Is FRC Actually Inspirational to Low-Resource Teams?

Doing my best to compose a longer post while on mobile, since I feel this is an important topic. There have been quite a number of variations on this theme discussed on CD over the years, and a lot of different viewpoints that all have valid observations and perspectives. It’s certainly not an easy topic to broach or answer.

Some carry the view that the competition is the “product” of FIRST, and that by increasing the competitive level of that product, more people can be inspired. The better the on-field match, the easier it is to market that on-field competition, the more people want to watch, the more people become inspired through watching. They want robosports to be taken seriously. There’s certainly logic behind this train of thought, and this strategy likely has merit. But there’s the obvious contingency that low performing teams hurt the end goal of an exciting on-field product. Nobody wants to watch a team struggle to drive or sit on the field dead.

Other people feel that the competition is the “Trojan horse” that gets kids excited about STEM, or that the robot is the “campfire” that we gather our teams around. To carry this perspective to its hyperbolic max, it can almost be summed up with the “the real treasure is the friends we made along the way” meme. I don’t believe anyone in this camp dislikes the competitions or thinks they’re wasteful, but they’re bigger believers in the journey than the end destination. This is often where the “science fair” teams who want to build “cool robots” more than they want to build competitive robots end up.

There’s obviously a whole spectrum (or probably really a whole multi-dimensional field) of beliefs between these, as well. But trying to tailor a program to meet both of these belief systems can end up creation friction, as decisions made can often please one group while disappointing the other. I think we’ve seen some pretty vocal advocates make that rather clear on Chief Delphi and elsewhere over the years.

This is also a topic where the CD hivemind has some inconsistent views at times. Mentors and posters praise Michigan for its scalable approach to FRC, despite Michigan also having the largest population of “low resource” teams. Posters scorn the “growth growth growth” model, despite Michigan having the most rapid growth. Posters advocate for lower resource teams to opt for FTC instead, despite Michigan disallowing FTC for high school teams. Posters advocate for equity, diversity, end inclusion but also want to raise the barriers to entry into FRC to avoid team attrition. Posters advocate for stronger mentor support networks for teams, yet choose to work with teams that already have strong mentor groups. This isn’t meant to decry those mentors or posters, but rather illustrate how complex and multifaceted these issues can be.

Personally, I’d love for robotic sports to be on the same level as eSports in the zeitgeist. It would be awesome. But part of what makes eSports (and traditional sports) so popular is that almost anyone can do it at a lower level. They can turn off the stream and fire up the game they just watched. FIRST, VRC, Botball, etc are those lower levels for technology sports. I don’t really think it’s FRCs place to try to replicate the professional level of play, and certainly not at any point where an exclusionary attitude is developed towards “lower resource” or “lower performing” teams.

I think scalable and lower cost competitions are vital, but I also think that telling communities that don’t have as easy access to sponsorships and mentors that they have to play on these lower cost competitions is a beneficial message. This is particularly prudent when many teams use FTC and VRC as their “JV,” “rookie,” and/or middle school teams. It’s not a particularly empowering subtext when a rural or urban team is told to play against the JV teams instead of competing with the big robots, even if it might be a more sustainable fit.

We need to find ways to lower barriers and make FRC less burnout inducing. Beefing up the kit of parts to provide more complete solutions may be part of that. Finding ways to reduce “arms races” between teams may be part of that. Continuing to adjust the season schedule may be part of that. Adjusting the competition formats may be part of that. Just remember that there’s likely not going to be a “one size fits all” solution. Things that help certain populations of teams may hurt others.

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Since we got rid of the 6-week Build Season in 2020, why not have kickoff at the beginning of the school year? Less burnout in my opinion for students, mentors, suppliers, and our wallet (paying for fast shipping). This would also help level the playing field between lower resource teams, and US mainland teams vs International (we consider ourselves in this group) in a lot of ways.

If there is one thing we learned during the Pandemic, working 3 days a week for our team was a whole lot better than meeting every day in January-February. We had more time to process decisions, more time to build, more opportunities to iterate and make major changes if necessary, and save a ton of money as well.

I can remember the pains of being a low-resource team during our early years doing FRC because of the old traditional build season. This option would have helped us out tremendously.

Things like the regional registration schedule lottery/signups wouldnt have to change.

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we “had 2 mentors” in the system, though I will neither confirm nor deny having one of those mentors’ FIRSTinspires passwords to do all of the team roster stuff. (In hindsight, a 10th grader running a team was a terrible idea, but i digress)

Winning is one form of inspiration, but if that was necessary to inspire teams then most of us would quit. Things that make a team work include:

  • Having a team that is proud of their robot
  • Ensuring that everyone in the team feels ownership of what they built
  • Good expectations management
  • Rewarding and acknowledging achievement, whether that is on field or off, big or small
  • Feeling that the team is progressing, even if progressing doesn’t mean winning
  • Having a supportive environment where all students and ideas are treated respectfully
  • Mentors that love what they are doing and share that passion with the team
  • Performing well at events

Inspiration comes from many things. The problem is that none of these are sufficient in themselves - it is fine, for example, to be acknowledged in your team, but you can still be disappointed if you loose. It is fine to win, but if you don’t feel that it was “your” robot that won, then why be proud? Coming in third is great, but if you went expecting to win Chairman’s and be the leading alliance captain, then you are going to be disappointed.

What you want, more than anything, is for each student to look at the robot and say “I made this, it is good, and even though we didn’t win I’m really proud of what we did - next year we’ll do even better”, which is not something that is dependent on resources. But it is dependent on how the team is run, how well the mentors supported the team, and how well they used what they did know and could learn to make a robot that they think of as the best they could have built.

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I like this idea. It has merit. It needs a champion or two.

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Or maybe a dozen. :wink:

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iirc, you need 2 mentor accounts before your team is allowed to participate. However, I’m pretty sure I’ve read somewhere that at least 2 mentors must be at the competitions acting as adult supervisors?
I’ll be making a program comparison sooner or later


Well, FRC is aimed at high schools, so it’d have to fit with the majority of the high schools… I wouldn’t agree to place Kickoff at the very beginnings of the school year simply because students are all getting settled in.

If Kickoff is moved forward, then build season would be too, which results in a longer build season that could either hurt or help teams’ build. Areas that receive heavy winters could be affected more (September-February). However, they could also use the extra months to make up for the time, unlike the current season where a snow day might mean a complete loss of fabrication.
When will competitions be? Afaik, competitions are usually held during colleges’ spring break.

This is one of the bigger inspirational aspects that I see. I constantly walk the pits and ask questions. I encourage all the team members to do the same. Another way to do this is to attend an event that you are not participating in. That way you can have your own schedule.

Another inspiring aspect can be winning an award.
Last year we were fortunate to compete at one event. We started strong and then had some technical difficulties, ended up ranked 11th, we were a 1st round pick by the 4th alliance. We lost in the quarters. When awards came along we were presented the Industrial Design Award. I mentioned to one of our design / build team members how nice it was to get recognition for all the efforts.

We graduated above the “low resource” definition level in our 3 and 4th years. But not by much. We also attended States and Worlds those years. If you spend $5K on a robot, add the entry fee $5K, then add States $4.5K, add another $5k (I think) for Worlds. The team has spent $19.5K not including and funds for travel, hotel (if needed) or food. We depended on the parents to cover the travel, food and hotels.

There is a double edge sword to inspiration. The more inspiration, the better the robot, the better you compete, the more events you attend… The more it costs.

Another aspect about inspiration / success and the need for additional funds is you get more team members involved non technical aspects of the team, or add people dedicated towards those those tasks, Marketing, business and fundraising. This can be very positive, for it allows team members to grow, making presentations, cold calling , and putting together a marketing plan that will allow the robot to be built. It builds confidence.

Yes there are barriers, I know of several teams that could not afford to go to States or Worlds due to financial difficulties. That might also be an inspiration to make improvements so if the opportunity arises to attend an event, the team has worked towards being able to afford it.

I also feel that the ROI for FRC is massive. Having seen team members growth during their time on the team. Seeing the spark in their eye when “it” clicks. Knowing that they will go on to college or the trades and ultimately become successful people.

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As someone who has been running a robotics competition that started in September and won’t end until May locally this year, I am not sure how I feel about this idea. :smile:

You only need one adult, and it doesn’t need to be the same people as registered in the system (at least, it’s never checked). My dad signed our champs registration because he was one of the only adults with us at DCMP. (To be clear, I don’t support doing this for other teams it’s a horrible idea in so many ways, just pointing out that it was plenty inspirational on a team that was def ultra-low resource when it came to mentors)

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I see lots of talk about inspiration in regard to STEM, but that is not the only positive impact that a FRC team can provide. In college I mentored a “low resource” team from a not too well off area and to be honest the experience was rough. We had very little support from the school and I am not sure if we even inspired the students to go into STEM that much. The students did not seem too enthusiastic about building a robot (maybe we were bad mentors) as they were more interested in seeing their friends at meetings and if we would get them dinner as sometimes they would not get good meal from home.

Even though we probably didn’t inspire them to be the next great engineers (we tried!) they did get some roles models, distractions from home life, and other insights that they would not have gotten otherwise. Is FRC the only program that can provide this positive impact? No. But I am not sure the students would have joined a similar club if it had not been for the initial excitement of building a robot.

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To shift the discussion from the problem to potential solutions, what concrete actions can both we as a community and FIRST take to make FRC more inspiring to low-resource teams? While the problems are distinct, I think there’s also a lot of overlap here with actions that would help new teams. Note this applies not only at events, but to the program as a whole… some of my ideas for concrete actions, starting with events:

  • A huge part of whether an event experience is inspiring to individual students is their interactions with other teams at the event. We must avoid talking about other teams and their robots in a disparaging way, even in “private”–too many times negative talk can be overheard or get repeated. Nothing is less inspiring to a high school student than hearing another student (or worse, adult) putting down their work.
  • Conversely, reach out and help other teams at events, particularly during the inspection phase. For example, if you’re a high-resource team with mentors to spare, talk to the LRI about what teams they’re worried about passing inspection, and ask the team whether they would appreciate some help.

For the program as a whole, let’s start before the event. Let’s avoid situations like the one from a few years ago where a new team showed up to their event with their kit still in the box because they thought you had to build the robot at the event–while it was indeed inspiring that other teams came together at the event to get a robot built, the fact it even got to that point illustrates a gap in information new teams are getting.

  • Mentors, look for new/low-resource teams in your local area and reach out to them. It doesn’t have to mean you are mentoring two teams–just let them know you exist, provide some contact info, that they can reach out with questions or even if they just need someone to bounce ideas off of, you’re happy to listen.
  • As the above is difficult logistically, to make it easier, FIRST should provide resources that directly link new teams with nearby experienced teams/mentors (just like a workplace mentor-protege program). Or even not nearby–virtual resources can be very effective too. Ask teams as part of registration whether they want to “mentor” new/low resource teams (or be mentored), assign a “mentor” team (or two!) to every new team, and make the connection for them.
  • FIRST should provide more scaffolding to low resource teams. Everybot is today’s kit base, doing something along those lines to make it more achievable to play the game, rather than just drive, is inspiring, not limiting. Or if FIRST doesn’t want to go that far, at least there should be a push to get more official documentation-type resources about typical solutions to FRC mechanical design problems into the hands of new and low-resource teams. What really differentiates FRC teams is mentor experience, you can raise the floor by providing official paths to get similar information / lessons learned… this exists in some community guides, but is unofficial, which makes it difficult for new teams to discover.
  • Make “kitbot build day” and “pre-ship/bag/week 0 scrimmage” type events a standard thing to do in your region, and make sure new and low-resource teams are invited. If you don’t have one in your region, start one! “kitbot build day” is particularly helpful–there’s a huge learning curve here for both new and low-resource teams, and just getting a robot base moving is inspiring in and of itself.
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Make it cost less.

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Can any team in baseball be inspired besides the Dodgers or New York Yankees? I think the question about FRC and a minimum budget of $15,000 shows more about individual expectations rather than quality of a FIRST team. It depends on perspective. I love to see teams that figure out a solution with a bucket of spare parts from a garage. There is a beauty also to a 5 professional engineers helping a few students CAD a robot and ship it off to be manufactured at a machine shop and assembled back at the school. It is a different experience, but I think both wonderful.

As for solutions to the issue, I think we need to continue to educate society about the merits of the competition. We can find money in our area for a basketball team that has won about 2 games in 5 years. We pay 2 or 3 coaches, referees at games, and teachers for crowd control. Families pay 20 dollars a game to watch, travel 50 miles or more to away games. We buy new uniforms, equipment and now are getting a new gym floor. Calculate bus travel for 10 games that are between 30 minutes and 3 hours away and it starts to add up. Some years there are only 10 kids on the team.

Is $5000 really expensive? It is pretty much a drop in the bucket for a school. The issue is how we as a society see the need for sports, but not the need for robotics… yet. Change is hard. However, there is a huge push for more students in the trades and engineering in our area. The FIRST community and myself included, just need to do a better job of framing what we do and building public support. MIchigan seems to have figured it out in a way. There are always improvements to be made, but it shows wise investment of resources.

You can be inspired without always winning.

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Aaron, some fair points.
Some things I’m not following is loss of build season due to heavy winter (snow days). How is a longer build season a disadvantage vs. one that starts in January?
I’m not sure what “settled in” means. Students have summer breaks and when they come back to school, should be settled in correct?
Competitions held during the late February - early May doesnt have to change. That would defeat the purpose of the advantages.

VEX releases their games for the following year at the previous championships. Their World Championships are held around the same time as FRC Championships. I hardly hear that kids get burned out, or have as much supplier and time crunch issues as much as FRC. What I do know is the advantages I pointed out, is evident in VEX throughout the year and is arguably done on a more even playing field when it comes to US vs International teams challenges and issues.

Cost is a barrier to entry for FRC, but I’m not sure how reducing it makes it more inspiring, unless we equate inspiration with simply having as many teams as possible. Let’s posit that FRC only cost $1 to register a team—I think all of the other challenges mentioned in this thread for low resource teams would still apply (e.g. limited machining resources, few mentors, etc), and in this extreme of a case of near zero cost, it might actually make those other problems worse (as far more teams would be created, resources other than registration dollars would be spread more thinly).

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To this end i believe extra (good) mentors on higher resource teams could take a more active role on a low resource team.
We’ve had teams “take us under their wing”, which from our point of view wasn’t much.

  • We would be given advice and connections
    • Not as helpful when you’re already on CD and stuff
    • More helpful for first/second year teams though
  • We were “offered” machining help if needed
    • Still didn’t know what machines
    • Still didn’t know how to design for said machines
    • The connections were loose enough where it felt awkward to ask for help when we “know” other teams are just as busy as we are
  • At times it feels like you’re drowning and it’s up to you to swim over to the lifeguard at the edge of the pool so they can pull you up

This would only apply to teams that truly have the extra resources, but I believe a well experienced mentor and possibly a senior or two actively GO to a team under their wing as a sudo team member once/twice a week.

  • Be a hands on observer
    • It’s still their robot and you can let them take ownership of it
    • Still jump in as a second pair of helping hands to hold a nut in place (let them know you’re not just a silent observer secretly judging them)
    • Let the team get to know you first and they WILL ask questions
  • You know your own team’s capabilities
    • If the team your helping is struggling on a certain part, that’s a great time to speak up and say “hey! if we design this part together on a napkin, we can take this back to the host team to machine for you!”
    • Let them see what it’s like to have an idea in their head be professionally made
    • Same with the code. “You have all the parts for a vision system, but I don’t know how to start the code for that. Let me bring back so-and-so next time help out with that part”
  • Learn their weaknesses and prepare them to grab the low fruit first
    • No more napkin sketches. Our team trains on (insert CAD here). Let’s set something up so you can join us this summer/fall
    • OK, you got timedrobot and a 4 sec auto working for this comp. After the season, lets meet up to go over some more advance stuff
    • You have no monies and no experience in getting the monies. Can we send our sponsor team to you to help write up a letter and then visit a couple a businesses with you until you’re comfortable?
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Removing the barrier to entry is only part of the benefits of a lower cost. Money not put into paying registration is money that can be invested into a team to improve their situation. If we’re talking loe-resource teams, being able to buy better tools and more COTS components can increase their competitiveness if that was a barrier before. That money could also go into a budget for non-robot things that improve team morale, such as team apparel, equipment for non-engineering divisions like media and animation, and could even be used to upgrade their facility.

For many teams, the money that goes into their registration could do wonders when reinvested into their team.

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You raise a number of good points about repurposing the registration expenditure for other things, but note that might not actually be true for a team whose registration is directly funded by the school or by a grant–any reduction in registration would likely only show up as a reduced expenditure to the sponsor, and not be passed along to the team resulting in cash available for those other expenses. However, for teams that don’t have that assistance in registration cost, you’re correct that it would enable them to focus fundraising into other expenditures.

Also, I presume there are a lot of factors driving registration cost, so it might simply not be possible to lower the registration cost for all teams and have the same program quality. As there are definitely teams that pay their own way, I think FIRST should be looking for strategies that would pay for some or all of the registration cost for teams that need that assistance. For example, there are partner grants available for rookies, perhaps FIRST should work to find a partner to establish a grant program for low-resource teams? That being said, I suspect FIRST is already doing these things, and simply haven’t found a partner yet!

I’m no FRC economist, but I feel like there are areas where FIRST can reduce spending on unnecessary flash and fanciness in order to decrease costs for teams.

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