to college starting a team in my freshman year I will throw my two cents in…

I’m with George in the fact that doing FIRST makes me happy…I could work harder in certain classes, but it is doubtful I would use that time productively…

I cannot say it was easy to start this team (with RogerR’s help), but hey if one person is affected how I was by FIRST I believe I did my job…

This is my first FIRST team that I’ve started, but I sincerely doubt it will be my last…it is a lot of responsibility, but the companies nowadays are looking for leadership qualities…a 4.0 is nice, but being able to put together projects start and finish them is what industry is really looking for…

FIRST i believe is one huge driver for networking and industry contacts with this people in companies knowing who I am and what I’ve done and have no doubt that I can do the job…basically I won’t have to search for a job when i get my degree…I will have jobs waiting for me…

Overall the pressure and responsibility are worth it in the long run imho…there are my two cents

now hopefully more ppl will come to USF to help start more teams, and work with the existing ones…

Being a college mentor is not an easy thing. You’re all doing a great job in taking some action and being a positive influence, all in different ways. You should congratulate yourselves on the hard work and effort you’ve put into this program.

It’s what you do, and not what you say
If you’re not part of the future, then get out of way…
” - John Mellencamp

I’m not exactly sure if I need post this, but I guess I should perhaps tack on another characteristic about college sponsored programs that people may not think about.


Purdue University often talks about how there are more Purdue engineers practicing than from any other school in the country. Countless people stop by and say, “Hey, I went to Purdue! How are your robot doing?”

Mind you, there is NO PRESSURE from the alumni, they’re honestly just curious. They’re not going to pull funding or kick me off the team… I just have a huge amount of respect for Purdue and its alumni.

When those alumni ask me how we’re doing, I want to be able to say, “We’re doing great, our robot’s performing well, and we’re 4-2 today.”

Saying “Uh, our robot’s over the weight limit, our drive system broke down and we’re 1-5” is something I just couldn’t say.

Since I won’t dare compromise the integrity of our team by cheating or entering grey areas, it means only one thing- we gotta work harder both in and out of season.

Since we have no practicing engineers, we need to rapidly educate our advisors and high schoolers with bare bones engineering information so that we’re on the same page, on a yearly basis. I’ll openly admit that some of our seniors this year were significantly better than a few new advisors, it’s because of experience, dedication, and education that they’ve recieved.

On the plus side, since we have no practicing engineers and I’m among the oldest advisors, I need to be REALLY sure I can apply the engineering I’m learning in the classroom to real life. If this means getting ahead in a course to decide if a part will fail due to loading… I’m going to do it.

Maybe this is the way that engineers feel about the companies they work for, and maybe not. But nevertheless, this is something a lot of the advisors from Purdue and I feel very strongly about.


When I started up in college I attended Wentworth while walking down the road to Northeastern to help out with team 125. I realized after a few meetings that this team wasnt like my old team. They didnt have one BIG sponsor that paid for everything they asked for and gave them huge amounts of money and working space.

To me seeing that, it was FIRST cluture shock, I honestly did not know what exactly I was going to be able to do on the team. Through out the pre-season I slowly got used to the new workshop and the new people that surrounded me, and then slowly I realized that I was no longer the one who took orders, I was the one giving them, not orders Persay, morelike sugesstions pushing the new students in the right direction.

Unfortanetly for certain reasons I decided to not return for the spring semester, this meant I would not be helping 125. I had a falling out with my Major at Wentworth, Mechanical Engineering. I decided I needed to distance my self as much as I could from any and all things Engineering, including FIRST.

However over christmas break, I got the bug, you all have gotten it before… Kickoff, yea I couldnt wait to go to kickoff and see what this years game entailed. Thinking simply I would go to Kickoff, watch and leave. That never happend, I stayed for the design meetings, eventually I started going to meetings again. Soon enough I was doing more than I had done in my Senior year in High School.

Through out the build season I used past lessons learned to keep the new kids on track as I had done with 125, but this was back with my Old team, so I felt much more comfortable doing it. I kept Morale up with everybody telling them it was going to be done on time, I always made sure everybody was doing something.

Toward the End of the season, one of the head engineeris with 151 approached me and said, that becasuse I had put in so many long hours as a mentor they decided that they were going to pay my way to Nationals. I was in and utter state of shock when they told me this. I had to idea that they would ever do something like that for me.

The last build night however was filled with downfalls, we found out due to center of gravity issuses our robot could not climb the lip as we had designed it to. Everybody who had worked so hard on it tried to be positive… but we couldnt it didnt work… what else was there? We shabbly packed both crates and left to go home and get some sleep.

I guess John said it best.

“You just have to make sure the ups outnumber the downs.”

This year they did, we did great at regionals are are hoping to do better at Nationals

and Ken to answer your question…

Better than I could have ever Imagined!