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!
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.