Does Affirmative Action fit under the values of FIRST

Our team has been placed in an extremely awkward position by our school district. Over the last few years, we have grown exponentially–from ~20 members, to 35 in 2010, to 60 perspective members this year. Unfortunately, our school district has a policy that requires the student to teacher ratio to be 35:1 at all times, so if the team goes over that number, we require another teacher. Our team has some money, but not a huge amount, and the money for a teacher on duty must come directly from the district; through the normal payroll scheme.

It is clear that getting this funding for the extra teacher would be made easier if our team incorporated more of the diversity found at our school (right now, it’s ~65% white and ~30% asian, and 70/30 male to female). Our school is obviously, 50/50 male female, and has a sizable latino/African American population (~15%)

Even with an increase in teachers, the space (physically) we have is limited, so about 10 people would have to be removed from the team. If we end up capped at 35, it would require the removal of, conservatively, 25 people.

In either of these eventualities, some people would have to be removed from the team. The question is, can gender, race, and sex be taken into the calculation. In other words, can the team take affirmative action to increase the diversity *possibly at the expense of those who are deserving *

I want to hear the opinions of some others before I give mine.

Define student to teacher ratio in the FIRST context… does it have to be teachers filling the role, or do volunteer mentors fit the bill as well? Is there some way to leverage that unique feature of FIRST to help your team fulfill the district’s rules, while allowing everyone who wants to participate do so?

Is it possible to structure your team and your meeting times to allow everyone to be a part? Obviously, if you have 60 people on the team, I don’t care how big your build space is, you’re going to have trouble getting everyone time on the robot. If you organize the team schedule, you could have different subgroups meet at different time (One example would be everyone working on the robot, versus those that aren’t, like PR, or animation, or website, etc. Another would be two different groups who need dedicated time working on the robot, when you know you can’t physically fit more than a few bodies around the robot, regardless of how big your space is), thus limiting the total number of students present for most meetings, while giving everyone a chance to participate. Alternatively, could you “borrow” a classroom for use as pure meeting space (a normal classroom for the PR team, or a computer lab for the programming team, for example) to get around the size limitations of your room?

Asking specifically here about affirmative action is really opening a can of worms… It’s a rather political subject, and a lot of people can be touchy about political subjects. I would highly encourage you and your team to look for creative ways and to engage your district leaders to allow everyone to participate, rather than look for the best way to tell a subset of people that they can’t be on the team.

That said, I know that some teams have tryouts, others have an interview process… I’m guessing you’ll find just about any way imaginable in FIRST to pick out a team amongst large schools with an absurd amount of students wanting to participate.

I’ll postpone discussing FIRST’s values and/or the values of FIRST participants, and instead draw your attention to a few more general concepts.

First, look to Grutter v. Bollinger]( and Gratz v. Bollinger](, which were 2003 United States Supreme Court cases that clarified limits on the ability of a school (in that case the University of Michigan) to apply affirmative action policies. If your team belongs to a public school, or is incorporated through a governmental agency, you’re probably affected. (NPR has provided a summary.)

For details upon which you can rely, you’ll probably need to speak to a lawyer or a school administrator. My inexpert appraisal of those rulings would be that it is constitutional for you to weigh factors like race and ethnicity “to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body”, but that you shouldn’t have a quota or automatically give certain minorities a numerical advantage in scoring their applications. If you (or rather, the people acting on behalf of the school) frame the desire for diversity in terms of attracting funding for an additional supervising teacher, I have no idea how it will turn out.

The other issue is related to the theory of apportioning scarce resources. If you follow utilitarian reasoning (i.e. Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy), you should seek to maximize the utility of the society (not just the team; maybe instead the entire school community), even if that means dropping team members who are deserving. But John Rawls might argue that you should not put any person in a position where they are excessively disadvantaged, even if that means a lower aggregate utility level for the society—in that case, perhaps you might be justified in taking into account the possibility that certain minorities tend to be exposed to fewer opportunities, and that by dropping members of that group, you might harm them to an unacceptable degree.

I think that first and foremost, this is an ethical issue, then a legal one, then a political one, and only lastly a question of how the FIRST community would view it.

Aside: You’d be surprised how a school might end up with an uneven male-female split. For example, I believe Woburn C.I. had rather more males at one point, because it was composed in large part of a special education program in which males were disproportionately represented.

The teachers must be district employees, with technology specifications, so, unfortunately, mentors can’t fit the role.

On the subject of opening a can of worms, I want to look at Affirmative action through the lens of a FIRST team, and since CD is one of the most mature forums on the internet, I think we can handle a civil discussion here.

Does everyone on your team have a meaningful job? Will they still at a large number of team members? If not, I’d say cap enrollment.

I have never been in favor of Affirmative Action. I strongly believe that discriminating based on skin color or body shape or genetic makeup, where those factors are not relevant to the position being considered, is simply wrong.

While normally I fall under a mix for affirmative action eg:

Jobs/College admissions - pick the best candidate.

Scholarships - having extra scholarships for characteristically lower income groups is fine by me.

I am puzzled by this, because while I would normally say pick the best candidate the purpose of FIRST gives me mixed feelings. If you pick the best candidates, those who aren’t the best may never get a chance to learn and get into the engineering world and struggle more in the future. Whereas if you don’t pick just the best, you may be hindering the growth of some of the best.

I would be inclined to say a mix of Skill & Enthusiasm, perhaps conduct an interview with them. Regardless make sure you give legal issues a very wide berth.

To me, FTC (and Vex, and other programs) seems like the best thing for teams in this situation. It’s a way for the masses of students to get involved in something more hands-on, in a smaller group, particularly when they’re just starting out. They can absolutely still show up to whatever FRC meetings they want, but the other, smaller program will make sure they have have something to do and are still learning.

With increasing student interest the thing to do seems to be creating more opportunities. However, it sounds like this would also require more faculty, but you might be able to make the case to the district to help you expand the program (in a very affordable way such as FTC/Vex) instead of excluding the majority of people who are now interested. Having to exclude anyone in any way is just no fun, so I would try to avoid it.

The definition of “best” is at the heart of the issue. I think you’re using it in terms of “most skilled”; others might interpret it as “most valuable”. In terms of affirmative action, part of a selected person’s value is said to come from the likelihood that they have experiences and perspectives that are distinct from the majority, and the presumption that they can usefully contribute those things to the endeavour.

Another facet of affirmative action is to compensate for a history of discrimination or marginalization (such as with lower-income populations receiving scholarships). This is perhaps less compelling, because many past wrongs were committed against other people from the same group, rather than personally against the person being selected. Nevertheless, by choosing to improve the condition of one member of that group, it can be argued that affirmative action ought to (even in some small way) improves the condition of the whole group.

For 696, we’d of course like to have more girls on the team, but we’re not favoring anyone or setting any hard numbers we try to meet. One thing I am doing however is to poll the physics teachers to see who their best students were. I will then reach out to these students individually to invite them to apply to the team in case they were otherwise unaware. However, they will not be given any direct priority or preference over others.

Is there any way you can leverage having technical/build and non-technical/marketing/awards/animation meetings seperately so that you can keep more students but have a non-build group meet at a diffferent time and still maintain the ratio?

Then you would just need an extra teacher when you travel to regionals which would drastically decrease the cost.

With sixteen seasons behind us, I can tell you that the makeup of students varies widely from year to year. To attempt a strategy based on team makeup is a short term goal and may go awry in just one season as students leave for reasons unrelated to the competition. While I cannot know your school district policies, often a compromise involving a part time assignment can cover the needs without incurring significant expense. We are very lucky to have a school board that recognizes the significant contribution First has on their students and supports us for those efforts. More team graduates will advance to college or university from robotics than any other program in our schools. That is a significant statistic to encourage support from parent groups, school board and school admin. While I am not an advocate for affirmative action, students that fall into that category need encouragement to join robotics teams. You may need to pare down the team in the short term to give some students a quality experience while you prepare and plan for a future where more students can be involved. I know that this is tough decision. Good luck.

Is the goal of your team to be as competitive as possible or to influence the most students? What is the age breakdown of the 60 prospective members? Instead of trying to pick members by “value” to the team, which can be defined many ways and is hard to judge, why don’t you just eliminate all freshman? Or limit it to juniors and seniors? I would like to see a senior get preference over a freshman, knowing that is the senior’s last chance to be on the team, whereas the freshman has 3 more years.

And playing devil’s advocate, I can certainly understand the school’s policy of mandating a teacher/student ratio and insisting on only district employees. They have to think about safety and liability issues, no matter how unfair that mandate seems. Do any of your students have parents who are district employees of any type who could volunteer their time? Or does the teacher have to be paid?

Affirmative action doesn’t fit under the values of any self respecting organization. Time to move on.

FIRST is irrelevant to any discussion of affirmative action. Any decisions regarding affirmative action on a team shouldn’t have any hazy knowledge of “the spirit of FIRST” in mind at all.

I don’t believe telling one person they can’t be on the team because of their race, gender, or socioeconomic status is ever good, unless your team is specifically set up for something (i.e. an all girl’s team).

I also think there is some merit to looking at your gender ratio and asking “why”.

I believe at this point, socioeconomic status has more to do with diversity than race.

Always an interesting learning experience when kids (or adults) learn that discrimination is not only unavoidable, it’s necessary – and is often a good thing. (We discriminately give welfare dollars only to the poor, and I think we can all agree that if we’re going to be giving welfare dollars to anybody, we might ought to discriminate based on socio-economic status. We discriminate by training/occupation, because we’d rather not have a plumber represent us in court (or a lawyer install our new bathroom). We discriminate by height, weight, and age on amusement park rides. Etc.)

The question isn’t whether or not to discriminate in determining membership on a FIRST team. You do that already (even if it’s criteria such as 9-12th grade, student at your school or in your district, expresses interest in the team – that’s still discrimination). Some teams do it with other criteria (skills benchmarks, GPA, fundraising dollars). Some teams discriminate by gender (all girls teams, for example, though this discrimination is often *de facto *through gender-specific schools). I don’t know of any teams that discriminate by ethnicity.

Discrimination comes in various categories, and you can come up with a sort of dichotomous key to determine if it is appropriate for whatever it is you’re trying to do.

…and if I did that right, I just completely avoided expressing my own opinions on affirmative action. :smiley:

Note that many potential sponsors (such as the company I work for) will refuse to look at any grant or sponsorship application for organizations which discriminate on the basis of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, disability, national origin, etc.

Just something to keep in mind.

Instead of asking questions about Affirmative Action, wouldn’t it be a better idea to spend time looking for teachers willing to help the team without being paid for an afterschool activity? I think you should also find out why your school has this policy and if mentors can be counted as part of the ratio instead of just the teachers.

I think the best answer might involve thinking about creative ways to continue to allow interested students to participate. For example, do you have to meet in the school? Maybe a sponsor or some other organization in your local community has a larger space they would be able to offer to you to meet at certain times. Would there be rules about teacher to student ratios if you meet offsite? There are plenty of teams that aren’t actually affiliated with the schools their students are from as well - you could potentially become an independent entity and these restrictions would go away. You could also consider other options like having different subsets of the team meet at different times so that there are never too many students at any one time.

A lot of these issues may have to do with union contracts. For example, it’s possible that a teacher may not be able to do it on a voluntary basis due to union restrictions. The 35:1 ratio might also be dictated by the union contract (since if they hold the school to that ratio, it will require more teachers to be hired which equals more job security).

With all that being said, I know absolutely nothing about the school district in question, but I know similar union policies are in effect elsewhere. And not just in teachers unions - similar job security provisions are in place in pilot unions, skilled trades unions, etc.