Improvements for FIRST: first a gripe, then a suggestion

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.

I have one single counter question–I’ll explain why after I ask it.

What is the name of your FIRST Senior Mentor, and do you have that person’s contact information? Perhaps more importantly, do they have yours?

Why do I ask that? Because part of the Senior Mentor’s job just so happens to include being that “point person” to direct corporate resources to teams, and teams to corporate resources.

If you can’t answer the question

You’re in the San Fransisco area. Go to http://www.usfirst.org/regional-contacts and search for FRC in California-Northern–scroll to the bottom of the list, and send an email

By the way, informing the Senior Mentor about the KOP experience may also help get word up the line. (If Frank (FRC Director) or Collin (FRC Teams Advocate) haven’t seen this thread already, that is…)

I feel like this will get a bad reception here, but I don’t think it should.
FIRST doesn’t have a pot of gold tucked away somewhere. That’s why new teams don’t get tons of money. It’s unfortunately up to them to seek help from other more experienced teams on how to get sponsors. It’s just life.

I’m sure that, at some point, someone had mentioned to me about the Senior Mentor thing, but it was probably at a time when I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to absorb any new information. That is very helpful, and I will be reaching out to them, so I appreciate the information, EricH.

http://www.usfirst.org/aboutus/annual-report-and-financials

Teri is awesome. The entire group running NorCal FRC is fantastic. Get to know them, they are very helpful, understanding, and fun people.

I understand that FIRST may not be rolling in dough, serving by-and-large as a delivery vehicle for the various games that fall under its aegis. But my feelings still are/were (before I learned about the community mentor thing) that it should be doing a lot more to match teams with mentorship and resources, even if it is not, itself, the source of all this wealth.

My rejoinder, which is not aimed at you, asid61, but at the community (or society at large), is: why is that? Our team received an enormous amount of help from our mentor last year, and especially from the other established team in our city (Team 4159, CardinalBotics), which was invaluable, and without which we wouldn’t have been able to survive. I feel, however, that the mentorship aspect, of taking younger teams under your wing and aiding them, would for the most part remain intact, even if a rookie team’s attendance at meets was monetarily guaranteed. In fact, I feel like eliminating the constantly looming specter of an empty treasury would help many teams to do better in competition.

Have there ever been studies on the survival rates for teams going into their second (and third, and fourth, and seventh) years?

I would guess that FIRST hasn’t implemented something like this for the same reason that you didn’t indicate how exactly it could be done. That reason being that it is incredibly hard to execute a plan like that where teams are able to be matched with “high quality” mentors. How do you vet out a “high quality” mentor? What do you do with all the “mediocre” mentors that come to FIRST wanting to help?

I would suggest that you work on one of the other bits of advice that FIRST often gives. Reach out to local teams / local mentors. Like 20, at least. The people with the skills you are looking for exists, and they are working on the successful teams around you. For instance, it took our team months of trying to figure out who to write grants before we found out that a mentor on an old team in our area is a teacher who is hugely successful grant writer. If I had bothered to write an email to NCFIRST, our regional director, or senior mentors I could have had the person’s contact information in a matter of days.

I see. I believe that we currently mentor the Aztechs, or at least we did in the past. Not sure if we do now.
Having a program in place to force or at least entice teams to support new teams would be great, I think. Actively helping them with sponsors, or at least with more hands-on.

I haven’t spent a lot of time reading financial reports… For the 2013-2014 report, I assume that their actual profit that they have free is that $1,312,577 under operating surplus?

I do understand that that isn’t a lot of money, when it comes to buying supplies.

Eric pretty much summed it up - Teri Benart, our NorCal senior mentor, is a fantastic person who can definitely help you with your problems.

While I personally don’t have any more advice requiring gaining monetary sponsors, I do have lots of experience on building competitive robots on a tight budget, and while I no longer live in San Jose I am well informed on FIRST in the Silicon Valley, so feel free to message me if you ever need help designing a robot for a low resource team, or if you want to know nearby teams you can contact for help. I’ve got tons of friends on experienced FRC teams in the bay area who would be more than happy to personally help you with fundraising and the build season, and I’d love to introduce you and your team to them if you’re interested.

Edit: Regarding your note about the difficulty of newer teams staying alive - it is a well known issue that FIRST (especially FIRST in California, I’ve found) has a strong push for the development of new teams, when often times some areas cannot even support the teams they already have. This leaves second to third year teams helpless as the new rookies get all the attention from FIRST. The best I can say is that it will be a lot better when California moves to the district system (and I hear that’s real soon).

A great resource is also http://www.firstnemo.org (full disclosure, this is an organization co-founded by two senior mentors, one of whom is my mother)

They also have a forum subsection here on CD which you can utilize. They have amazing resources and white papers dedicated to helping teams find ways to gain money.

Last year my team struggled immensely as a 4th year team, barely getting funds to register, let alone build a robot. We had no access to rookie or sustaining grants. Contact your senior mentor in your area, or your regional director. They are both great sources to help you out locally!

I think part of the problem with this is one of scale. I would wager that most teams are in the same “worried about their treasury” boat as you are and asking them to split their efforts is difficult (though I think it is something that teams should make an effort to do). Some sort of buddy system where older teams get assigned a younger team to help would be beneficial but even then, how do you ensure that the older team is effectively helping the younger? You can’t. In my years with FIRST I have been the recipient of both great help and useless help. A system of formal help would be nice, but even then it couldn’t be any better than hit and miss.

Also remember that “good”/“successful” teams are often occupied year round with keeping their program strong. They would likely have even less free time to help than others would.

Have there ever been studies on the survival rates for teams going into their second (and third, and fourth, and seventh) years?

I believe somewhere around half of the rookies each year do not return for a second. I’m trying to fact check that though, take it with a grain of salt.

First in Michigan matches every rookie team with an experienced mentor team.

Not that I know about. Anecdotally, though, if a team can make it to and through their 5th year they’ll generally do all right. (Given continued levels of involvement from students, mentors, and parents, that is.) I’d guess that most teams fail in about their third year, or when their primary grant is no longer available.

I’d say “not quite” on the first part (NASA’s continuing grants, also better networks within the community), but that’s pretty close. I generally place it at Year 4 being the toughest if you haven’t done your groundwork in your first three.

The second part… Let’s just say that I’m hearing something different, and leave it at that. Though I would really love to be wrong!

Yeah, he’s in California. That’s a really great program for teams in Michigan though. I’m thinking he can achieve the same result by sending a couple of emails or making a couple calls to contacts in his area. It doesn’t have the same prestige as a formal system, but hopefully it could still be effective.

First, thank you for giving your time to the students, it is a tremendous undertaking.

I am a second year teacher after spending almost 22 years in the USAF. I was blessed to find employment as an engineering teacher and FRC coach with TEAM Fusion 364. While Fusion 364 has been around for 15 years, we are always needing mentors and additional funding. Last year I saw students that took the team for granted and didn’t respect our resources, I’m trying to help the students gain team ownership by giving each of them fundraising goals.

BTW, money is not your main obstacle to keeping the team going, it is energy. As long as your team has the energy to keep going, you will find the money.

As an educator, you should be the grant writing expert. If not, I guarantee your school district has people that can help you. I usually submit a new grant request every 2-4 weeks. The time in between is spent researching new grants. It is a lot of work, but it is what I signed up for.

I’m now going to give you two life lessons that have taken root over the course of my life.

  1. “If your not early, then you are late.” We called this Lombardi Time in the USAF, you have to plan for the unexpected. If you wait until the last minute and things go wrong you are out of luck. Be early!

  2. “Follow-up, is the key to success.” You can’t think that because you did your part, that everything is done. You have to follow-up to ensure the completion of the task, to the point of doing others jobs for them.

It reads to me that your KOP problem could have been prevented by following these two simple rules.

Many of the resources you requested in your post currently exist, but you (or your team) have to take the time to find them and use them. The spirit of FIRST is represented to me best in the old proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” We are about teaching, not giving. The “how to” is everywhere, you just have to teach and manage the “doing”; the key is motivating the kids to do it.

You need to shed the “academic” label and become a leader, if you are going to lead a FRC team.

We’re a small team in Vermont and struggle every year just to make enough to pay for one regional (now districts). We’ve been doing this since 2008, and even now if one of our two main sponsors leave, I really don’t know how we would do it. We’ve done fundraisers, approached businesses, partnered with local schools. It’s terribly frustrating, but at the same time I can’t imagine not doing FRC.

When you see some of the other teams with massive resources, tons of kids, business plans, and everything else, it can get overwhelming and you think you’ll never get there. Sometimes you think it’s just not fair your kids don’t get to use a water jet, or can’t afford swerve modules. But in the end, we all struggle to finish, we all run into issues, and the really great teams give us something to look up to. I can’t tell you it gets easier, but I can tell you that you will get better at doing it.

This is something I think every mentor frets about. Some have less to worry about financially, but other issues are on their mind. I do wish there was more recognition for smaller teams. I know from our experience that coming home with an award, any award, makes fundraising for us easier. It’s much better to walk into a business and tell them how well your team does and how it has received awards. So there is value in smaller teams getting some sort of recognition from FIRST. Something to keep in mind.

I think it would be great for struggling teams to get help, I just don’t know how that would happen. In the meantime, keep up the good fight.

In addition to contacting the FIRST Senior Mentor for your area, FIRST has a resource to help teams raise funds called the FIRST Fundraising Toolkit. It can be found at http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/first-fundraising-toolkit. It was created by Renee Becker-Blau, Executive Director of InF, and I’m sure she would be happy to answer any toolkit question you may have. You can contact her at rbecker (at) usfirst.org.

Rookie teams are getting much needed support, but it’s 2nd and 3rd year teams are struggling to survive. FIM has been actively working to get State grants for all, kudos to them.