Is FRC Actually Inspirational to Low-Resource Teams?

I know this topic’s potentially inflammatory, and I’m going to preface this: please don’t respond to this thread unless you actually have direct experience working with low-resource teams.

It’s well-known that FRC has a problem with high attrition rates, and that access to capital (both material and human) varies extremely from the wealthiest team to the poorest.

We often focus on the attrition issue from the point of view of how to keep new teams going logistically. I rarely, if ever, see discussion of to what degree these teams want to continue.

So, the question is simple: is the FRC experience for new teams without access to resources a fundamentally good one? Do the students enjoy it? Are they inspired?

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Yes and no. Robots are inspiring and working on them is a lot of fun. Competition however can be hard, it is amazing that so many teams help out and are so professional yet it is a constant reminder of the inequity that most of the team members experience in other parts of their lives too. For some it inspires them to (at least try) overcome the challenges. For most others I think it resigns them to “the way things are” and they just focus on having fun with what is available.

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I respect that you chose violence today.

One thing that I think could help frame the conversation is how do you define low-resource?

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This is a tough one, but I think the demographic I had in mind was something around “less than $15K/year budget and fewer than 3 mentors.”

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Are you asking about FIRST in general, or FRC in particular?

There are a lot of FRC teams that would be better off as FTC teams. I’ve worked with some of these, for sure.

I think the answer to this questions varies a lot depending on the leadership of the team (both mentors and students). I’ve seen FRC teams without much funding be very inspired, to the point where they change their situation and become moderate or even high income teams over a period of time. I’ve also seen them collapse and die (or go to FTC or Vex, which are better options for many teams).

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FRC in particular; I’ll edit the post to make that clearer.

Our first 2-3 seasons we put together a robot for less than $300 and were decently competitive but kept getting beat solidly by teams with more resources, matching shirts, tools that didn’t come from our two mentors garages, etc. I looked back at our records and in 2011 we spent 92 bucks on robot parts, 2012 - 315 bucks, 2013 - 275 bucks. All three of those years our registration was sponsored through a combination of local program.

Our fourth year we started fundraising harder, we got nicer parts and tools, and kids wanted to make things easier by having the money to try new things. Our expenses for 2019 came a little north of 20k, so I think that starting low was inspirational.

With that said, I think the grow grow grow mentality is unhealthy. Especially in Michigan where I feel that the effects of massive expansion will be realized when team numbers are released for 2022. It’s awful tough to find supporting organizations when you are competing with a dozen teams in a small area.

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oh, wow. We are still, some years, a low resource team then. We have a great time. But things are cheaper when you only have 12-15 kids on the team. 15k is a lot of money if you know how to spend it right…

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That’s a pretty big condition, though. Lots of teams don’t have this knowledge.

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Eh, neither do I really. I pretty much bank on dumb luck working out for us a lot. Having a penny pinching dad helped me out a lot on that front too.

This is probably 90% of the FRC teams in my state.

I’d define it as “can attend one event per year with a parts budget < $1000” (since that is the Everybot budget), < 3 mentors.

I’ve even had a hard time getting a couple of these teams to scrape together enough for an Everybot even with my team loaning them motors, controllers, etc.

However, the kids on that team were inspired despite their situation. They are one that probably would be better at FTC but wanted to stick it our in FRC because they were having a good time working with other teams. Each experience is unique.

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I’d contend that some regions, my own included, focused on growth for the sake of growth, rather than considering the team experience.

There are tons of low resource teams in my region that are propped up by a single corporate sponsor and a single teacher at their school. These teams often show up to competitions with barely functional robots. While I’m happy that they have access to STEM enrichment opportunities, I believe the same resources would be better spent on an FTC team to serve the same population.

I can’t say with certainty that the experience that low resource teams have isn’t good. I don’t think getting blown out year after year and never getting picked during alliance selections is very inspiring though. On the other hand, I’ve interacted with many students from low resource teams that are very proud of their robots, and just happy to be at the competition.

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I think FRC can and has inspired low-resource teams, but it’s not the only program out there and if the cost is prohibitive then there are other great ones that can inspire students like FTC and Vex. Although FRC remains an expensive program, I think FIRST has done a great job over the last decade+ (the amount of time I’ve been part of the program) lowering the barrier and giving low-resource teams what they need to build competitive robots on the cheap. I think the program will continue to improve and hopefully it will become more viable for teams that can’t currently run an effective FRC team due to lack of resources.

I don’t have time for a full fledged post on this topic right now, but I want to really stress a point.

WINNING AND INSPIRATION ARE NOT THE SAME THING

Inspiration isn’t a zero-sum game. Winning a match doesn’t mean you have igniting a burning passion for STEM and losing doesn’t mean all the kids on that team are going to become used car salesmen. Inspiration can happen in a teams shop or classroom. It can happen in the pits. It can happen at an outreach event. It can happen on Zoom calls or in judges interviews. It can happen working on CAD or testing code. Stop using competition success as a proxy for inspiration.

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Do the students enjoy it? Are they inspired?

I would say yes to both, for the students on a team that actually get to an event and experience match play with a working robot. I would say this is true for any team though, as the first event for a student/mentor/volunteer is really the thing that makes it all click.

I’ve worked in the pit with many teams that struggle to field a robot. I can only make the assumption if they are low resource. From what I can tell as an outside observer, once things are working, and whatever issue is resolved, they totally get into it.

Is the FRC experience for new teams without access to resources a fundamentally good one?

This is a much tougher question without defining ‘fundamentally good’. For me, does it accomplish the mission of FIRST, to which I say yes, for the same reason as above. You could also define ‘fundamentally good’ in many other ways including ‘cost per student’ for this baseline of experience.

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Creating an enduring team is, like many processes, a funnel with attrition at many stages. FIRST has intentionally kept the top of the funnel wide open, to maximize opportunity. The effect of that is higher attrition rates lower in the funnel. The causes of attrition at each level are quite complex. The “attrition is bad” frame presupposes that students would be best served by minimizing it. Instead, the key metric should be number of students served.

Their strategy for addressing attrition is largely a distributed one - to mobilize their community (us) to generate ideas and resources.

This distributed, community-oriented model is a key contributor to the program’s success.

To maximize opportunity, or to maximize the amount of money flowing to FIRST and FIRST-adjacent businesses every year?

The “attrition isn’t bad” frame presupposes that students are best served by inconsistent access.

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FRC is more fun when you’re at least doing okay, and it’s more inspirational when it’s fun. You don’t have to win much to at least be in the game (we have one Blue Banner since 2005, and have been a lot of second picks, but sometimes we’re in the top 8 and we’ve been #1 seed once and #2 seed twice).

I don’t believe that being on a team that is consistently in the bottom half (or bottom third) of performance would be particularly inspirational–you gotta do what’s needed to at least try to climb out of that competitive hole. [I know that one really bad year–I’m looking at you, Steamworks–can have a profoundly negative impact on recruitment.]

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Sticking my neck out on this one.

I think this thread is going to have a hard time getting a real response from low resource teams.

The feeling I already have while reading the thread is:
If I speak up in a negative manner, someone’s going to hammer down with “Then why aren’t you in ftc instead?”

Our situation is our own and I’m trying to respond to the OP’s question

We are a low resource team. (<$10k/year and one experienced technical mentor)
This last year was a blast for us, but it also took us 2 years to finish our best bot ever and last I checked in our division, we’re almost at the bottom.

And yes, while we have fun at comps, it can be quite deflating. Students feel awesome about how things are going during the build season and then we show up to comps and feel like t-ball players.
We do get inspired when we overcome pitfalls at comps and it’s amazing seeing what others teams are doing close up. Maybe it’s worse for the mentors who have seen more of what could be.

I don’t know, maybe I can expound on some of it with the right questions.

edit:
I think something that really helps (which is harder to get in other sports) is it feels like two competitions.

  1. THE competition - the one we can’t seem to compete in
  2. OUR competition - when we finally get auto, score a goal in the 3rd round, move etc. our team flips out and forgets about ranking for a time
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