Is FIRST about Robot?

I decided to start a new thread instead of hijacking other threads. There are people who thinks that FIRST is not about robot, and people/teams who want to make robots more competitive are missing the point. The person I mostly want to have this conversation with is Blake but others are welcome to chime in and have this discussion. Blake, you know we are miles apart in our opinion on a number of issues based on our past discussions. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for you and your opinion. In fact if we ever have a chance to meet, I want to sit down with you and listen to more of what you have to say. I am sure I can learn something from you.
You said in the other thread that “The on-the-field performance of teams/robots is not the central focus of the FRC program described on FIRST’s website, nor is it the thread tying together the many descriptions offered by FRC’s founders and current leaders.” Let’s examine that more closely.
This is a link to a quote from Dean Kamen and is on the FIRST website.

He said FIRST is more than robots. I think most people agree. He never said FIRST is not about robots. The program is FIRST Robotics Competition, not FIRST Robotics Science Fair and Exhibition.

The mission of FIRST is to **inspire **young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting Mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.

Engage kids in kindergarten through high school in exciting, Mentor-based, research and robotics programs that help them become science and technology leaders, as well as well-rounded contributors to society.

I highlighted what I think are key words. As the lead engineering mentor of my previous team, what was I supposed to do? Do you not want me to teach my kids all the engineering skills they need to make their robot more successful on the field? Should I only teach them but tell them not to implement it because FIRST is not all about robots? Should I not teach them how to make their robot work as they have dreamed it would? Should they not have a robot they would get excited about because it performed well on the field? I am confused.

Blake, why does on the field success and off the field success have to be exclusive. Look at the HOF teams. (I don’t know all the teams so I am only listing teams I know. I apologize not mentioning some teams.) Look at 27, 1114, 359, 341, 111, 67 and 254. They always have competitive robots too. In Michigan, there are also teams like 33, 68, 503, 1023, 2337 and others who won Chairman’s at MSC and have competitive robots every year. They are all an inspiration to me and my former team. My former team didn’t do too bad either, winning the last 4 district events as 1st pick or Alliance Captain #1. They also won Chairman’s at MSC last season.

Blake, I hope you will stop advocating that one is more important than the other. I think they are both important. I wanted my students to have the total FIRST experience and not just the robot. It does not have to be exclusive. It just takes more work. Doing one and saying the other is not important is an excuse and a disservice to the students you are trying to inspire.

I’ve learned more about humans from this program than I did robots :smiley: . I don’t think that would’ve happened with the stress, pressure, and fun of competition. Having competitive robots and events is important.
However, I believe that competition is a way to inspire students. It’s when adults get overly competitive (i.e. angry enough to swear over the outcome of a match, pushing for their own designs) that something is wrong.

Er, so I guess my answer is: FIRST is about robots only to the student.

I think the robots are a means to an end (a tool of sorts). Through building robots, we can achieve that goal that FIRST set out. The question is, how important are the robots? Look at it like any other tool - like a screwdriver needed for screwing in a screw. You need the screwdriver - it’s kinda important to get the screw fully tightened. Same thing with FIRST - you need the robots to get the inspiration. Even though many outreach events’ goals aren’t the robot itself, but spreading FIRST, what is there to show and get people interested if there isn’t a robot? That is why I think the robots are absolutely critical as a tool to achieve FIRST’s mission.

I find that this program is about the robots, only because it’s NOT about the robots. And because it’s not about the robots, it IS about the robots. To

quote from over a year ago…

This is all about the robots because it is NOT all about the robots. For better or worse, FIRST has chosen to use robotics competitions as their primary vehicle of achieving their goals. They’ve put a lot into those competitions. After the first year, they could have backed off, gone to another idea… but they stayed with it. Now… there’s no way out, for them. It has to be about the robots… because otherwise, how are they going to reach kids? It has to not be about the robots… because their purpose is not to find the best robot for X but to inspire and recognize.

It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s difficult to explain. I hope I’ve been clear enough, but if I go further I’ll be having a circular argument with myself on how it is/is not about the robots because it is not/is about the robots and all that.

And the two students above me nailed it.[/quote]

I’m sure everyone finds the stories of world class, hall of fame worthy chairman’s award winners inspiring. To me, though, it is so much more inspiring to see amazing robots on the field that other high school students built.

Well, Mr Ed Law, FIRST is about the robot in the truest sense of your question. Again, I will restate your original question:


Yes. Yes it is.

Before I delve into this, I must acknowledge that most of the members (current, past, students, and mentors) of FRC 4607 are probably gasping as they try to process the answer… “Did Jurek just state that FRC is all about the robot?”

Yes, FIRST is about the robot. Everything we do is about the robot. However, I am talking more in the literal sense. Our marketing squad, PR squad, Logistics Department, Fabrication, safety, outreach, etc. are all in place because of the robot. If it was not for the robot - my team membership would dissolve/devolve into many parts (DECA; some hobby-groups such as CAP, computer/gaming, web design, tinkerers, etc; Supermileage Challenge; Student leadership such as NHS, Student Council; theater; HS News; Yearbook; etc.).

FIRST is an organization that revolves around a robot. FRC 4607 does not become the team it is today if my former co-coach and I set out to create only a robot. We decided to forgo the importance of the robot build itself and concentrate on bringing in the best students in Becker to create an organization that would be the most inclusive activity in the school. We went after the students that were heavily involved in Student Council, Theater, Debate, Wrestling, Basketball, Civil Air Patrol, Boy Scouts, Trap, etc. We sought out kids that were interested in Welding, fabrication, hunting, D&D (and other like strategy games), racing, etc. We wanted the kids that would spend hours on their March Madness brackets, were heavily involved in Fantasy Football, etc.

We wanted the best of all in Becker. Why? Because we saw this as the matrix to pull them all together in order to reshape the culture in our school. We saw this as the vehicle to bring in students that were not tied into the school that had a lot to offer.

We knew that the kids that were interested in building a robot would join. We did not have to seek them out. These students were going to be 'all-in" no matter how we developed the team.

Four years ago we set out to reshape the culture at Becker High School with 8 students that were interested in FIRST. We started one FRC team in 2013 and had some success. In 2016 we had 45 students on FRC 4607, 48 students on FTC teams, and 35 students on FLL teams. We are now the largest activity in Becker and have Banners that hang alongside our State Basketball, Gymnastics, and Football banners.

Just yesterday we had our FTC kickoff and our small auditorium was packed with parents, mentors, and students grades 7-10. We also received a brand new trailer from two new sponsors - and they wanted to do more. They paid for the trailer, wrapped the trailer, and then stocked it with a metric crap ton of Mountain Dew and Coca-Cola. As I sat there trying to take it all in, the President of one of the companies kept stating that he wanted to do more for the students - and then gave us more than we expected. This is the power of a program ‘about’ a robot.

Is FIRST about a Robot? Yes. Is it all about the robot? Heavens, no. Our largest departments on FRC 4607 are our Marketing and Business wings. In 4+ years we have gained over 24 sponsors and 10 partners. Annually we work with over 20 different schools to help build FRC in Central Minnesota - and we are involved heavily with 3 post-secondary institutions.

Sorry/not sorry for (not)making your point for you Ed, but FIRST is ‘about’ the robot.

The robot is important - but the students come first.

Hi Ed,

While JMonkeyEngine was installing on my PC, I took a look at CD and saw this. Thank you for taking the time to start a conversation.

I’ll think for a bit, and then write you an worthy answer that isn’t shooting from the hip.


The robot is certainly important. But I don’t think that’s what FIRST is about. I had the benefit of seeing this thread right before going to the gym, so I had a good long time to think about it before getting home to post.

I’m going to start with a comparison… are the Boy Scouts about camping? Merit Badges? No, but those are some of the first things you think of when you think about scouting. Instead, it’s a values-based youth development organization. “The BSA provides a program for young people that builds character, trains them in the responsibilities of participating citizenship, and develops personal fitness.” FIRST falls into the same boat, I think - we all see and think about the robot, but that’s not what it’s about.

When I think about what FIRST is about, I have to think about what the students get out of it. So, the first thing I did was look at the Dean’s List nominations I’ve written in the past few years. In them, the robot does come up - typically, it takes up about 1/4 of the nomination. But I’ve only ever mentioned on-field performance once, in one sentence burried in the middle of a nomination. When you think about how much time we spend on the robot, it’s a little shocking that that number isn’t higher. The rest of the nominations deal with outreach, leadership, enthusiasm, dedication. When it comes to the impact we have on these students, it’s not about the on-field performance at all.

But you know, that’s really all based on my perspective of how we impact the students… so I went away from the Dean’s List nominations and instead looked at the WFFA nomination my students shared with me. In it, they talk about learning complex concepts, being pushed outside of their comfort zones, improving their confidence and capability. The robot barely comes up (only in an anecdote about it falling from the top of the pyramid a few years ago), and on-field performance is never mentioned. These kids don’t value their mentors because we help them win competitions or awards. They value us for the long lasting, direct impact we have on their lives.

And then I thought about the mentor meeting my team had last night. It’s a regular occurrence that lets us figure out, as a group, what we’re doing with the team. And you know what? The robot was practically a sideshow at the meeting. We talked about scheduling, outreach, leadership roles and team organization. We talked about how we needed to push the captains and the rest of the team. We talked about the changes we would like to see to improve the student experience. But whenever the robot came up, it was in terms of what the students would learn if we did X or Y in the offseason.

So sure, the robot is important. It’s the vehicle we use to accomplish everything else. But it’s not what FIRST is all about. FIRST is about those relationships between mentor and student, about inspiring the next generation through direct example and interaction. It’s about exposing students to a whole world and way of thinking they’ve never seen before. But it’s not about the robot.

One definition of about is “all around.” To me FIRST is “all around” the robot. Our team doesn’t have a single robot that still functions as designed, but our students have rich experiences and a wealth of knowledge about what was done (and why), and we see them leaving our program with keener, more imaginative visions of their future. And that’s all the functionality we need from those old robots.

There have been a few posts in this thread that try to walk the line, saying that FIRST being about and not about the robot are compatible. In my opinion, this is simply balking at the question being asked. Working to be better at robots has a cost. Let’s look at a few cases.

Many FTC teams rely on FRC students to be mentors. However, there are a number of FTC competitions during the FRC season, so the seasons could overlap. Students who mentor FTC while also on an FRC team will necessarily do less for their FRC team than they would if they weren’t mentoring. For the FRC team, this has a cost: if the best FRC students are mentoring FTC, the FRC robot quality could suffer.

At an offseason FRC event, is it better to give everyone who wants a chance to drive the robot or is it better to be more selective and use it as a training ground to identify and develop the best drivers for future FRC seasons. For teams large enough where this is an actual choice (if you have 14 kids who want to drive, you can’t choose both), the former could be more inspirational.

I know of a few teams who host an event at the end of build season where they demonstrate their robot to sponsors/community/etc. Clearly, this is great in advancing FIRST’s goals. However, it takes away a day of working on the robot. There’s even a team that hosted such an event despite the fact that their robot wasn’t performing nearly up to their standards, and they really could have used the extra day. Would you have made the same choice?

To be completely honest, I have never understood this separation between the robot and other aspects of FIRST. They are all intertwined into reaching for the same goal, which is to inspire students into STEM. That is the primary and honestly the only goal of FIRST. As a former student, for me personally, FIRST was in fact about the robot. I only thought about how to build the robot, rather than anything. That has given me lots of technical background and hands on experience. This is invaluable. Yet, I did learn other things, ie how to work with other people. However, the robot is the main way that these things are done. Furthermore, many people only seem to see the negative aspects of competitions. However, I believe that strong competition is the only way to learn.
Say if you are the smartest or most athletic or just overall best student in your school, and for some reason the best student, from some arbitrary metric, is “successful” in whatever terms you may want to have. Then what motivation would you have for trying any harder in school. There is absolutely no reason to try harder. However, if there is competition, you yourself work harder, and in the process learn much more.
Hence, the aspect of competition is critical for FIRST. Without competition or the general spirit of competition, a student will not learn, either the technical points of the robot, or even how to work with others. There is almost no way to learn if there is no final goal at the end. The primary goal for a FIRST team should be to build a good competitive robot. However, one must realize that when building a good competitive robot, many other invaluable skills are gained, without which a student cannot function in the modern world.

PS: I feel like this post is almost definitely going to be taken the wrong way. Please prove me wrong CD.

Woodie Flowers has described the robot in FRC as the campfire that we all gather around. I agree with this 100%. If the campfire is weak or dying, it can be hard to draw more people in, and keep the ones you have.

John, your story of past robots was enriching as well.


Participating in FIRST is a lot like practicing yoga. There are skills and techniques you perform but they should never be practiced in a way that is counterproductive to the goal.

FIRST’s mission is to inspire the next generation in STEM. Their values promote respect, cooperation, challenging oneself, and striving for excellence. The robotics competition is a focal point. The real test is how your engagement in robotics competition supports of FIRST’s principals.

Please come work long hours learning Math, Engineering, Sales, Marketing, Communications, Publishing, Logistics for no school credit, in fact you’ll need to work harder on your regular school work to compensate.

Anyone want to come? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Lets build a big robot that weighs 100 lbs with lots of motors and gears and metal that we can cut and drill and a ton of programming. The we will go compete with that robot with other teams.

How about now? Who wants to build a robot?

It’s all about how you hide all of the good stuff in something nice. Like Mom blending a carrot in a chocolate milkshake to get vegetables in the diet. If you want to think it’s about the robot, I’m good with that. But please have this nice helping of real world engineering, life skills and having some of the best fun of your life.

I think part of the reason this question is so difficult is the ambiguity of the word “about”. When we ask whether FIRST is about Robots, do we mean “Are robots the main practical focus of and direct reason for most of what we do?” Or are we asking “Are robots the deeper meaning behind what we do?” To me, FIRST is “about” robots in the same way The Great Gatsby is “about” a rich guy and his friends having parties. It’s the main focus, takes up most of the time, and if you wanted to experience it as just that and nothing more, that would be fine. But the deeper meaning behind FIRST is in inspiring students and changing the culture, and understanding that can help you get more out of the program.

Let me clarify the intent of my question. Should we try to build the best robot that the team’s resources allow to compete the best we can? Or is on field performance not important so we should not focus on the robot too much?

This has nothing to do with how much adult involvement there is so please don’t go there.

I’d say that we definetly should try to build the best robot we can. That is the way, after all, you learn the many skills in FRC. Without trying to build the best robot we can, why are we here?

Striving for excellence is a part of every good team. But assuming that excellence means winning competitions is a very bad assumption. Just take a look at the record for the 2015 Championship Chairman’s Award winners, team 597. I think we would all say they pursued excellence and achieved it on the biggest stage in FIRST, without ever winning an event.

Every team is going to have a different mix of involvement, mentorship, funding, and resources, and the key really is for every team to identify the goals that will best impact their students and community, and then pursue those goals.

Thanks Jon. This is really what I want to say. I absolutely think that teams should strive to put the best robot they can on the field and do their best to win. But just as absolutely for me you should not judge your success and failure in this venture by whether or not you win. Winning is fun. But if winning is the standard for success then most teams are failing at most competitions. For my part, when people say “FIRST isn’t really about the robot” what they really mean is that FIRST isn’t about winning competitions with the robot.

I keep coming at this question as a coach. Someone who coaches FRC as well as Track and Field and Cross Country. In my other sports we definitely try to win. But we don’t always win. We judge our success largely on whether most of the kids have a positive experience and get better (faster, farther, higher). In FRC we judge our success mostly on whether kids keep coming back, say they enjoy the experience, learn new skills, and then go on to pursue careers in STEM fields.

We absolutely strive to build the best robot we can. But that is a means to an end, not the end.


Earlier today, I had a devil of a time with my Internet connection but I was able make some progress. I spent the time my connection was up, going over my recent posts to look for any place where I might have written the ideas you describe. There seem to be some “disconnects”.

I still plan to write a reply that covers my take on the fundamental, philosophical topic, if you will; but first let’s try to reconnect the disconnects.

No sweat - I can unconfuse you about how I feel about that part of things. Within the last week, in this post 346, I wrote this “… you feed the STEM hunger of eager/inspired students, and you feed them as much as you and they can handle - because it’s fun.

Again, within the last week, in the same post 346, I tried to explain my point of view with these sentences,
"*When planning club/team activities, whenever we reached the point of having to choose/recommend how we are going to spend our chunks of scarce time, I try[sic] to think hard about whether I/we should invest those hours and energy into making an OK robot better, or into introducing new people to STEM opportunities.

Those two things certainly aren’t 100% mutually-exclusive, but they aren’t 100% identical either; and the clock is a merciless taskmaster.*"

So I agree with you, good robots and the other parts of being an FRC team aren’t exclusive.

Where I suspect we might disagree is the subject of whether build a best-possible robot is the primary mission of an FRC team, and/or on whether FRC teams need to build a best-possible robot in order to accomplish their primary mission.

Everywhere I searched (so far) for any place I might have accidentally written that an FRC team’s annual robot isn’t important, I came up empty. I’m glad that I didn’t accidentally write that in any of the places I looked so far. Can you point to any place (so that I can fix it)?

With that in mind, I think we agree that being a well-rounded and good FRC team easily includes, and certainly doesn’t exclude building good robots.

Where you and I (and others who would encourage both of us) probably diverge is on whether “best-possible robot” is the enemy of “good-enough robot”.

Along those lines, I have written things like this comment about what I would suggest is a good way to evaluate the success of a FIRST team. “… introducing students to enough positive STEM experiences to open their eyes to the possibility that they might enjoy a STEM career. To do that you don’t even need to have competitions. You might choose to use competitions, but they aren’t required.” (in the PS of this post 214).

Also, in this post 5, I wrote this opinion about how I would look at things, if I were FIRST HQ, “I think that the the on-the-field performance exhibited by the teams that are already doing well (in that part of FIRST), is good enough. I don’t mean to say that better performance would be harmful; but if I’m right, I do mean that across the globe, for the teams that aren’t struggling, improving the on-the-field part of FRC should not be pulling time, attention, and other resources away from the other parts of FRC.”.

Another way to say it would be that I (and Mathking, and JWeston, and Jon Stratis, and …) believe that FIRST intends for the teams’ robots to be a means, not an end.

Does the above close up those disconnects?

I don’t think I’m writing anything now or before that is substantially different from what Mathking, JWeston, Kressley, Stratis, and others have written here and elsewhere. I suppose write I it more often than them - and thereby make myself a lightning rod - but I don’t think that I’m out of synch with them or the many others who share the “means, an not an end” viewpoint.