FIRST Philosophy 101

Exactly! If your heart is in the right place, and your goal = FIRST goal then you would not need all these rules and regulations.

Its like asking, how many times can a man beat his wife before she has the right to divorce him? If you love your wife you would never even think about beating her, and if you dont love her you should not be married in the first place.

FIRST competitions are a microcosm of real world engineering projects. Real projects have good and bad aspects, problems that must be dealt with, and lots of things that dont make any sense from your side of the fence. Ditto FIRST.

You literally cannot serve two masters. You cannot say “this year Im going to do the best I can to inspire these students to be engineers” and with the same breath then say “and this year Im going to do everything I can to win the championship”.

They are opposite goals, opposite directions. You run toward one only by turning your back on the other.

The game is arbitrary and completely meaningless. The rules are arbitrary.

The student’s are real!

“This year i’m going to inspire these students to be engineers, by showing them how to do everything we can to win the championship. By showing them how to play the game put before us, the engineering challenge given us, I will inspire them.”

The mechanism given us to inspire the students IS the competition. I’m always shocked when people rant that being competitive and striving to win is against the goals of FIRST.

By striving to achieve more, we grow and learn together. We learn to be competitive, in struggling to achieve more we are forced to evolve and learn more. The students see this, and they understand; to be competitive, I need to be better. To be better, I need to work hard and learn more.

The desire to compete drives them to work.
This desire, inspires.

I’ve been there.

An athlete who is inspired to be more competitive works harder at being an athlete. A FIRST student who is inspired to be more competitive works harder at learning.

I am in John and Paul’s camp on this one.

In my mind, you get 90% of the impact of FIRST on individual participants from just this one thing: Students & Mentors Building a robot and competing with it.

I believe that this can be accomplished with 10% of the effort that FIRST requires.

So what are we buying with the remaining 90% of the money and effort that we spend on FIRST?

In MY mind at least, it is silly to argue that what we buy is 10% more impact on the individuals that are already on a FIRST team – it is a bad deal isn’t it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend that 90% by funding & supporting 9 more teams?

TO ME, the balance of the effort we spend only makes sense if we are talking about cultural change. I really DO think that much of what FIRST does that cost money and effort IS necessary to make the cultural impact we a working toward.

So… …I think it is incumbant on folks that guide FIRST to measure everything we do (beyond the minimum that gets us that 90% impact on the participants) based on the impact to the **larger community **not on the impact on the members of the teams.

That is why I think that the focus on fairness to rookie teams, or teams without Engineering support, or teams with non-prime zipcodes.

The NCAA isn’t fair, yet teams keep playing.

We are talking about changing the world… …if changing the world requires rules that unfairly hamper or help my team, what of it?

I think it is a tradeoff we all should be okay.

Joe J.

I have to completely disagree with you John.

Many HS sporting programs are all about winning competitions. And many HS athletes sit on the bench the entire season and NEVER get to touch the ball, unless their team is way ahead and their actions on the field dont matter anymore.

If I sit down and map out a plan for a HS team to win the championship this year, and then I map out a plan to show every student on the team what its like to be an engineer, I come up with two very different paths.

If your plan to inspire the students involves having a winning team then what happens if you dont win?

I know this discussion happens every year. In my opinion the thing that makes FIRST worth the time and effort is this: Professional people are opening their doors, and finding the time out of their busy lives to show HS students what their lives will be like if they decide to follow the same career path they have chosen. Engineers dont always create the best products, or the best systems. We dont have to. Engineering is a way of thinking, its a way of life, its a way of putting up the next few spans that takes humanity from where it is to where it can be.

For engineers, if you put a man on the moon, or you land a rover on Mars, or you create a new product that makes everyone in your company a millionaire you are not ‘done’. Likewise if you have failures and setbacks, if your Mars lander crashes in the last 100 feet of its decent, if your company folds up and you have to start over, you have not lost.

Engineers solve problems. Engineers make the world a better place. You dont have to come up with the perfect - winning solution or the best answer every single time to be a successful engineer. We always strive for the best, knowing we can never really get there.

Its a journey, its a path, its a way of life.

Who said anything about needing to win to inspire?
My plan to inspire students involves having a team that tries it’s hardest to win. Work as hard as you can to be competitive. I don’t need to win, I just need to show these kids what it is like to strive to win.

If I went into the season saying “we’re not looking to win, we’re just here to have fun.” Then why should they care? If I tell them “we’re going to try as hard as we can to win, and we’re going to have fun doing it.” Then they’re gonna be psyched. The goal is to ship the best possible product you can.

We always told our kids “Try as hard as you can to win, but if you don’t… start working for next year.” One of the most annoying phrases I repeated to our kids was “The cool thing about working hard, is you can always work harder.”

It is also about TRYING to create the best product you can. If you’re not trying to produce the best product you can… what exactly are you doing? Why would I hire, or want to work with an engineer who doesn’t try his best?

We’re given our problem every year in early January. We solve it to the best of our abilities together as mentors and students. We compare solutions on the playing field. If you’re not trying to win, what sort of solution do you have to the problem? Who built a tetra capper this season?

You don’t have to come up with the perfect-winning solution, or best answer every single time; but you’d better be trying every single time. Or else… why bother striving at all?

Compete hard, have fun, come back next year and get better.

The “journey, path, and way of life” involve doing your very best using the skills we’re given. Or else, what kind of life are you living?
Aim High.

My plan to inspire students involves having a team that tries it’s hardest to win. Work as hard as you can to be competitive…

I agree with this, for the students. The game is there to be played, and played competitively - for the students

but not for the mentors. The mentors must have their heads in a different place.

Lets take a quiz:

  1. When the mentors get together what do they talk about? The robot or the students? Do you discuss whether the robot design is everything you want it to be, how its progressing… or do you discuss how well each student on the team is interacting, engaging, getting exposed to new aspects of engineering? Do you talk about ways the team can build better robots, or do you talk about ways to split up the team to reach more students, or start new teams at new schools?

  2. When you assign students to subteams, do you put them where they already have the most experience and can make the most contribution, or do you put them on a subteam they have not been on before, knowing they will fumble for a while but will learn new things in the process?

  3. When you have extra funds, do you buy new equipment that will make the team more competitive (and thereby more inspirational) or do you open the team to more students, plan to attend more regionals so the team has more appeal to new students.

  4. When you are making robot design tradeoff decisions, do you choose complex designs that are more competitive, but that will require engineers and machinists to design and fabricate, or do you choose less demanding designs that the students can grasp, design and fabricate on their own?

  5. When you have free time to talk with students, at regionals for example, one on one, what do you talk about? the robot? the contest? or the student, their experience with the program, their plans for the future?

Each persons answers to these questions will tell you where their head is (and you cant have your head in two places at the same time - if your answer is ‘both’, then which do you do first?).

The game is there, and its there to be played. For students the game itself is a big part of the appeal of FIRST. Ask a student what they did in FIRST and they will start talking about the robot and the game.

Ask a mentor what they did in FIRST, the robot should only be a footnote.

Ken and John - great discussion you sound like there is more common ground with what you are both saying than you may think.
Students before robots - agreed
The journey is never the same for anyone, how you get there is half the fun -as long as you do get there (both of you have obviously gotten there - too bad your enthusiasm isn’t being shared this year with students on a team - I noticed neither is associated with a team, can we adopt you??)
We have slipped into a very philosophical debate here - although linked to R17, I can’t help but feel this thread is slipping away.
R17 - the reason this thread was started has brought up many good points, like Paul C has pointed out, keep your opinions somewhere safe and make sure that you bring them back out when the opportunity arises this spring and summer.
Until then, everyone try and abide by the rule - as difficult as it may be.

“You must spread some Reputation around before giving it to KenWittlief again.”

I split this from the <R17> thread](, in an attempt to bring that thread back on track.

Sorry for the distraction.


One of the things I try to teach the kids is that this is a competition, and the goal of a competition is to win. However, it is what you do to achieve that goal that defines the person, and not achieving the goal itself.

If I inspired 1 student, got 1 student to start questioning how things work, then I consider it a successful season. Even if our robot never competes. Because, in the long run, I will have helped the next generation.

The robot (and the competition) is nothing more than a vehicle to assist in inspiring the students. Anyone who tells you different, in my opinion, is being shortsighted.

I love this debate, every time it comes up!

I will add my $0.02 here because I think that I view this situation a little differently than some.

I am not in FIRST to inspire the 20 some odd students on my team.

To me, if that were the extent of the goal, it would be an extremely inefficient use of all our time. My goal in FIRST is to inspire all of the students on all of the teams. The way to do that is to “contribute to the excellence of the event”. We do that by competing, as a team, to the best of our abilities. The students that I have known in FIRST over my 8 years of involvement have been far more inspired by the competition and some of the jaw dropping creations of “elite” teams than by anything that we made ourselves. I will continue to drive 703 - Team Phoenix to be one of the “elite” teams because I want us to have that same impact on the thousands of students. I want all of you to do the same. That is how we will convince young people that engineering is “cool”.

Matt B.

I doubt that a single correct response will ever come of this - but I do believe that each team can do things differently, say things differently, accomplish their goals differently - and STILL collectively drive cultural change as a by product of the FIRST experience.

Rather than argue that what others teams does is wrong or that you disagree with them, why not just let them do it their way and walk away knowing that if their way works for them AND helps accomplish the goal of FIRST - more power to them. It’s not hurting your effort towards meeting a common goal, is it?

See, I believe each team has a completely different set of constraints to deal with, and what/how we do things is meant to address those. They are not meant to address yours - yours are different.

Our kids are different, they come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different sets of circumstances and therefore everyone is probably starting at a different point in the process of changing the culture.

So, when I look back and ask have we changed the culture of the students/community towards recognition of science and technology - I think we have, both within the school and within the larger community.
Then, I look at the bigger picture and ask - collectively has this also been accomplished regionally, combining the efforts of all of the participating schools in the region - and I can say yes it has (even though each team did things differently)

And, this process is repeated at the national and even global levels.

Ultimately, it is the collective whole that will determine the outcome. Getting caught up in the details of why it has to be done or thought of a certain way really has little bearing other than causing hard feelings. That is why the arguements over collaboration and competition are a distraction that takes people’s attention away from the real goal of FIRST.

Just my thoughts - I hope this discussion can be a way to bring teams together rather than having the differences push them apart


I agree with you WHOLEHEARTEDLY.

This is exactly the crux of the matter. Running a FIRST team successfully is a difficult thing, and every team is different (many variables involved). If any team finds a way that works well for them that is great.

However, (as you state) they must respect that there are other ways to run a team as well, and that all of these contribute to the global culture change. Success comes on many levels, and in varying degrees. Success on a given team, in a given situation. Success of the program, in the world.

I take serious issue when I am told “my head is in the wrong place” for focusing on the competitive aspects, and how to use these to inspire our youth. I was merely trying to defend and justify my methods. I will not stand idly by while someone publicly declares my way of doing things is wrong.

I suppose, as Paul so bluntly pointed out, this entire debate is academic for me. I am not currently on a team. (Unfortunately I was forced to make a difficult decision concerning this, and the result of that decision has me on the path I’m on.) However, my arguments and words are not for those who detract my methods, but for those who may be listening to those detractors.

I feel the competition IS important.
I wanted to shout as loud as I could that it is okay to want to be competitive. It is okay to go out and strive for gold. It is okay to look at the super-robots with wonder, and awe, and aspire to be that good. Maybe if someone else had spoken out, I wouldn’t have felt the need to.

Live and let live.
I won’t bother you, if you’ll stop telling me that trying to win doesn’t matter.
Your method isn’t wrong, but forcing your method on me… IS.


Just thought I’d chip in my 2 cents as I was inspired by my mentors.

I started my FIRST career as a member of team 229 back in 2001. When I first joined the team I thought the program was a great program for me because it would allow me to see what engineers actually do. Well the first couple of years i wasn’t inspired, and then in 2004 after a ‘year of learning’, our team won a regional. That moment in time, was one of the most inspiring moments in my FIRST career so far.

Why was it so inspiring?

Well we aimed to win, and we did win. But that was not the major reason. The major reason it was so inspiring for me and some of my friends on the team was that we had accomplished our goals that FIRST gave us. We had not only won that year, but we were inspired by our mentors. We were inspired because a robot that we had jointly made with our college mentors had won our very first regional. How can someone not be inspired by what they make winning?

Then in 2005, the high school students were inspired by us finishing in the finals at both of our regionals. I had been inspired by my mentors to become an engineer, because I was able to work with them on the whole robot. Everything from designing it to building it, the high school students were their.

So I would have to say that students are inspired no matter how they place, however winning can add to the inspiration you give to the high school students.

From what I saw here, nobody said that Competition wasn’t important, or tried to force their opinion on anybody else … they simply stated that competition wasn’t the MOST IMPORTANT thing about FIRST, and it is not. FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The name itself says nothing about beating the snot out of another team during a competition, It does, however say something about inspiring People. Competition is a very small part of FIRST, 80% of it is about learning from professionals how to best fulfill the role of an engineer, so that students are hopefully inspired,and continue their lives as an engineer.

You don’t have to try to win, all you have to do is try to do your best.

P.S “You must spread some Reputation around before giving it to KenWittlief again.”

Advanced Warning***

** I work myself up into a lather on this one. Read it at your own risk. **

Advanced Warning***

I raise my voice in opposition.

While I respect a lot of folks who have other views on this subject, I could not disagree more.

The GOALS of FIRST have nothing to do with a robot competition. The MEANS that FIRST uses is competition.

If it was not for the magic of teams trying to compete, and yes, to win, FIRST would be like 100 other programs that are trying their best and having some impact but not the impact FIRST is having and certainly not the impact FIRST aspires to.

I will say it again, I believe 90% of the impact of FIRST (on the individuals) can be had with just Kids and Mentors designing and building a robot and competing in a game, which, we can accomplish for 10% of the money, effort and energy we are doing today with FRC (less if you talk about using VEX kits).

Why are we killing ourselves doing 10 times the work and only getting 10% more individual impact? I think it is because we aspire to impacting more than our individual kids on our individual teams.

Let’s do a thought experiment: Let’s image we are going to start introducing kids to basketball the way our culture introduces kids to engineering.

First of all we would say, “Whao! Basketball is VERY hard and it is a VERY complicated game to play. Way too hard for you, youngin’s. We are going to teach you Basketball Prep”

Then we would lock them in a room with no windows and tell them they can’t move there feet unless they were bouncing a ball. After hours of them practicing we’d come in and tell them, “No, NO, NO! You’re doing it all wrong, you have to bounce the ball with ONE hand! and once you pick it up, you can only move one foot, and bouncing the ball again after that, even WITH one hand, is a penalty… …”

And so it would go. NOBODY would aspire to grow up to be a basketball player.

But that is NOT how we introduce basketball to kids. Instead:

  1. We show them the NBA.
  2. We make heroes of Michael and Koby and Shack and Yao.
  3. And then kids start to imagine that they could one day be like these guys and then…
  4. …they go into a room with no windows and learn how to not to move their feet unless they are bouncing a ball…

I cannot speak for others but I can tell you that I got involved in FIRST precisely because it was NOT the Brainiac Olympiad or the Future Communities of Tomorrow or the Science Fair Superbowl on Steriods.

No it wasn’t anything like those. FIRST had aspirations! It was going to make kids want to go out and spend a lot of time doing hard (and often boring) stuff so that …what?

So that they could BE IN THE GAME! It was about showing them the beauty and the grace that IS science and engineering. Of course, the kids were not going to be able to modify involute geartooth profiles or solve differential equations or implement observer based optimal control theory any more than they were going to slam 10inch ball through a hoop 10ft in the air… …but FIRST was gong to give them the vision of what it was like…

and that vision would get them through the hard, boring stuff needed to obtain the goal.

In short, competition was the means to the end of cultural change.

** That** is the FIRST that I signed up for. The one that I think has a chance of being worth all the time and money and energy we all put into it.

Joe J.

Sorry in advance if some of this does not fit the thread topic. I am a terrible writer but felt a need to throw my thoughts into the ring.

That was just to perfect an explanation for me not to repost it in hopes everyone would read it again.

Now a quick question…

As a student, would you be inspired if you saw that your mentors did not care about how well your robot worked or how well you placed in competition?

I personally, along with many of my friends, would not and could not be inspired by someone who does not share our enthusiasm toward building the most competitive and awe inspiring robot possible. This is precisely how people such as John, Chris, Joe, Paul, Andy, Raul, Ken… have reached me. They share our enthusiasm toward the design and build of the robot, along with how well it competes. They all want to build teh most competitive robot.

If your team has the facilities, and the engineering brain power to create a robot to rival 111, 65, 71, 217… why wouldn’t you? Should you take the time to include students in the design process? OF course, involvement is key. But to stand back and let a student design and build a mechanism or drive train that will blow up in their face is a terrible idea. You may say that is inspiration, I say it is an easy way to discourage a student. It’s important to find that median point where the student design, the mentor steps in and helps to point out the flaws, and then the student re-designs. That is how you inspire a student to succeed and move forward into an engineering profession.


“You must spread some Reputation around before giving it to JVN again.” and again… and again… etc.
“You must spread some Reputation around before giving it to Joe Johnson again.”

The competition is What catches someone’s eye… It is NOT what inspires them to be an engineer. I would like you to name a dozen of these “100 other orginizations” that don’t do as well as FIRST, and if you can, I would bet money that you couldn’t name 25.
Do you have ANY IDEA how many people are impacted by working with engineers and seeing how they do things? A HELL-OF-A-LOT MORE than those who are impacted by the competition itself… I, for one would much rather build a robot and not compete that compete and not build a robot. It all goes back to the saying “It’s not all about winning”, which was said by a far better man than myself…
Once again… Competition is the ATTENTION GRABBER, not the body of FIRST.

It is about having fun during 6 weeks of build with your friends and mentors, it’s not about getting the gold.

After some deal of contemplation…My take…

Long rambling post. Do not read (or attempt to) if under the influence of alcohol, sedative drugs, or MAOI’s. You will pass out.

  1. An inspired person has nothing more than the want/dream of something they feel is meaningful.

  2. Wants and dreams are incited by rewards, or expected rewards, alone. Without a benefit of some sort, humans do not progress in any fashion. Rocks and raw mammoth.

  3. Competition is a very effective, perhaps the most effective way of reaching young, busy, wandering teens. Without an aim, we are easily distracted. The goal of bettering a peer is inherent in our phsycology, and thusly is something that keeps us occupied.

  4. FIRST gives us the chance to better our peers, in an engineering atmosphere that encourages us to become engineers. Very effective. Competition keeps us motivated.

-First realization: FIRST is effective as a career influencing activity because it is very real-world, and includes something to keep its members motivated. Competition.

  1. People, when engaged in competition are more fruitful when they occasionally triumph. People that win consistently become used to it, and as a result become complacent. But more hurt, sometimes are the teams that are the underdogs, and consistently lose. Sometimes, they become discouraged and lose interest. Big no-no for FIRST, which is trying to inspire all people, not just the winners.

  2. Teams are the cable that holds FIRST competition static. When one cable pulls tighter than others, cables break, and/or the structure shifts, a bad thing.

-Realization #2: People are engaged in something when they compete, but after huge, seemiongly unrecoverable losses, they can lose interest and move on.

So, it’s reasonable to say that competition is vital to FIRST, and to keep it strong, all teams must compete to their greatest ability. However, to keep losing teams involved and engaged, its the responsibility of the best teams to “Bring The Bottom Up!” by offering immense support, friendship, and a big one, alliance selctions. By bringing outwardly, less capable teams into the fray, you level the field, and encourage them. If everyone in FIRST could hold to this, to an extent, we would have a tighter bond, with more effective results.

So, good teams keep playing really strong, but remember the underdog! Competition is what keeps FIRST alive, but in order to have effective competition, we all must be active players. If we aren’t, Joe’s example comes into play: The better teams are the better players, and everyone else become discouraged and goes home.

I apologize for the rambling. Take it is as you will, nuke it from space, etc.

Cody, Why can’t we be impacted by both? Why can’t we be impacted my the time we spend designing and building the robot as much as we are impacted my hearing thousands of people cheer for our robot in the finals or walking up to receive an award for the robot we have built?

To compete without building a robot… would you please explain this to me?

Competition is, as was said by many people greater than both of us, a means for FIRST to convey it’s message. Tell a first year team member that you are going to build a robot that isn’t going to compete, let me know how long it takes for him to walk out of the room or off of the team. That is not inspiration at work.

Your partially right, it isn’t about getting the gold… it’s about building the best robot that you believe you can.

^^^^^^^ That is what it is all about.