Heartwarming Robotics Bedtime Stories

To help my FRC team cope with the stress associated with build season, the past couple months I have been writing short inspirational and heartwarming stories about things I have witnessed throughout the eight years I have been coaching FRC/FTC teams. Typically I would post them on the team’s Slack at night after our robotics meetings. This led people to start referring to them as “Heartwarming Robotics Bedtime Stories.”

I’ve seen firsthand just how hurt our community is right now. I saw it Monday night when my current FRC team found out that the AZ North Regional was cancelled. I saw it Thursday morning when I flew out to surprise my former team to support them at the Orlando Regional. In light of the current situation, I thought that sharing these with the broader community might help in some small way. If it helps, let me know and I can continue posting more. I would also like to encourage you all to write your own heartwarming robotics stories to post here and share with the community. In this difficult time, it’s important to remember that FIRST is more than a competition, it’s a family, and together we can get through anything. Without further ado, here is my first story.

Jeanette was a freshman high school student from a small rural community located in the Navajo Nation (AZ). Jeanette dreamed of becoming an air force pilot and working for NASA to design the next space shuttle. While she had been a member of her school’s FLL robotics team, she was disappointed to find that once she graduated 8th grade, her high school didn’t offer any extra curricular activities related to STEM, putting her dreams on hold. During her freshman year she watched a movie about four students from Carl Hayden High School, with the help of some excellent mentors, who didn’t allow other people to tell them that their dreams were too big. Their story inspired Jeanette to take her destiny into her own hands. At the end of the school year, all of the students were called in for an assembly where they determined their schedules for the following school year. For electives, the students had a number of options including gardening, photography, and drama. However, the school still didn’t offer anything related to STEM. So she got her friends together and organized a write-in campaign. The students at her school wanted robotics, and the school listened. It started as a dream, turned into a simple word written onto a piece of paper, and then turned into something a whole lot more…but that’s a tale for another night.

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These are a great idea and I would love to hear more. I’ll try to write up a few tonight that I can share.

When I worked as a summer camp counselor, the camp director would kick off each week (before the kids arrived) with a short inspirational story, either about a camp experience, or a broader Chicken-soup-for-the-soul type anecdote that he would tie back to the impact we were having on campers. It was a great way to keep our spirits up through work that was often frustrating and exhausting, and I love the idea of doing a similar thing in FRC.

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I look forward to reading your stories and I’ll make sure to continue Jeanette’s story over the next few days (It’s a good one)!

I like this story:

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That was an awesome story. Thank you for sharing!

My all time favourite moment in all my time with FRC was the story of Team Herman in 2013. To witness that in person was spectacular.

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Here’s an outstanding moment that came out of Week 1 this year:

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One from Week 2 this season: the third team on the #1 alliance at L.A. Regional had never been in playoffs before. Due to various factors they’ve seen (witnessed, watched) playoffs exactly once in their existence. They often partner with another local team due to those same factors.

They went home with a blue banner, plus medals, trophies, and a ticket (now raincheck, hopefully) for Champs. And anybody who says they were carried can just stand against the wall as the top 4 teams in that match load up and fire…

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Hi, this is my rookie year with FIRST. I would just like to tell a little story about how much it has already impacted me in the short time I’ve been on my FRC team. At the beginning of build season, I didn’t think I’d be able to do much of anything, because I had almost no engineering skills, and I’d never been on any sort of team before. Fast forward to about eight weeks later. I fell in love with FIRST, I feel like I’m truly a member of the team, and I’ve been learning so much. I recently got into programming, which I thought I’d never be able to do, with the help of our exceedingly patient mentors. I love CAD so much, and I’ve been doing some assembly and electrical (I’m very clumsy and I was almost afraid to try at all). We were fortunate enough to be able to go to a week 2 competition, and I saw only positive energy. It’s amazing to see high schoolers, college students, and even fully grown adults jumping up and down and chanting together like kids on Christmas morning. Anyways, I guess what I’m saying is that FIRST truly isn’t just the robot, it’s what you as an individual and as a team get out of the experience, including skills that are very worthwhile to have and an amazing “family”. So thank you to team 4272 and to FIRST as a whole.

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That’s a wonderful story! It’s a shame, my team was supposed to compete with the Trappers at AZ North this week. I hope that I’ll be able to meet this team one day and see the legacy that Herman built!

I have a similar story. A few years ago (maybe 2013 or 2014?) at the Orlando Regional, there was a rookie team that was in a similar situation. They had no mentors, and only a few (albeit determined) students. Their school didn’t recognize them as an official team, so they couldn’t even get off of school to attend the regional. So they show up to the regional a couple days late with an unopened kit of parts! They were true rookies and thought that you were supposed to build your robot at the competition. Their pit was next to ours and I very distinctly remember a young girl sitting in her empty pit, by herself, with a motor in one hand and a wheel in the other, tears in her eyes as she wasn’t sure how to connect the two together. It broke my heart. So my team, along with a few other veteran teams pooled all of our resources together and by Saturday morning, they had a robot that was driving on the field. That was when I learned what coopertition really meant. When potentially devastating situations like that arise, the FIRST community always seems to find a way to rally behind the students and make sure that they have a positive experience. I have a few more similar stories dealing specifically with inspiring rookie teams, but I’ll save those for another time.

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Here’s the next part of Jeanette’s story. Early on Jeanette’s class decided to turn their robotics class into a robotics team. As sign of respect for the Navajo Code Talkers, they decided to name their team the “Navajo Code Writers.” While there was plenty of enthusiasm among the group, there was one problem…they didn’t have any money for parts. As a result, Jeanette found an old vacuum cleaner and a fax machine that she took apart for parts.


Another student came up with another innovative solution. Since his community had no recycling program, he noticed that aluminum cans were piling up everywhere. So he did some research and learned how to build his own foundry using a bucket, some steel, and a pump for an air mattress.
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As a team, they started melting the cans and turning them into ingots which could then be used to cast into parts for the robot.
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This sophomore high school student was able to see that two problems could become the solution to each other, which is exactly the kind of problem solver our world needs. With a lot of hard work, the team finished the robot and journeyed to Flagstaff for their first competition, but that is a tale for another night.

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Cliffhanger: 100

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That’s amazing! Thank you for sharing!

Does anybody remember that story about the really small team with 1 mentor from the late 2000s (2008, maybe)? I vaguely recall it being mentioned but haven’t been able to find it anywhere

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Thank you for sharing!

@SergeantSpork5853, here is the next part of the story.

It was the morning of the Navajo Code Writers first competition, and everyone was a bit nervous. The team agreed to meet at 4:45 AM at the school so that their bus could leave for Flagstaff by 5 AM. Everyone was there except for one notable absence. Where was Jeanette?! She wasn’t answering her phone. Perhaps she didn’t have any reception? What if she had slept in? What if she wasn’t able to get a ride? At 5:15 AM, the team had to leave with the students who were able to make it…but it was a long drive, made longer by thoughts like, “Where is she?” The team checked-in at the competition and were relieved to see that Jeanette had arrived after all! Her family had decided to drive up together so that they could all support her and the team. Their relief was short-lived as they scouted the other teams’ robots. “Our robot is so much smaller than the others!” It was true. Their robot F.R.A.N.C.I.S. was considerably undersized and underweight compared to these Goliath-esque competitors. However, the team proved that size isn’t everything as they won their first match! As the day went on, they slowly built up more and more confidence in F.R.A.N.C.I.S. as well as their own abilities. With a lot of hard work, they made it all the way to the semi-finals! Their first semi-final match was rough. The size and weight disparity between F.R.A.N.C.I.S. and its competitors started to take its toll. The other robots ruthlessly smashed into F.R.A.N.C.I.S.! Towards the end of the match, a wheel fell off, and then another! As they pulled pieces of their robot off the field, the Code Writers were told that they only had a few minutes before their second match. Without saying anything, Jeanette carried F.R.A.N.C.I.S. out of the auditorium, found an empty table in the foyer, grabbed some tools, and got to work. F.R.A.N.C.I.S. was in bad shape. Everyone crowded around her, team members, family, and even judges. The referee was constantly reminding her that she only had a couple minutes, and then one minute, 30 seconds! The team was holding their breath, there just wasn’t enough time to attach both wheels! Jeanette knew it too, so she did the only thing that she could.
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The auditorium was silent. The second match was about to start. Where were the Navajo Code Writers? Where was F.R.A.N.C.I.S.? The door opened and the audience cheered as they saw Jeanette carrying in F.R.A.N.C.I.S., but missing one if its wheels! Knowing that there was not enough time to attach both wheels to the robot, Jeanette converted F.R.A.N.C.I.S. from a four-wheeled robot into a three-wheeled one. But would it work? Jeanette placed the robot on the field and turned it on. The match started and F.R.A.N.C.I.S. whirred to life! Off it went, scoring points just as it had before. While the team still ended up losing the match, the students walked off the stage proud knowing that they had given it their all.

During the award ceremony, the judges announced a variety of different awards. Before announcing the winners, the judges described each award and the qualifications for it. During each description, the team thought, “Hey! This sounds like us!” And each time they were passed over for another team. After countless disappointments, the judges announced that they had one more award left. And this wasn’t just any award, this was the most prestigious award offered at the competition, even more prestigious than the award for having the best robot. The winner of this award earned a place at the Arizona and New Mexico States Championship! This was the Inspire Award!

The judges had this to say about the award, “The Inspire Award is given to a team that the judges saw truly embodied the challenge of the FTC program. This team serves as an inspiration both to this program and the young minds of all. The team that receives this award has performed well in all judging categories, and was chosen by the judges as a model of FIRST Tech Challenge teams. The judges used match performance, observations made in the pit, observations made during interviews, the team’s engineering notebook, the performance on the playing field, all these things to help determine the winner.” At this point the team was thinking, “We may have had a chance at some of those other awards, but there’s no way we could win this one. After all, we’re just a rookie team from the “rez” with a robot that is falling apart and made from parts from an old fax machine. What do we know about robotics?” The judges continued, “This rookie team never gave up, even when things were breaking down. Their doors are always open to anyone, helping others to prepare, embodying gracious professionalism both on and off the field. They built some of their own parts, as well as building inspiration. The first place Inspire Award is presented to 11529, the Navajo Code Writers!” Confusion! Shock! Joy? No, not joy! Exhilaration! In an instant, a flurry of emotions swept over the team as they slowly stood, not believing what they had just heard. Immediately after Jeanette walked across the stage to accept her medal along with her teammates, she was surrounded by her family, tears in their eyes. The team had originally planned to only attend one competition, but fate had another plan in mind. The Navajo Code Writer’s season was just beginning, but that’s a tale for another night.
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My favorite moment of each event is always during the awards ceremony. The whole audience is focused on the MC reading the script that the judges have written. After announcing all of the awards, the finalists, and the winners, the only awards left to give are Engineering Inspiration and Chairman’s.

EI always garners a lot of applause (deservedly) and the anticipation builds as everyone waits to hear which team will win the Chairman’s Award.

Finally it’s time. The MC begins by describing the award. And then s/he starts reading the script provided by the Judges. It’s generally broken into 4 parts and each part narrows the field of which team is winning, with the final line being the actual team number. My eyes are scanning the crowd as the MC starts to read, looking for each of the teams that it could possibly be.

My very favorite part of the regional, after 4 long days of work and stress and my joints hurting, is when the MC reads the 3rd part of the Judge’s script. The winning team knows it’s them, but they are trying to contain themselves so as not to spoil it. There are mouths covered with hands, small yelps, tears starting, and just general unrest from the winning team - especially those team members that worked on the Chairman’s submission and presentation.

I can tell that all of the hard work, long hours, make-up school work, rehearsals, and everything else that goes into winning the Chairman’s Award all becomes worth it as the MC reads that 3rd stanza. I can’t help but smile and be proud of the program that I participated in and volunteer for. That single moment happens at each regional that I’ve been to - it doesn’t matter if it’s 36 teams or 60 teams. It doesn’t matter if the team has won 5 previous Chairman’s or none. Each and every time I see the winning team try to contain their excitement is something that is immensely special to me and I cherish it.

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Thank you for sharing your story and welcome to the FIRST community!

That’s a great description of the presentation of the Chairman’s Award! Last year our team was fortunate to earn the honor at the Arizona North Regional, and the experience was exactly as you described it. Thank you for sharing!

The story continues. A couple months later the Navajo Code Writers competed at the AZ and NM States Championship. While their robot didn’t perform as well as they would have liked, one of their team members was selected for a tremendous honor. In FIRST Robotics, individual students that represent the best of what the program has to offer may be selected for an award known as the Dean’s List Award. At this competition, Jeanette from a tiny rural town in AZ was selected from hundreds of students to represent the states of Arizona and New Mexico at the World Championship as a Dean’s List Finalist!

If you recall, Jeanette dreamed of joining the Air Force and working at NASA. However, she had never even had the chance to ride on an airplane. That all changed as she now had the opportunity to ride a plane all the way to the Championship in Houston. There she had the chance to meet one of the founders of FIRST Robotics and the man that the Dean’s List Award is named after, Dean Kamen.

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She had the chance to visit the Houston Space Center and even had a private phone call with former NASA astronaut, Terry Hart! Never in her life had her dreams seemed so close, just within her grasp.

It was a perfect trip…or so she thought. It turns out that life had one more surprise in store for her. In the most unlikely location, underneath an overpass in downtown Houston, she caught a glimpse of the man who had helped her first set down this path. It was the same man who had inspired her to write-in “robotics” on her schedule form. While she was too nervous to introduce herself, as fate would have it, she would have another chance, but that’s a story for another night.

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