So, I’ve lurked for awhile, as seems to be the appropriate thing for fora, having spent a little over a year reading CD since being press-ganged into robotics mentorship by some parents at my school site.
By and large, it has been a mostly positive experience for my team (and me), where I’ve learned a lot about my students, became a better teacher, etc. (all the typical things that come with this sort of activity). As I tell people, I went into FIRST coaching not knowing jack about robotics, and have learned everything I know over the past year from our industry mentors, resources here, and from being effectively autodidactic.
One thing that bothers me (out of the many things that bother me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in these) is how hard it is to get a team off of the ground and keep it there, at least in terms of the main obstacle: money.
I notice that CD and FIRST are full of enthusiastic people who genuinely want you to succeed in creating a robotics team as an effective enticement for young people to want to enter tech. I will give Dean Kamen credit: he stands out from the rest of the current crop of multi-millionaire education “reformers” in that I’ve never heard him touting the (non-existent) benefits of for-profit schools or a voucher system; rather, he appears to value educators and their knowledge of children, as well as appreciating the unique relationship we have with our students. He seems pretty down-to-earth for an incredibly rich guy (granted, my experience might be colored by the fact that I live in San Francisco, where “affluence”, “self-entitlement”, and the tech industry seem to go hand-in-hand), and, like him, FIRST seems like an all-around nice organization, full of genuine people.
I understand that FIRST is partly an attempt to get students experience with operating in a business-like setting, and I value that; however, the business-like atmosphere is also quite cut-throat, and not at all conducive to the creativity necessary to building an effective robot(ics team). I see teams that have been in existence for almost two decades, whose sponsorship lists are pages long, and who receive the grants that are worth thousands of dollars.
If you’re a rookie (or sophomore) team (like mine), however, there exists no provision to keep you in business while you struggle to learn, the hard way, all the lessons that other teams already have. My question is, why isn’t there? Why is there not an enormous pot of money, offering sufficient funding to any interested team that would pay for more than just the (astronomical) cost of the K.o.P. and regionals, but also for the incidentals (such as tools, lodging, materials, transportation, and team-building events) that really amount to the lion’s share of the cost? Additionally, why doesn’t FIRST provide training in the very things necessary to wean teams off of the teat: grant-writing expertise, training in cold-calling and sales skills, and assistance in matching with interested mentors? By and large, these processes seem decidedly unscientific; rather, they appear to rely on the same networks of white male privilege that we’re ostensibly attempting to dismantle with gender-blind STEAM education.
The networking skills that might come naturally to a businessperson don’t automatically come so easily to an academic. The predominant attitude, however, seems to be one of “the resources are there, if you want them”, accompanied by a hand-wave; this seems to be as problematic as telling the poor that they aren’t rich because they don’t want it badly enough.
So I’m not just a nattering nabob of negativity, I’ll include a suggestion: FIRST needs to do more to partner with local businesses that would be interested in supporting a robotics team, and have mentors that they can offer any team that is interested. In my case, in SF, then local businesses would include Google, Apple, and the other Silicon Valley heavy hitters; rather than leaving it up to overwhelmed instructors to find the right combination of an effective plea for aid and a sympathetic ear in the call center, FIRST could assist us by matching us with mentors in all of the pertinent fields, including the business side. Match us with people who are effective grant-writers, and then teach us (and our students) how to do it. This is a much better solution than the current one, where a masochistic attitude akin to that of Calvin’s dad seems to be predominant. I can see the value of struggle, but I can also see an empirical difference between “struggle” and “repeatedly banging your head against a brick wall”, which seems to be the current scenario for many teams that are still in their first few years.
My second gripe is specifically dated to this year; FIRST completely bungled my team’s K.o.P. shipment to our Kickoff site. My initial purchase order somehow was never recognized on their end, so when they credited my school’s check, all of the first choice parts were already gone, and shipment of my K.o.P. to my Kickoff site was cancelled. Through the diligent effort on the part of several employees in the AR department (and some tenacity on mine), they agreed to recognize the date on the original P.O., and to ship me the K.o.P. for a waived cost…but the option to have my K.o.P. picked up at Kickoff was no longer available. They informed me that they simply couldn’t ship an extra kit out.
I was incredulous. They had messed up my order, but they couldn’t find a way to fix it? I find it doubtful that an organization such as FIRST doesn’t have the ability to drop-ship a single extra K.o.P. Everyone to whom I spoke was coolly sympathetic; they could “appreciate my situation”, but not a single one could “speak to” the bungling up of the situation, nor was there “anything that [they] could do” for me.
Who has a high enough contact in FIRST to actually effect change? I’m not asking for heads to roll, it’s simple human error, which I can understand; however, I’m frustrated that human error will cause me to lose however many days during build season as it will take for my K.o.P. to arrive. I’d like some sort of restitution, besides empty promises to “look into the problem” for next year.
Thanks, fellow CD’ers, for all you do.