On FRC's Sustainability and FIRST's Growth Strategy - Thoughts and Questions from an Outside Insider

I wish I had a better title for this, but I really can’t think of one. Talking to a lot of FRC people on Discord about similar subjects, we often come to the conclusion that the program has a bit of a sustainability problem. I’m sure it’s no news to anybody that FRC is expensive - registration alone for a two event season can run somewhere between $5000-9000, depending on where you are. And that’s just registration alone! It makes this page on FIRST’s website seem really suspect. Now, I come from a program where you can often run entire 4-6 event seasons, robot parts and all, on those registration fees. And the season ran from September through April. Some FRC teams (such as the closest one to where I was when I was in FTC) have their season consist of a single regional that they often come away from empty handed. (We saw a lot more of that this year. Coronavirus or not, I don’t think you can deny it kinda sucks…)

And that’s not really talking about the logistical capital required to pull FRC off. From my albeit somewhat limited perspective, you really need a solid mentor/coach organizational base for a team to really function well. My FRC experience was largely one mentor who didn’t really put a lot of time in, and I think the team really suffers for it. FTC, in comparison, has had many more successful teams emerge out of primarily solid student leadership and teamwork alone - this is pretty much how 70-80% of the top 25-50ish robots got built. It’s more of a norm than an exception - there are many teams that primarily function out of the captain’s basement, and not a school.

I’m just going to quote pages 22-23 from this position paper:

Unfortunately, it was only after FIRST Chesapeake leadership had steered their goals in the
direction of long-term sustainability that they began to uncover a deep flaw with the flagship
FIRST product they’re responsible for selling.

It turns out that FRC was always designed to be unsustainable.

The FIRST Robotics Competition was established with a philosophy that regarded traditional
education systems as obsolete and beyond repair. The program has extreme unrecoverable
costs by design, as it was never intended to be independently sustainable without the force of
wealthy institutions behind it.

From the beginning Dean Kamen targeted large private corporations as the main provider of
FRC funding. We don’t have an education crisis, says Kamen, but we do need corporate
America to wholly supplant broken traditional education systems.

FIRST participants must ask: What happens when SOLIDWORKS, and other private
companies, are not there to give students the perspective—and the tremendous financial
resources—they need to experience STEM with the same eager excitement as they feel
towards entertainment, music, and sports?

Low-resource, conventional school-based and community teams want to participate in the FRC
program, too, alongside the teams that are bankrolled by multinational tech firms. And that is
inconvenient. It takes a dedicated adult effort and much money to stand up a FRC team.

It’s kinda interesting how in hindsight FRC evolved away from being solely supported be corporations and universities and managing to a certain degree to commoditize itself. I mean, just look at when we stopped using the “full names” of teams (their list of sponsors) and started using their “nicknames”. I’d even go so far to posit that one of the reason why FRC still exists 28 years later instead of collapsing like some of Dean’s other expensive projects was because economic and technological progress lead to participating in the program itself becoming cheaper (the COTS revolution, accessibility of computers, etc etc.)

Ultimately, the resolution to this is either going to be make FRC cheaper to participate in, either by downscaling along some axis (longer season? smaller robots? idk) or maybe by not treating FTC like a side program that nobody really knows what to do with. It’s certainly not stopping them from doing that while they try to push FRC teams to try and get everyone they see involved in a new FRC team.

I guess this leads me to the alternate possible title for this thread, which is If FIRST’s goals are ultimately to make robotics accessible to as many highschool students as possible, then why is it pushing FRC as the forefront of its program?

One of the most common responses to this is “Well, marketing, and FRC is just that much more exciting to me.” Which is fair to a certain extent, but I’m not entirely convinced that it justifies the money and resource drain in a sales pitch. Like, sure, it’s great that you have strong major sponsors and a school that lets you succeed, but not everyone is ever gonna build that up. Like, what are you gonna tell the homeschool coalition who can’t even join your team anyway because of district policies? And what do you say to those FRC school teams who figured “Hey, we only need 5k, right?” and immediately collapse and their school never wants to touch robotics ever again? While pushing FRC at the forefront might make the experience better for a few, I’m not convinced that it’s necessarily the most efficient way of maximizing resources to raise the average experience and inspiration for everyone.

Plus, it really doesn’t help how FIRST neglects FTC at all. Frank Merrick seems pretty engaged with the larger FRC community. FTC doesn’t really have that at all, and their leadership sounds rather disconnected from it. I don’t know why FIRST thinks its a good idea to tell regions in the Deep South of the most need for growth “Hey, we’re only ever gonna take the one Inspire winning team with all the money and trained half of your region’s volunteers to worlds, and the rest of you can suck it.” Not saying I dislike those teams, in fact, I applaud their efforts on the front lines of the program, but they definitely don’t like the situation as much as everybody else.

At least advancing the full winning alliance gives teams some hope they can get 2nd picked. Just look at the Arkansas rookie winning 2nd pick this year. Supposedly, “their school’s principal was apparently texting basically everyone in the district’s administration about it after finals.” Imagine if they actually got a Champs slot in an alternate reality where COVID-19 didn’t exist and FTC had a 320 team championship.

Overall, I guess it pains me to see FTC in the place it is. It has so much potential both in growth and in experience, and it just feels kinda wasted by FIRST. The program has grown so much independently of FIRST itself in the past 2-3 years alone as it undergoes both a COTS goBilda revolution and ultimately a team one as well with a lot more programs taking the program a lot more seriously and the program getting more competitive. Even the affiliate partners have kind of shifted their own attitudes too, and they’re treating the program more seriously too. I unironically think Skystone was better than the recent Vex games and one of the best games in FTC ever. (Plus, they still have best of 3 eliminations.) Basically, I think if FIRST picked more up on their end of the deal they could make a premier highschool robotics experience that would really fit right up there next to FRC, for a fraction of the resources.

What do you guys think?

Disclaimer: My motivation to make this thread was combined boredom and curiosity on novel takes on the situation from perspectives I haven’t seen before. It’s not a social experiment, I swear! :stuck_out_tongue:

One thing I will ask of all of us is to try and stay away from justifying our arguments solely based on personal anecdotes, like “I was in FTC for 2 years on my school team and it was terrible and then I joined FRC and suddenly my life got way better”, like, cmon man, we’re on CD of all places, if you’re posting here, you probably like FRC, and it really doesn’t add a whole lot to the conversation if we’re just going to play into sampling bias. Like, I can say that I got more out of FTC than my FRC experience, but that won’t add much to the conversation, either.

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I think you’ve got a pretty reasoned understanding of this. I posted this a while back:

That being said, ignoring the stuff that squarely falls on HQ (game design, advancement system, etc.) I think one of the biggest things that makes FTC less appealing as a flagship level program is the lack of staying power of teams. It’s great for accessibility that you can form a top team with a few dedicated kids in a basement, but then that team usually dies off as soon as those kids graduate. It’s disappointing as someone that wants to be a “fan of the sport” that there usually isn’t any sort of team history to add to the gravitas of the moment like a 254 vs 1114 Einstein match.

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I can definitely sympathize with that. I think from a cultural perspective, a lot of that gravitas for FTC participants come from the team’s performance over the previous few months of the season and/or a season or two before. There is something to be said for teams to be able to look up and think, “We can reasonably end up around the top within my time in the program with mostly just my team.”, and there’s definitely been a lot of origin stories that end up like that.

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I’m going to answer two or three questions.

  1. Registration vs: 2-event cost: FRC is in two different systems right now: Regional and District. The cost on the page is the Registration cost. if you’re in a Regional area, that’s 1 event ($5K for a veteran team, $6K for a rookie team). If you’re in a District system, it’s 2 events. If you’re in a Regional area, your second event is $4K (or if you want to compete in a Regional area). This doesn’t count District Champs or World Champs–at ??? and $5K respectively–both if you’re a District team and qualify to World Champs.
  2. FTC neglect. There’s a lot I have to say with this one, not much complementary… but there was an event, over 10 years ago now, that I think is best described as the Great Mistake. Without going into too much detail, FIRST could have had VRC (VEX Robotics Competition) as its mid-tier program, and instead they managed to make enough people really mad that VRC 1) exists and 2) is really good.
  3. FTC Champs Qualification: I really don’t think this is a function of neglect. I think it’s a function of “Way too many teams to fit around FRC at Champs”. FLL has an even worse problem–you have 2-3 levels of competition to even have a sniff at Worlds if you’re at the right competition one level below Worlds. HQ wants 1/4 of FRC teams at champs–so about 800 between the two events. If you’re going to do the same for FTC and FLL, there’s probably about 4 of each of those teams per FRC team on average, so about 3000 teams per league between the two events. You do the math: They’re big enough for their own world competition, separate from FRC. BUT! HQ wants all of the programs together so that the younger set can be inspired by the older set.
  4. I’m going to have to use that common response to why FRC is the flagship program. It’s got bigger (better) (cooler) robots, that can be seen from much farther away. It’s OLDER by a good solid 15 years (AKA has more momentum)–I’d go into why FTC exists in the first place but that’ll set me off because I’ll get around to the Great Mistake. (PM if you want to know–I might even be able to find the old threads from mid 2008.) And, uh, it’s more expensive… but a lot of that goes towards keeping FIRST (including FTC) operating if I understand things correctly.

By the way, I do agree that FIRST could stand to improve FTC. For starters, the live scoring a few years ago was really bad where it existed–though I understand that’s improved a bit. Possibly someone like Frank (no, you do NOT get to steal him!) could be a really good person to lead–though I sometimes blame Bill Miller (Frank’s predecessor) for starting a lot of what Frank’s continued in terms of being open, talking to teams about what’s going on with them and what improvements could be made.

P.S. in addition to the Great Mistake, FIRST also made a Lesser Mistake a few years later. FRC teams were forced to use FTC parts after the Great Mistake, which happened to reinforce the belief that it WAS the Great Mistake. Another item you can either search the old CD threads (early 2011) or PM me about.

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I specifically said somewhere on $5000-9000 to cover both the district event and regional cases, as essentially the bare minimum for a season. Not everyone can afford a 3rd regional or make district champs. In both systems, it’s still above the amount of money required to run an entire FTC season, and often then some.

I’ve heard of this one. It’s kinda tragic, but I think FIRST eventually made a Decent Decision - axing nearly all of FTC’s parts restrictions. It actually managed to justify FTC’s existence way more after the fact…

Last time I checked, there’s only about 1000 more FTC teams than FRC ones. I think the current advancement ratio for FTC is about 5% and falling. 10% alone would be sufficient for a lot of people. Personally, I feel that FLL doesn’t really get as much if they got more people in Champs versus FTC which is a highschooler majority program.

That might be a good justification for making FRC more accessible to more people to the point where you can fold up highschool FTC teams into it.

Compare the scoring screens from this year to even just 2 years ago. It’s night and day.

Can we at least clone him?

I’ve heard about the 2011 minibots. Honestly, if they made a comeback with modern FTC parts rules, I could see FRC teams being a lot more okay with it. For starters, they could machine them whole along with the rest of their robot, and they’d get Neverests which don’t die if you stall them for 5 seconds, are more powerful, and can even use Versaplanetaries. (wow!) Or Rev HD Hex motors. Pretty much the only thing not allowed, for better or worse, would be for teams to buy a hypothetical Greyt minibot by the 1 degree of freedom rule.

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It only took them forever to do it.

Let me put it this way. You mentioned GoBilda. Imagine if you will that you’re told for several years that you have to use GoBilda–nothing else. Great, you say, and stock up on those parts. With ZERO warning, GoBilda parts are 100% banned and you’re offered two options that are both inferior, and you have $$$$$ in said parts around. You have to purchase all new parts that are worse just to compete.

If there’s only another 1K more FTC teams than FRC teams, it’s partly because 50% of the early adopters or more went to VRC because of that situation above. FIRST didn’t handle it right by anybody’s estimate. If they’d just opened it up to other systems then that would have been one thing, but they didn’t. It didn’t justify FTC’s existence, it almost eliminated it! (Ironically, VRC’s existence justified FTC’s existence, due to the popularity.)

Oh, yeah, I agree that with more modern FTC parts teams would be more OK with the 2011 minibots. The problem was that they pulled it when people were just starting to recover from the Great Mistake, and tried to force it too hard. My memory is rolling a bit, so I’m going to leave it at: There were some spectacular fireworks, and HQ hasn’t tried to do that since. (Unified theming like they’ve been doing lately is nice, though.)

On registration: $5K for 1-2 events is the minimum. Not everyone can go to a 2nd regional! Add $5K for robot budget. Oh, sorry, did I accidentally fund an FTC program for 2 years instead of just one? :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


BTW, I will say this: You’re not alone in that thought. The discussion has raged on and off since the Great Mistake, here, there, and everywhere–usually crops up every couple of years. Even a lot of folks in FRC think that there should be more FTC teams and more focus on FTC. (@Andrew_Schreiber is the main advocate I can recall on short notice… but there ARE others.)

And FIRST’s strategy in general has targeted quantity of teams over sustainability of teams. Why? I don’t know. The debate continues. Generally from a mentor point of view, they want sustainability. (Well… time for the test of that right about 6 weeks ago and continuing…)

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I’m really curious to see how and if FIRST reacts in a major way towards sustainability in the wake of a major crisis. It’s hard to predict anything at the moment, but I wonder what findings have come out of FRC from 2007-2009? Although that more or less happened during the nebulous FVC divorce era, and FVC itself seemed to be taken a lot less seriously…

So where do we go with it?

The truth of the matter from me is that I see the ecosystem as needing both FRC and FTC. In my backwater part of the robotics world we had a flare up of FRC teams initially when we got a regional(2013 or 2014) and then have suffered a continual decline with the program since then as programs become unsustainable.

An FTC team however, is almost always sustainable(financially) as long as you can solve the continuity problem. In our context we are targeting schools to make that better. As far as I’m concerned the ability for students to do FTC should be offered just like we offer basketball to kids in schools.

This model is meant to build up all of FIRST because a solid base of grassroots students who know FIRST and know what the programs are can create an environment where clubs can sprout up and draw on more students with an easy field to recruit from.

I think it is different marketing, but both programs need to be successful in order for both programs to thrive in this challenging time.

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This is a slight mischaracterization of my substantially more radical argument but it’s nice to know some of my ramblings are heard…

I’m of the position that FTC/FRC is not really suited to the realities that schools exist in.

I advocate for 4 levels of program (bear with me, it’s less crazy than you think)

  1. FTC circa 2011 style with heavily restricted mentor involvement - by having more of kit style it enables teams without fabrication resources and without technical mentorship opportunities in their region.

  2. Modern FTC with heavily restricted mentor involvement - For schools that have some fabrication resources but lack the availability of large technical mentorship.

  3. Modern FTC with encouraged mentor involvement - This is the closest analog to modern FRC. Open builds with mentors involved.

  4. A premiere invitation only league - Think more like battle bots, made for TV. These are more like modern upper tier FRC robots.

1-3 play the same game and teams can move between leagues as resources permit.

4 is really unique and designed less as a STEM program and more to make it loud.

I have a paper on this somewhere I’ll see if I can find it.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1QvBRaGzSbGFNazAUQIQx2KwKIR3N3AlKFq2hpuc1epI/edit?usp=sharing Here is the initial paper I wrote up about this including the original problem I was trying to address (FRC can’t keep scaling)

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This. This. This.

All major high school sports have classes or tiers, and I’ve always found it interesting that so many in FRC are so resistant to this template.

I also think there are ways that the program could shift to the above proposed setting in a gradual way over a number of years.

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I think if the communication for such a move were transparent, clear, concise, and readily messaged to all parties then it would actually be met with open arms instead of pitchforks and torches. I think the community is yearning for it in a lot of ways.

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As I have been getting more and more involved with FTC over the last couple of years (FUN content) I don’t think level 3 exists currently. There seems to be a very negative culture on mentors from what I have heard online and seen in person at events. I really wish FIRST pushed for a culture that was much more accepting of mentors and partnerships of students and mentors in FTC.

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I agree, one of these days I’ll get a chance to redo the projections and actually write up that section and “finish” this. Life uh gets in the way.

Rereading the proposal, I think it’s sometimes overstated how much impact mentor involvement can have on an FTC program. Having been very involved in the community myself, a lot of teams have ended up quite far with just the students alone pushing the team.

I think an understated criticism of FTC in its current form is how you can very feasibly build a World Championships winning robot with only 1 or 2 students and only having mentors for logistical reasons. I think the program could actually stand to consider upsizing a bit.

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I don’t know the functional impact of mentor involvement in FTC, I do, however, know the social impact of the perception of mentor involvement and that’s what I’m trying to discourage.

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Sorry in advance for the somewhat off topic rant. IMO the only FIRST program that clearly communicates their intended level of mentor involvement is FLL, with “kids do the work”. FTC is probably the least clear, and they’re not helped by having many FLL teams who move to FTC and bring those opinions with them.

Take some of the FLL coach guidelines:

Adults play an important role in coaching and supporting the team, but the team’s robot and Project must be the work of team members. If judges or referees notice adults directing a team’s performance, cuing the team, or prompting children, they may ask the adult to leave the immediate area. FLL team event guide

Kids Do the Work Appropriate balance between team responsibility and coach guidance FLL judging rubric

In FLL, the children are expected to do the work – the programming, the research, and the decision making. Adult coaches and mentors are guides, helping the children find the answers. FLL judges should be wary of teams where adults are overly involved, and ask questions to determine if the children did the work themselves. After questioning the children, if judges believe that adults did the work for the children – or if children tell the judges that their coach or mentor did the work – that team should be marked down to reflect this problem. (unofficial?) FLL judging guide

Compare that to FTC/FRC, which is less clear and mostly emphasizes “have students do as much work as possible” but also a “spectrum of involvement”:

In addition, Mentors help to foster the idea of Gracious Professionalism® and have the students do as much of the work as possible. FTC/FRC mentor/coach flier

Mentors should also be comfortable with letting the students ‘do it themselves’. FIRST encourages the ‘hands on’ method of learning. We believe that the more each student is allowed to try, the more confidence and knowledge she/he gains from the FRC program. Make sure your Mentors enjoy working alongside high school age students and are comfortable with letting students take the lead at times. FRC team handbook

In FIRST Tech Challenge, it is important that mentors and students are equal and that the relationship is a partnership. Each person works collaboratively towards a mutual and beneficial goal.

For Mentors teaching FIRST Tech Challenge, the spectrum of involvement of the Mentor may be based on the structure of the course. FTC mentor manual

The “learning and doing” progresses in four steps. The mentor starts out as “I do” and in certain areas, can finish as a sustaining “I watch.”
I Do You Watch
I Do You Help
You Do I Help
You Do I Watch
FRC mentoring guide

Even with FRC, where CD likes to talk about how it’s marketed as a “mentor-based program,” their branding has also somewhat changed over the years, moving away from the focus on company partnerships and working alongside professional engineers.

From 2003:

The FIRST Robotics Competition provides high school students the opportunity
to work alongside professional engineers to design and build robots. Student teams
work with corporate sponsors to compete in 23 regional events leading up to the championship.The process inspires students to learn more and pursue further opportunities
in science, engineering and technology.

Key to FIRST’s success is exposing students to professional engineers who mentor teams.
Mentors become role models and help the kids develop skills in engineering, technology,
math, project management, communications, and teamwork. 2003 annual report

To the current description:

Under strict rules, limited time and resources, teams of students are challenged to raise funds, design a team “brand,” hone teamwork skills, and build and program industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors. It’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get. Volunteer professional mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team. Each season ends with an exciting FIRST Championship What is FIRST Robotics Competition? page

tl;dr: I don’t think it’s really FTC teams’ fault that they’re mostly against mentor involvement, when that is essentially how FLL is run, and they’re never really told FTC is supposed to be different.

.
this was not intended to take a stance on mentor involvement in any program, just point out how unclear those guidelines are

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A lot of the negative perception comes from the fact that there are also a lot of student ran teams that can find a lot of success, completely on their own. IMO FTC doesn’t require mentor support to the level of some FRC teams, and shouldn’t. while this is a more personal anecdote, I’ve been on multiple robotics teams with all levels of mentor involvement, and I’ve found the most success and learning has came with having mentors that are very hands off: they’d offer technical advice when they felt it was needed or we asked, but otherwise were more there to let myself and others explore and learn, even if that meant the robot was a dumpster fire. While I know this isn’t an opinion shared by everyone, I know others out there who feel the same way. That’s not to say that I think there should be no mentors (mentors are part of the reason why teams are able to reliably sustain for longer in FRC), but I think that leaving at a level 2 or 2.5 is best.

I also think that while the original goals of FRC required mentors in order to learn a lot of what we do today, that is not the case today. FRC and FTC have a large community base, as well as documentation and resources, such that learning about things such as CAD, programming, etc. are a lot easier, and don’t require a mentor to learn. you can learn a LOT about things such as mechanical design from observing CD, as well as just talking to other experienced students and mentors. However, I think there is a point to be made about having mentor involvement to expand that knowledge and resource base (FEA, more expansive mechanical design calculations, etc.), but I do think that innovations in what methods we do/use can be made by invested students as well.

I don’t have data handy to back this up but it’s a gut feeling: To me this becomes a systemic sustainability issue with FTC and leads to more team turnover and also less students being involved as mentors on FTC teams in the future and starting more FTC teams. Mentors need to be fulfilled as well in what they are doing and ones who are idle and stand around tend to be much less engaged in my experience. Sure there are exceptions and many will say it’s only about the students (which is part of the problem, especially in FTC IMHO) but a good leader of a team involves all parties including students, mentors and volunteers.

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I’m going to go out on a limb and wonder if Vex has similar issues.

I bet it ultimately comes down to some degree to the nature of the program - the program’s scope is really small enough that, ignoring things like “sustainability of the team itself”, you can effectively solo a successful season or do so with your other 2 friends from school.

These kids are going to try and win and/or be otherwise successful competitively and the idea of a mentor backed organizational superstructure sounds to them like something that would slow them down. Does it? Sometimes. I definitely see some of that in the program I personally graduated from, where the mentors end up at odds with the students who are often a bit wiser in competitive decisions than they are. Maybe the real model was always trying to set up good school-based support systems within which the students still have a lot of agency but the mentors can still both help the whole thing stay cohesive and be more involved in design. I wonder if 6800’s program has anything to say on that one…

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VEX dealt with their issues in a unique way. They basically outlawed all mentor involvement beyond supervision and teaching.

Some excerpts from the 2020/21 Game Manual




And here’s a link for their full policy on student and mentor involvement.
https://www.roboticseducation.org/documents/2019/08/student-centered-policy-rec-foundation.pdf/

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