I feel this falls under general FIRST discussion, hence why I did not post this in the Vex subforum.
My thoughts on the FTC platform change.
Let me preface this post by stating some of my background: I was on an FRC team from 2001-2004, all four years of high school. The two years after, I volunteered at my local FRC regional (New Jersey). Last year, I worked as a college mentor with a rookie FRC team and was a referee and volunteer for FVC competitions, including head ref at the championships. This year, I am the faculty advisor of the team I mentored in their rookie year, and have continued to work with the FTC program, not only as referee and event volunteer, but on my state planning committee to run an event hosted by my college department (Technology Education.) I’ve been involved as a volunteer at events from Connecticut to Delaware, two years running, with the FVC/FTC program.
Last semester, I organized a budget, wrote curriculum, and instructed a course in robotics, using the Vex Robotics Design system as my platform. We ran through mechanical design, AI, problem solving, some basic programming, and most importantly, critical discussion on philosophical and contemporary issues in technology, mainly related to current and emergent technologies that were robotics related.
In less than three months I will likely have a position as a full time Technology Education teacher, or I will be attending school to earn my Masters degree.
I am telling you all this so you have some idea of my background, and what might concern me about this platform change, and what kind of perspective I may have on it.
Above all else, I am a teacher. I like teaching – I think it is very important that young people have a fighting chance of being able to critically about our Designed World. The International Technology Education Association puts forth the goal of my profession as teaching students how to “Use, Manage, Assess, and Understand” technology. Sounds a bit like the FIRST mission statement right?
My personal mission statement: To give students an education that teaches them not only to be able to use, manage, assess, and understand technology, but also to critically examine the potential effects of emergent technologies so they may fit new tools and resources into a teleological framework that can best guide humanity into a future that values the beliefs that I value, the most important ideal of this is individuality.
I teach also to learn more about the subjects I am interested in: often students can find things that adults cannot. Particularly, every so often you get a student that is both highly intelligent and isn’t incapable of feeling a sense of wonder at learning new things. Finding those students and giving them a lift up out of the sea of apathy that is constantly trying to drown them is one of the reasons I am in my profession.
That being said, I was attracted to Vex for three main reasons:
1. It has a gentle initial learning curve, but remains a powerful tool.
I have a friend who is also a Technology Education teacher. He had to choose between Vex and the Gears IDS system, and went with Vex because it best fit his students and facilities. He gave a Vex kit to two students who couldn’t speak English and not only did they build him a squarebot, but they were excited about it. I gave my students Vex kits and had them do some simple initial design challenges with it, and they were excited about it. I gave them more advanced challenges, and they were able to use the Vex kits to do more complex things, learning more from their previous experiences and building from them.
The basic concept of Vex as an erector set with a microprocessor is very appealing to me because everyone can use it, and yet, when it is used, it can be used for very simple designs, or fiendishly complex ones. Some of the robots that I’ve seen in competitions are proof of this. Vex is scalable. It is versatile. You can use it as a driving platform, or you can program it to do complicated things with sensors. That’s up to the end user.
I’ve told other people in my profession that “Robotics is the medium, not the content” Vex is great because you can use it to explore all different things, from AI to automation in manufacturing, to mechanical systems to programming. It is a launching point, not a landing zone.
2. It is cost effective.
I put together the budget for my class. My cooperating teacher (and co-advisor for the robotics team) had the foresight of applying for and receiving multiple grants, which gave me a $5000 dollar operating budget. With this I set up 6 fully loaded Vex kits, which are reusable. He can maintain and expand the program on less than $1000 a year, and even that is being generous. To put this in perspective: an FRC team costs a minimum of $6000 per year.
A Vex team can fundraise the entirety of the money they need. For about $1500, you can have a top of the line, every part off the shelf pool of materials to build from. This is something a girl or boy scout troop, an after school club, a group of friends, a big brother/big sister group or a group of home schooled students can do. There is proof of this in the makeup of FVC teams.
This does two main things:
- It makes the program easier to start up
- It makes the program easier to maintain
The overriding concept here is that the Vex system is affordable for a broader range of people, and thus, can expose more students to science and technology. This is a good thing, because it means that more students/schools/programs can use this tool to educate and help people. Sounds a lot like the mission of FIRST, right?
3. Students Can Own It
This is perhaps the most important reason, I feel, that I am attracted to the Vex platform.
A major tenet of the way I teach falls under the slogan of “Learning By Doing.” Formally, this is known as “Constructivism.” I teach by presenting students with a problem, have them research the problem, brainstorm solutions, and work in groups to choose their best plan of solving the problem, and then execute that solution, assess their solution, and then offer suggestions of how they could improve their solution, in hindsight. The entire process is documented and it is the process, not the solution, which is emphasized in their assessment.
I have been a part of two (with some time spent on a third) FRC teams. I have interacted with hundreds of people in FIRST, I have had dinner with many. I have talked at length with dozens, both newcomers and old-timers.
What I’ve found is that the culture of FIRST has changed from what I would consider to be an optimal set of values being emphasized: there is no longer an emphasis on low-budget solutions to problems.A low-budget culture is attractive due to compulsory innovation: you need to innovate because the resources are not available to brute force a solution through a checkbook.
With the rise of big team sponsors, the potential exists for the sponsor to exercise a large degree of ownership over the product. The temptation to resist this is sometimes lost. Individual mentors sometimes lose this temptation on their own. I think sometimes mentors have too much input into how the robot is designed and how it works.
I like Vex because it takes away a large amount of that potential. Students do not need grown-ups to do things for them: from what I’ve seen, students want to work on their robots - the mentor’s job is to order the pizza and maybe offer a pointer here and there, which is fine by me. My approach is extremely low budget and student-centric. I do not touch tools unless it is to show a student how to use it. I want students to come up with ideas and execute them. I would rather have my students build a robot that they designed and built themselves that loses every match than a robot that they had little input in, little time designing, and less time building, win every match. I see students doing things with a small amount of support as being more inspirational and more educational than a team with a five plus figure operating budget having a half dozen mentors presenting solutions. Both may be beneficial for students, but I see the latter a misuse of the program’s potential.
An experiment: walk around an FRC pit, and an FTC pit and talk to teams. How do students refer to their robots? Is it “the robot” or “our robot” does “the robot” have six wheels, or does “our robot” have six wheels. When students own the design and the robot, they are proud of “their” design, not “the” design.
I know this is theoretical and perhaps controversial – I am not painting every FRC team with the same brush: where teams come from and how they operate is diverse and ranges from amazing to terrible, and it is impossible to make judgments on all teams. This is not my intention. My point is that there is a potential problem here, in that overenthusiastic adults can jeopardize student ownership of the project. This can stem from the money involved. People want a tangible return on investment.
Vex has an advantage of avoiding the problem of ownership by not needing sponsors, or heavy mentoring. As outlined before, Vex teams do not need to rely on outside funding. Because Vex is a system based on design and not fabrication, you do not need heavy support from mentors to fabricate parts or use machines.
I see fabrication as a small part of the whole when it comes to science and technology: designing, I feel, is more important than straight fabrication. It is more important to know why we are building a bridge than it is to build one. Mentors can be parents or teachers or adults without a formal technical background: students can try out ideas, and if it doesn’t work, take the robot apart and try another solution. Vex is a platform students can use with mentors as guides: when I used Vex in my classroom, I would let students to figure things out on their own: I would not simply give them the answers. I feel they learned a lot more by going through the process of creatively designing and using the mathematical and conceptual tools I have taught them than simply constructing a guided solution.
I see Vex as being much more conducive to a student driven process. Vex allows the Constructivist principles to be utilized: students aren’t told that something won’t work by an expert: they can see it not work, understand why it doesn’t it work by watching it fail, and then use that understanding to try a better design. With standard metal parts and hex bolts, there is more to gain by trying new things than there is to lose. With FRC, such an experiment could cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, use up time from the packed six-week schedule, and potentially be dangerous with the types of equipment being used. The Vex platform by nature does not have that constraint.
All this being said about why I like the Vex platform, I am at a loss to understand why FIRST would move away from it. I think some of the reasoning behind the decision lies in the reasons I have given as to why I like Vex so much: it has the potential of taking teams away from FRC, and take some prestige away from the companies that fund FRC teams. For the cost of one FRC team, a company can sponsor five or even six Vex teams, and not use employee hours or resources. Look at the growth of the FTC program, and compare it to FRC. FTC is poised to outstrip FRC in terms of numbers of schools and teams, and this is only its third year, and it has been under a cloud of this platform change since the championships of last year.
It is important to note that Vex and FRC are reasonable to compare with each other because they are drawing from the same pool of constituents. The two programs also compare and constrast well with my experiences and observations drawn from my involvement with both programs.
Vex has its limitations, but I see some of those limitations as strengths: confining materials to the kit takes money out of the equation, taking the competition down to a level where students are competing designs in which money and mentors are less significant factors. Students can lead and experiment without the pressure of a four, five, or six figure budget depending on their decisions. Schools or organizations outside of schools easily handle it without outside help. Moreover, the platform has great tech support and fosters a central online community from a diverse group of people that have a commonality in the tools they are using.
I see no real problem with the Vex platform, notwithstanding the fact that now people have invested thousands of dollars of materials in the platform. I personally own about $2000 dollars worth of materials. The school where I work owns about $6000 worth. I am going to continue to use Vex in my classroom, until the time comes when Vex is no longer serving the best interests of my students. That time is not now.
I do not feel that this platform change is in the best interests of the FIRST participants. I would be highly interested to know what has been discussed in meetings behind closed doors that triggered this reasoning. I am willing to entertain the possibility that that politics and money may be involved, as they unfortunately often are.
Quite frankly, I see no compelling reason to shift from it, particularly with the FTC program gaining so much momentum. I think that is part of the reason behind the transition: FRC’s “little brother” as one experienced FRC mentor put it in Atlanta last year (before I strongly corrected him) has the potential to outshine it’s bigger sibling. Vex gives me the ability to instill the ideals I value and to teach the content I want to teach much better than any other platform that I know of: it is the perfect mix of FRC and FLL, distilled into a single supported product that can be used to make sophisticated designs out of the box.
The statement that was released to the public about the new product makes a few disparaging comments about the Vex product, and I think it does what that mentor did in Atlanta: It puts down students that I have seen get excited, interested and inspired by the program. Particularly the line inferring that Vex is a “toy.” Vex is not a toy – it is a robotics platform. It is a launching pad. It is a great teaching tool. I think that even if the language was not meant to come off as such, it gives a feeling of how some people view the Vex platform, which is unfortunate and misguided, a lot like the decision to abandon this platform as the program is gaining momentum exponentially. I see a lot of teams moving over to a competition that keeps the format and platform of the FVC competition.
Now, I know some people will like what I had to say, some people will not. Quite frankly, the cries of me not being “GP” will fall on my deaf ears. I don’t care how many green lights I have next to my name. I never have and never will.
Slogans are not solutions, and I will work to do the best for my students, regardless of what people say about it. I have loyalties to ideas, not products or names. Saying something is or is not an example of Gracious Professionalism is no substitute for valuing creativity, individuality, and elegance in design. To get the behavior right, you need to start with the right values, what you call it is irrelevant.
Robotics is a tool, nothing more. I am choosing the tool that I feel best does the job I am working on at the moment and in this post I have presented a concise argument of reasons for doing so.
I think that’s about all I have to say for the moment.