I am an FRC lead mentor in a small school (320 students 9-12) and our team has been involved since 2013. An administrator has asked me to explore expanding our robotics program to the middle school (either 5-8 or 7-8). For those of you with experience, what are the advantages of FLL vs. FTC? I have almost zero experience with either program and don’t plan on running this new team as all of my time is focused on our FRC team of over 30 students each year.
The school is basically looking to me for advice on where they should go. How do these programs compare in terms of cost, manageability, mentor time commitment, etc… specifically speaking about a start-from-zero team. We have tools, a store room, hardware and parts for FRC, but that is about it.
I would appreciate any input I could get. Thanks in advance!
Yes, I guess open to any and all suggestions. What is the best option?
We do have some Vex parts for PLTW classes and Clawbot kit for freshman science classes.
As a lead or assistant currently on FLL, FTC, and FRC teams I would suggest FLL if it will be associated with middle school only. Unless your state restricts FTC to middle school, your middle schoolers will often be competing against team of high schoolers. FTC is typically only 7th and up (though my team allows 6th grade) whereas FLL is designed for and accommodates 4th-8th grade.
FTC materials, tools, etc would overlap a lot with what you may already be working with in FRC. FLL would require a LEGO robot and some spare parts to purchase, but not really any tools. There will be some overlap with equipment and such with FTC, which may be nice as a stepping stone to your high school program. I see the programming and problem-solving structure in FLL as lined up nicely with the progression into FRC.
I will say I’m also a parent of a 7th grader, and encouraged my kid to opt for FLL over FTC. I think the structure, competitive level, programming skills, and soft skills emphasized are great preparation for FRC. So if you want a middle school only program with FRC in high school? My vote is for FLL. If you’re in a state with a robust FTC program and want to share training and equipment between teams? Maybe FTC is better.
I think time commitment is similar. FLL season starts in August, FTC in mid-September. FTC probably requires more technical mentoring like FRC, whereas FLL is intentionally very hands-off for the coaches. Both programs cost considerable less than FRC. Both have team size caps: 10 for FLL and 15 for FTC.
I feel like FTC is sorta like a high school program dumped on middle schoolers, due to FIRST’s progression of programs. In my experience, it was hard on my mentors and the longest any of them lasted was 2 years. After talking to a few other area highly esteemed FRC teams the consensus seemed that Vex was better for middle schoolers.
I’ll answer a question you didn’t really ask…
Expand to grades 5-8 if you can. There’s a ton of benefits:
- Opportunity for a larger team
- Or a larger pool to pull from if you need to limit the size
- More years for students to learn and progress
- More students with access to a program
If you go the 5th-8th grade route, FTC is technically probably not off the table, but I do think that FLL is the way to go, at least between those two programs. I don’t have as much experience with VRC and VEX’s other programs, but it’s worth exploring depending on where you land.
FLL is cool because you can have multiple teams if your program grows (requirement of 2-10 students per team; many teams run well in the 4-8 student range). As I’m writing this, though, that’s technically true with FTC and VEX, too.
I suppose I’d look at:
- Your budget
Your time commitment (how often do you plan on having team meetings? will all members come to all meetings? – FLL can be highly successful once or twice a week; successful FTC teams often meet more)
Your space (any of these programs can be done in a standard classroom; an FLL field is the size of a large table while an FTC field needs to be set up on the floor and has a larger footprint, if you build one)
I believe it was Don Bossi that said all it takes to mentor on FLL team is knowing how to order pizza. That’s very true. It’s not meant to be pejorative. Rather, FLL is designed for elementary and middle school students. Adults, even with a completely nontechnical background, can learn with the students. The same argument can be made for any educational robotics program, but it’s especially true with FLL.
Funny enough I did my Interactive Qualifying Project at WPI on this very thing (albeit VRC vs FLL). Feel free to check it out here and let me know if you have any questions!
I would suggest going with FLL for the following reasons.
- No tools other than an FLL table are required. This can be shared between 2 or 3 teams.
- Low starting costs and low ongoing costs. The Lego parts can be reused each year and it is very rare for them to get damaged.
- For most students, it is more approachable since more students have some familiarity with Lego than with hand tools and power tools.
- The teams can meet pretty much anywhere that a 4 ft x 8 ft table can be located.
- The younger students generally do not have the maturity and attention span to handle the more complex programming languages used in FTC.
While it is true that virtually any adult can supervise an FLL team, even if they have no prior experience. If the team members (or more likely, the parents) have higher aspirations, the coach/mentor will require quite a bit of technical knowledge about sensor used, navigational techniques, building techniques and game analysis, just like in FTC and FRC. This is very evident by the many posts on the “FLL Challenge: Share and Learn” facebook page asking about “why doesn’t the robot drive straight?” and “why isn’t the robot able to complete X task consistently?”
If you can develop a (series of ) FLL team that can perform at the higher levels, the team members will become valuable members of your FRC team. I have seen many of the members of the top local FLL teams go on to significant leadership roles in several of the stronger FRC teams.
We have both FLL and FTC in our middle school. If you have 5th through 8th have you considered FLL for 5th & 6th and FTC for 7th & 8th?
You’re then running 2 programs rather than 1. Twice the competitions and almost twice the obligations. Start smaller then build it up.
I would suggest FLL as well. It’s a lot more intuitive to students right out the gate. Lower overhead in terms of mentors and resources. Easier to let students “loose” on a project if you are low on mentors or parent involvement. Once you have that, you can upgrade. IMO, FLL is also easier for your FRC students to help mentor.
So…We run an FTC team open to 8th graders, and FLL teams for 6th and 7th. Our FLL teams are mentored in part by our FRC kids, and we use FTC to help with retention and for training for FRC. Or at least that is how it started. The 8th graders bus over to the high school for the FTC meetings. Originally I was supposed to only mentor FTC for 2 years and then someone else was supposed to take over. (Ha! who was I kidding. ) the only real sucky part is the small overlap between FTC and FRC. It does help to build up my FRC program, because we have a pipeline of kids with some experience working with robots, and it helps to build a reputation.
If I had it to do all over again, I would have started with FLL and built up from there instead of from the top down like we did.
I would say the key thing is to get other people to help with mentoring the other programs.
Hope this helps.
I would agree that its a big jump to go from 0 programs to 2 but the OP also indicated possibly having a relatively large grade range. If they end up with 5th through 8th FTC may be too challenging for the 5th graders and I would expect the 8th graders to not be challenged by FLL in their 4th year. We built our program up over multiple years, currently we have FLL in 4th and 5th (elementary school), FLL in 6th and 7th (middle school), and FTC in 8th. We tried just 6th for FLL with 7th and 8th FTC for a couple years and found the kids really benefitting from the extra year in FLL.
If I was only starting 1 it would probably be 5th - 7th FLL and move the 8th graders up to FRC early
As someone who participated in FLL from 5th-8th grade and then proceeded to coach FLL teams with that same range, I disagree. I don’t think there’s a ceiling one hits after two or three years of FLL. In fact, as a college graduate and working professional, I’d say I still learn a ton when helping kids with FLL.
I’m all in favor of letting middle school students get a taste of FRC, too, but they’re not mutually exclusive.
Yes. The more accomplished FLL teams build robots and mechanisms that are at least as sophisticated as the robots the more accomplished FRC teams build. In many cases, they are more sophisticated and complicated because there are many more different tasks to perform so more mechanisms are needed and it is ALL autonomous. Have a look in the FLL area at Championship (Houston or Detroit) and you will be amazed.
I’m working on this question too, we’re helping the county library system roll out FIRST programs at their branches. I talked with our executive director for Georgia for some recommendations. She really likes the Michigan model, where FTC is in the middle schools and FRC is the high school program. Before GA First could help guide program adoption, the schools started adopting programs. We ended up with FTC as a high school program and FLL at middle school. Now elementary schools are FLL. That creates another problem, student retention. Doing FLL from 3rd-8th grade, students start dropping out in 7th & 8th grade for doing the same program for so long or because the “big kids in middle school don’t want to keep doing the competition with elementary school kids”.
I’d like to do FTC for middle school at the libraries, but I don’t think it will be as much fun/fair for 6-8 graders going to a competition where everyone is in high school. Due to the number of teams we’re starting at the library, I’m talking with our FTC program coordinator to see if we could get a league for just middle school teams. If they win and advance to states, they’d have to play against high school. In this model, at least they’d have a more level playing field in their league. If I can’t get that, then I’ll look at VEX or another program for the middle school.
Here’s what I’m looking at for our progression
3rd - 5th : FLL
6th - 8th : FTC
9th - 12th : FRC
The only thing that might change with that is 6th grade. I’m considering moving 6th grade to FLL since a couple of local middle schools are doing that too. They added VEX for 7th and 8th grades. FLL is great and you can learn a lot of things that carry over all the way to FRC. But, FTC and FRC are more interactive since you get to drive the robot and play on the same field as the opposing teams. Just be aware of what’s going on in your state and FLL burn out for students being in the program for 4 or 5 years.
At our school we have been running an FLL(4th-6th) an FTC(7th-8th) and FRC(9th-12th) since 2009.
I have made changes to the FLL and FTC programs through the years as student cohorts change. Initially we had FLL up to 8th grade. This proved to be problematic as the kids were getting board once 7th and 8th grade came around. I decided to add the FTC program for grades 7th - 8th and this really changed the minds and motivation for students.
I have my FRC team train down and mentor the FLL and FTC teams during their build seasons. Through the years when the kids get to FRC they tell stories of previous FRC team members mentoring them and they are really excited to do the same.
In a regular year my FRC team will host an FLL tournament. The team runs the entire event from start to finish. I will also bring in my FTC team to be ambassadors and lead the FLL teams from one event to the next. This really brings the district together as a whole for robotics. It also provides a pipeline of kids coming into each program once they age out. Also, each kid has an understanding of what FIRST is and it’s benefits.
So, I would really recommend the FTC program for 7th and 8th grade. After having two years at that level, they come to FRC with some early knowledge and can hit the ground running with little training.
It is unfortunate that a lot of programs limit participation in FLL to 2 to 3 years. I have noticed that most of the very accomplished FLL teams take at least 3 years to reach their stride. By this, I don’t mean that they just win a tournament. There are areas where the competition is weak and the winning team scores less than half the maximum possible score. I am referring to teams that can score 75 to 80% of the maximum possible score, consistently, and can create an exemplary Innovation Project. They don’t get lucky in the Robot Game. Some of them get patents for their Innovation Project solutions. They are the 118’s, 254’s, 1678’s, 1114’s and 2056’s of the FLL world.
In the international markets, outside of the U.S. and Canada, participants are allowed to be up to 16 years old. Many of those teams perform at this amazingly high level because of the experience they gain over 4 to 6 years of competition.
I would recommend doing a bit of research as to what other middle schools in your geographic area are doing. Finding a competition with robust local support will often lead to the best experience.
Michigan FTC coach here for 5 years - Our state PDP restricts FTC to Middle School and here are some pros and cons of starting a middle school program:
FTC kids come in to FRC knowing TONS and are day #1 contributors
Ability for local league play.
30 sec autonomous.
Super fun. My kids like the robot competitions.
Finding mentors. For some reason, people who do a great job and tackle FLL with no problems, nope right out of FTC. We haven’t figured out if it is the age group, the complexity or what. We are lucky that our state does FTC in the fall - so our FRC mentors and students really help out. If you have a co-current season with FRC - you may be out of luck.
Budget. We have 3 teams of FTC and our budget rivals that of FRC. You can do it cheaper, but we often purchase kits to make up for mentor skill deficits. FLL is an order of magnitude cheaper.
Middle schoolers often don’t have the math or programming background to do things on their own. We have to show them basic stuff and that takes time.
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