FRC 3201 Innovation Challenge 2021 Megathread

FRC 3201 | 2021 FIRST Innovation Challenge Journey


FIRST Robotics Competition team 3201, Ross Rambotics, is excited for the brand new FIRST Innovation Challenge presented by Qualcomm. This challenge shares many similarities with both the FIRST LEGO League Challenge Innovation Project and the FIRST Tech Challenge & FIRST Robotics Competition robot aspects. Students will continue to grow in STEM knowledge and technical skills while utilizing the FIRST Core Values and working as a team to develop solutions. At the same time, this process calls upon an important subset of skills less present in the other aspects of FIRST.

Because of the differences between the traditional competition and the FIRST Innovation Challenge, it seems many teams are at a loss for where to start. This thread serves as a place for team 3201 to document its process, share pointers, and answer questions about the challenge. We make no promises as to the frequency, consistency, or detail of updates, but will try to keep things up-to-date.


Approximately half a dozen team members will be focusing their efforts on the FIRST Innovation Challenge this season. Most have had extensive active involvement in the FIRST LEGO League Innovation Project, with experienced members from Snakebytes (FLL 357) and Global Innovation Award Runners-Up LEGO Legion (FLL 2751). As such, we feel qualified to provide advice and best practices, but at the same time, we’re still learning too and appreciate your feedback.

Initial Impressions

Innovation Challenge versus Innovation Project

We’ve already drawn some comparisons between the FIRST Innovation Challenge and the FIRST LEGO League Innovation Project, but how similar are they, really?

FIRST Innovation Challenge FIRST LEGO League Innovation Project
Core “Prompt” 2020/2021 “Identify a problem or opportunity and design a solution to help people (or a community of people) keep, regain, or achieve optimum physical and/or mental health and fitness through active play or movement.” “Identify a specific problem linked to people not being active enough. Research your problem and your solution ideas. Design a new piece of technology or improve an existing one. Make a model or prototype to show how your solution helps people be active. Share your solution, collect feedback, and iterate on your design. Pitch your solution at an event.”
Initial Timeline 2 Months 4-6 Months
Pre-Interview Submissions Title
10-Word Description
Executive summary:
- Problem/Opportunity (200 Words)
- Solution (200 Words)
- Technology (100 Words)
Judging/Interview Session 2 Minute Pitch
3 Minute Presentation
10 Minute Q & A
5 Minute Presentation
5 Minute Q & A
Judging Emphasis Problem or Opportunity
Business Model
Innovation Impact
Business Pitch
Advancement/Awards 2-4 GIA Semi-Finalists per GROUP
20 GIA Finalists per Program
6 GIA Awards per Program
~400 GIA Nominees Worldwide
20 GIA Semi-Finalists
2 GIA Runners-Up, 1 Winner (overall)


As you can see above, one of the largest differences between the challenges is the amount of time teams will have until their first judging session. FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition teams have fewer than 2 months until the March 4 deadline for submitting the Executive Summary, and interviews will presumably take place shortly after. Meeting such a tight schedule requires careful planning, so that you don’t get stuck with half a solution.

To plan out our progression, we have created a Gantt chart documenting when we need to be focusing on what. Break the process into milestones (selecting a problem, selecting a solution, writing a pitch, etc.) and work backward from your “drop-dead” submission date of March 4. Break larger goals into more granular tasks when you see fit. Make sure to leave plenty of breathing room and be prepared to adjust your timing if when things go wrong.

Framing the Challenge

Identify a problem or opportunity and design a solution to help people (or a community of people) keep, regain, or achieve optimum physical and/or mental health and fitness through active play or movement.

There is an enormous set of viable solutions and worthy opportunities within the domain of the challenge prompt, and wrapping your head around it all is understandably difficult. Let’s examine some different ways we can break these down into more manageable chunks.

Fitness: The Problem or The Solution?

The words “health,” “fitness,” and “activity,” are so inextricably linked that this prompt can easily turn into one big pile of mush where fitness pervades everything. A careful reading, however, reveals that kept, regained, or achieved physical and/or mental health and fitness is the ultimate goal (ba dum tss) whereas active play or movement is simply the means to get there. Having a solution that keeps people active and moving is great, but consider the underlying problem: what specific improvement are you bringing to your target market’s health and fitness.

Your Market

The more specific the end user of your innovative solution, the better you can target its features and user experience. As early as possible, you need to identify the market who presents the problem or opportunity. We find it helpful to generate a list of both types of potential users and specific categories of pain points they may have. A snippet of that may look something like this:

Your solution should offer a unique value proposition (selling point) for each pain point you attempt to solve.

Elephants and Riders

Our lead mentor introduced students to a concept from the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s a very useful model to think about human behavior challenges, and what part of the problem you are approaching. After all, the FIRST Innovation Challenge is all about changing things.

The core analogy of the book is an elephant and its rider on a journey. The Elephant is massive, stubborn, and impulsive. The Rider is logical but struggles to retain control-- they analyze problems, but sometimes to the point of paralysis. The Path is winding and full of pitfalls.

To create change, you must:

  • Direct the Rider (the rational mind) by pointing to the destination and reducing mental clutter.
  • Motivate the Elephant (the emotional mind) by invoking feelings and connecting emotionally.
  • Shape the Path (the environment) by removing distractions and removing obstacles.

Visual Representation

2 Minute Explanation Video

Tackling all three aspects at once is a grand challenge indeed. Reflect on how your problems and solutions fit into this context and consider simplifying your approach to address just one of the factors (Rider, Elephant, or Path). You don’t need to improve all to bring about positive change.

Next Time

Next time we’ll be sharing about how we conduct research interviews and the questions you should be asking to get to the heart of the problem. Until then, best of luck in your own FIRST Innovation Challenge journey; if we can be of assistance, give us a shout here or at


Welcome back to another installment of FIRST Innovation Challenge, the part of the competition that still has absolutely nothing to do with LEGO bricks.

Now that you’ve generated a list of potential problems or opportunities to explore; potentially have an inkling of your solution; or have even narrowed your options down to one or two top choices, it’s time to research to validate your ideas and guide your process moving forward.


Research Avenues


Most of you probably started your search with good ol’ Google, and I don’t blame you! The world wide web and its physical counterparts, libraries and librarians, are fantastic resources that will open up a plethora of content at your fingertips. Scour all the places you’d think to look-- news articles, corporate and non-profit websites, blogs-- but then dig deeper using tools like Google Scholar.

Scientific publications and government agencies are some of the best sources you’ll come across. Any peer-reviewed journal worth its salt will present rigorously tested data you can use for your calculations and (comparably) unbiased conclusions. If the research is relevant to what you’re exploring, consider reaching out to the authors for clarification or an interview (which we’ll discuss in a moment). A word of advice: read the abstract and consider skimming the paper before settling down to look over it in depth. An afternoon spent trying to grasp an 80-page document that’s way over your head or proves next to useless for your purposes is not a particularly pleasant or motivating experience.

Your Google Scholar search may also yield some results for patents. Take this a step further by continuing the search directly via Google Patents, which includes 87 million patents from 17 patent offices around the globe, or via the United States Patent and Trademark Office itself. If your team is outside the United States, visit the patent office website of your own country for more tailored guidance.

Expert Interviews

We’ve found interviewing experts to be the single most helpful type of research FIRST teams can conduct. Although facility tours and in-person chats are probably out of the question, the current pandemic situation has made virtual conversations with people across the world easier and more commonplace than ever. Start with local resources and direct connections, but don’t limit yourself geographically or otherwise.

Our first interview for the season, which occurred tonight, was with Mr. Zeb Acuff, a Planning Administrator working for the Butler County Department of Development. Butler County and the City of Hamilton are working hard to make their communities more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, so we spoke to Zeb about how the Planning Division encourages activity and movement through their design of public spaces.

Random Note

Does that sound like a City Shapers topic? Certainly! There has been a lot of overlap between FIRST LEGO League Innovation Project topics over the year. Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of the challenge that’s been placed before you, but do be ready to defend why your idea meets, nay, exemplifies, the criteria.

We are very interested in focusing on people (or a community of people) that have motivation and a desire to be active, but face barriers in doing so, and finding a way to remove one or more of those barriers. To that end, we’ve reached out to prosthetists working with amputees; amputees themselves; physical therapists; and healthcare workers caring for elderly patients or those facing disabilities that impede their activity.

Still not sure who to talk to? The best options depend on your team’s unique circumstances, but some of our most revealing conversations have been with experts from:

  • Universities (University of Cincinnati, Miami University)
  • Federal Government Agencies (NASA, EPA)
  • Local Governments (Cities, Townships)
  • Innovative Corporations (OXO)
  • Startups (Aquisense, Kinetic Vision)
  • Patent Attorneys
  • Researchers
  • Medical Professionals

Reaching out to these people may make you uncomfortable (read: terrified). “I don’t want to bother them.” “They won’t be helpful.” “We’re just a bunch of kids.” “What if they say no?” “What if they invalidate our ideas?” I totally understand. I still get jittery doing this. However, the worst they can do is say no, and the best they can do is (kindly) say you’re wrong. Trust me, it’s a whole lot better than blindly forging down a pointless road.

The initial email need not be long. Introduce the team and FIRST. Briefly explain what you’re researching and why they can help. Ask a couple specific questions they can answer via email (an easy task) and ask about the possibility of scheduling a phone or video call (higher commitment). This provides options for the effort they can invest (see, I paid attention in psychology class) and hopefully yields at least something. Who knows, that email may become a full blown partnership. You won’t know if you don’t ask.


Surveys can be helpful to refine your ideas, but wield them carefully. They are best saved for when you have a clear direction for your idea, can ask specific questions of specific people, and the information is not available otherwise.

Learn more about the uses and pitfalls of surveys in this webinar we presented in collaboration with Droids Robotics (FRC 8027):

Documenting your Findings

Find a way to keep track of your sources that’s more reliable than a frantic search through your browser history. A shared Google Doc with at least some organization (chronologically, by topic, etc.) should do. Include a link or title that will allow you to find the source later and a sentence or two of key takeaways or quotes. This is not the time for a beautifully cited bibliography. Yes, consider compiling a nice one-page outline of your main sources. Maybe even have easy access to print-outs of articles or (for virtual judging) digital copies. Early in the process, though, you’ll only be wasting your energy trying to build an immaculately curated list.

All the Wrong Right Questions

The goal of this early research, particularly in speaking with experts, is to dig to the heart of a problem and unlock the framework for a solution that will solve the problem for your intended audience. Unfortunately, just asking “What’s your problem?” will yield more funny looks than helpful replies.

Usually, once the conversation gets going, a natural progression will drive it onwards. To kick things off, consider asking a more nuanced question like:

  • How do you think technology will influence [this field] in the next 10 years?
  • What’s your least favorite part of your job?
  • What’s a concrete problem you need help solving?
  • What’s the tool/technology you always wished you had?

Clearly, not all those questions will be appropriate in all situations. Some people are on board with what you’re doing, but can’t seem to think of anything for you to improve upon; others are happy to dump all their problems at your feet. If you’re still collecting ideas far and wide, you’ll need a different approach than if you’re looking for feedback on a particular solution. Often, letting the conversation meander leads to a spark of inspiration when you least expect it.

Next Time

We’ll be sharing highlights from our conversation with Zeb, how it has influenced the options we are pursuing, and more.


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