The Growing Gap in FIRST & on CD, and Our Responsibility to Fix It

This is a bit of a rant that may not flow perfectly, if you want it to flow perfectly I’ll send you some of my Fluids homework, it’s much prettier than this

NOTE: this cover a broad range of problems I am noticing as an Alumni of the program, not any single problem

I don’t get it, and maybe i never will.

I’ve been a member of FIRST since 2002, I have been active on CD since 2004 and still regularly attend regionals when given the opportunity. 9 years in the FIRST community! 7 years as a member of our CD Community… What happened to us?

As a whole I see the system failing to achieve it’s own goals. More and more teams are competing every year and every year we initiate thousands upon thousands of new students into our community. But at what cost? Many of these new teams are led by individuals who do not fully understand or recognize the true desire of FIRST as an organization, and see it only for the competition. These students are being sent out to a world that they do not fully understand or appreciate, which leaves them vulnerable to their own, or their mentors, misguidance and misinterpretation.

Before you read further, understand that I’m not saying growth is bad for the program, far from that in fact. I’m saying that the rate at which growth is occurring, and the way that expansion is achieved may very well be hurting these students more than helping. How many new teams were formed last year and still exist today? How many students were on those teams that were truly inspired by FIRST, yet lost the opportunity to compete due to inadequate funding? I understand that as a community we would like to see every student with some interest in science, technology, or engineering to have the opportunity to take part, but how realistic of a goal is that? Are we pushing expansion without looking at the consequences?

When I come back to these forums as a FIRST alumni, I see students with unclear understandings of the program complaining about something that has been a valuable aspect of FIRST for as long as I have been around. I have read posts by mentors who enter into FIRST with the wrong interpretation of the programs and the goals. Like any other competition and organization, FIRST has a reason behind every decision it makes. I’ll surely be one of those people to speak out when I believe they have made a mistake. And as far as recent events on CD are concerned, 217 & 469 for example, I will certainly protect the teams and individuals I have come to respect and admire when they are slandered on these forums.

Don’t get me wrong, I am disgusted with the amount of complaining and whining that takes place here. I am flabbergasted when I see some of the most important and respected members of our community have their posts (which are most likely civil and explain the situation from a more experienced point of view) ignored simply because an individual refuses to step back ad re-evaluate the situation. I do not like to see friends of mine discouraged when their hard work, and the hard work of their team, is defiled openly and in many cases cowardly.

I feel like this gap, this riff in our community is in dire need of a bridge. Mentors of newer teams, encourage your students to READ through the depths of CD, there is a lot of information, knowledge, and incite that they could never get from you hidden in the threads here. newer students, If I can encourage you to do one things while a member of our little CD community it would be this, when you feel like you’ve been wronged or you feel the need to post something controversial, PM one of these respected members of the community first. They will be more than willing to take the time out to either re-read your post and suggest less brash wording, or talk to you one-on-one in order to explain the situation. Mentors and students alike, If you have a problem with a team, the way it’s run, or the way you were treated by a team member, take the time to talk to them personally before you attempt to defile them openly. Misunderstandings and a lack of communication is our major problem here, and it is time we fixed it.

There are a lots of users here that are on the same page with you. We are all looking to elevate the discussion. The teams are losing the sense of community. Lets be positive and grow from this experience.

I agree Jay. I’ve been afraid of unguided growth for a while. I am a big fan of quality over quantity.

I think you’ll find that many of the mentors who post here have expressed concerns over the way FIRST is growing. Instead of looking to sustainability, they are looking toward growth.

I can’t remember who said it, but they said something like “I’d take 1 good, sustainable new team over 100 new ones any day”.

Growth for the sake of growth is not progress. It is quantity at the expense of quality. FIRST’s #1 goal should be working with new teams to reduce the incredible infant-mortality rate we’re seeing among new teams. That doesn’t mean handing them money, either, as is so often the “fix” in this day and age.

To me, it means putting certain very strict guidelines in place for starting new teams - guidelines that reinforce and confirm that the team has what it takes - especially in the mentor department - to get it off the ground.

So before o judge or say anything i’ll tell my story/my team’s story -
1578 was one of the first teams in israel, on the first regional in the 2005 season.
The team was active in 2005 and 2006 and then was closed.
All members and the teacher left school.
Last year, me and a couple of friends heard about a “robot competition” called FIRST. We had the WORST mentor and didnt have any adult more than that. During the build season i fell in love with robotics but still didnt have any idea about what FIRST really is.
In the comeptition, I saw all the other teams - helping each other and communication with other teams. Only then i finally realized what FIRST is.
Of course this year we continued for our second year.

So first, i have to say that i don’t know how it was 6-7 or even more years ago.
But i think that two years of living FIRST every day and day is enough to know what you are talking about.

By now, i saw two sides of FIRST and you could truly see this in th Israel Regioal a week ago.
There were huge communication problem and almost all robots didnt work for the first two days. The teams were divided into two types:
The first - the teams who got upset. Most of the teams, especially the rookie teams. Many teams started a riot and made chaos everywhere.
But there were also teams who didnt lose hope, and just played the game as it is - like they should.
First is much more than a competition and whose robot is better.

Most teams are not taught by the values of FIRST and thats a shame. But I dont think its a reason that First is dying or something. It can be changed at any time - the teams just need to do that change :slight_smile:

I agree that FIRST should focus on sustainability before growth. It is understandable that Dean and others want to see FIRST grow as quickly as possible - and the speed at which it has done so in recent years is truly remarkable - but we must ensure the core values and spirit of the program are not forgotten in the excitement.

On the bright side, the total number of teams participating continues to increase at a healthy rate. 2008 saw 1,508 teams competing, while 2009 saw 1,677. Given the poor economic conditions of those years, one might expect the number to have decreased this year. In fact, it increased to 1,811. I have posted a graph of total participation in the past fourteen years. The number has never decreased from one year to the next, and the graph is quite linear, implying a stable, steady rate of growth.

What is alarming is how quickly team numbers are increasing with respect to number of teams. A growth rate of 100-200 teams per year is fine. It would be nice if that was composed of 200 teams with a 90% success rate rather than 500 teams with a 40% success rate.

One thing I will say is that the spirit of FIRST, in my opinion, is still thriving. Maybe CD is getting a little too cranky. But at VCU last weekend, I still saw veteran representatives in every rookie pit, I still saw teams helping out their opponents, and I still saw victims of unfortunate circumstances on the field let it go and remember that the robots aren’t important. This year, my team was both one of those that needed help, and provided help. We got 3361 up and running. And when we were frantically trying to pass inspection at lunch time on Friday, we must have had representatives from four or five teams surrounding us.

Gracious professionalism is alive and well. Such an amazing value system doesn’t need perfect management to stay alive.

There is wisdom here and a lot to think about. Teams learn and develop at their own pace but the communities and regions that have established a strong network among the teams can help make the changes needed at a more efficient rate, helping to strengthen the teams, the region, and the competitions, deepening their understanding and their commitment.

I increased and deepened my understanding of what it means to be involved in FIRST - by traveling as an individual and volunteering at different events. By volunteering at different off season events: Mission Mayhem, IRI, and Brunswick Eruption, I learned a lot about the teams that compete at the events and about the host teams and the communities that they are a part of. I also learned about the importance and value of teams participating in off season events. By volunteering at different regionals: Lone Star, Florida, OKC - I learned about the different venues, the communities, and the teams that participated. By volunteering at the Championship, I learned even more, esp. as an FTC volunteer, gaining a perspective in that. What I try to do with those experiences is share them. I share them with the team I’m a member of and I share them with teams in our community. The goal is to help strengthen the area, making it more robust.

We can all find ways to deepen our experiences and understanding, but we have to make the effort. It takes effort, commitment, accountability, and patience. A great sense of humor comes in handy, too.


For the record, I didn’t understand the values of FIRST until my first regional either. Then, after witnessing one competition, I was absolutely blown away by the level of cooperation and the sense of community. I immediately “got” gracious professionalism without ever being taught the formal definition of that term (in fact, I still couldn’t recite the formal definition). The biggest “wow” for me was when I watched a team in the finals use their own timeout to go fix the robot of the opponent they were about to battle for the win. Just watching that was enough; no one needed to explain to me why it was occurring.

What I’m getting at is that it’s the community (i.e. us), not the mentors of one specific team, who is responsible for spreading the real meaning of FIRST.

This is true but if new teams and even older teams can develop their program and strengthen it before the competition, that strengthens the competition. In some regionals recently, there have been many rookie teams participating. It is wonderful to see the veteran teams help the rookies and others, but it would also be helpful to have support in place during pre-build season and/or build season - not just at the competitions.

If you are at an event and there is a split of understanding, that is difficult to overcome. The division/split/misunderstandings can be eased through earlier training, off seasons, teams having fun together designing and implementing some team building exercises/workshops alongside the workshops in the technical side of things.


I’m not sure yet exactly why, but this thread confuses me and makes me uncomfortable.
As I read and re-read, trying to come to grips with what doesn’t feel right about it (the whole thread that is), I noticed Jane Young’s sig.
So far, this thread seems a little short on that kind of positive energy.
I suppose it’s a requirement that, before we can start fixing things, we need to spend some time lamenting what needs to be fixed – maybe even allow ourselves to feel melancholy about it for a while.
Increased numbers of new students increases the likelihood that some of them will exercise poor judgment and brashly display it here on these forums.
Uh, so what?
New teams will fail or succeed.
Again, so what?
Celebrate those that succeed.
I guess I’m just not seeing where this is headed.
I should probably just watch and see. :confused:

Jay I must agree with you.

Mark A. Ivey

I understand the concerns above but I keep thinking of something Dean Kamen said in NH at the regional, “Why doesn’t every school do this?” I hate the thought of anyone not having the opportunities I have seen this year, my first year as a mentor.

Maybe it is a matter of training for rookie teams, perhaps pairing them up with a veteran team. Maybe a large effort into convincing administrators and potential sponsors that the money invested in the program is one of the most valuable they can make.

I agree that it is a bad thing to only have a 40% success rate and can’t imagine the disappointment of a program ending after those involved have gotten a taste of First, but I would hope we could put the effort into making more teams succeed then limiting the number who start.

I think part of the problem is that we can’t predict which teams will succeed without first allowing them to fail.

Three examples of recent rookies in Michigan that have succeeded immensely, by whatever measures you choose to use: 2337, 2834, 2771. These teams hit the road running and never looked back, and there are others like them all around the country and world.

Then there’s another team that shall remain nameless to protect the innocent (and my mistaken impressions of them). In their rookie year, their robot had to be rebuilt at the regional (and RE-built is a generous wording of the process). I thought they were hopeless. The next year, I don’t recall the details, but I still thought they were hopeless. Last year, they started coming into their own - maybe they’re not hopeless. This year they should end up smack in the middle of the Michigan rankings and have a good chance of qualifying for State. Also somewhere along the line their teacher/mentor got a new job and they lost him. I would have given up on them as hopeless; I’m glad somewhere there was someone else that didn’t give up on them. They also have great enthusiasm for volunteering.

Contrast those with teams that were formed last year or the year before and are no longer here. What happened? I’m sure every failure story is as unique as every success story for sustainability. But I have noticed one factor: You can’t just throw money at a team and expect them to survive. There has to be leadership and there has to be enthusiasm in students and mentors alike. How do we get that enthusiasm and leadership? If we knew that, we would have the problem solved. One thing that definitely can help is established teams mentoring new teams. If your team has a history of at least several years, consider mentoring a new team next year. (Mentoring teams shouldn’t be expected only to be those teams with low numbers; as an example look at 1114 and when they started mentoring others.) It couldn’t hurt and might help. Even if you’re struggling yourself to stay afloat, what you learn in helping a new team might just help your team as well.

Thank you. Thank you very much for this post. I would spotlight that if it was less dependent on context.

If I may be frank, I realize I am young by many standards and may not have much of an opinion in these matters. I walk the halls with many of my friends, and some of those are in robotics, though I do believe that one of the things that many in my generation are lacking, is initiative.

Laziness and uncaring of students is the thing that is killing many teams in my eyes. At our regional I see new teams struggling through it… and old teams struggling through it. I am afraid of it preying on my team, this year and years to come.

A number of dedicated people can only do so much without driving themselves to exaustion. To have an effective and long living team, it really takes a small workforce to sustain.

There are so many people in our communities that love technology… but what a waste it is when they have no intention to improve or continue it!

Perhaps we as leaders (not necessarily the mentors) need to reach out to these teams during build season, and explain FIRST to the students more carefully. I see newer teams that have had no contact with another team until a Regional; that’s almost criminal.

Perhaps I should make it a point next year to prepare my team the best I can, so they can build robots while I visit rookie teams in the area and offer my help. Not much, I know, but that’s what comes to mind.

Before I discuss any particular issue I want to say thank you to Jay for bringing this topic up.

I will admit, I don’t listen to Dean Kamen’s speeches 100% of the time. Not sure why but I do distinctly recall him saying a couple (thousand) times that there needs to be an FRC team in every school. For the first time in several years I finally heard him talk about sustainability last year. Now, maybe I am just an ignorant fool but this seems to imply that FIRST would prefer to lower the quality of the program for an increase in quantity. This scares me. I am hoping I am wrong and would LOVE for someone to show me I am.

I’m gonna have to disagree with you Gary, we can predict what teams will succeed with some accuracy. While it won’t be 100% we can usually tell if a team is going to be sustainable by how it goes about finding help. I can’t speak specifically for 2834 and 2771 but I can tell you that 2337 has some serious FRC experience in its mentor force. Not only that but they have community and parental support. All too often people will view money as the main resource an FRC team needs. People look at me like I am crazy when I say that I can always find money but it is true, money is a very widely available resource if you are willing to work hard and be creative. Engineers are in much higher demand. Skilled engineers who are also effective mentors are rarer still. Community support is another major hurdle that many teams neglect. I recall 3 years ago when 2337 was first starting up a call for mentors went out through my company for help because one of the employees thought that someone there might be interested in getting involved. Before they even existed 2337 was searching for the help it needed. Additionally 2337 networked with teams in the area. They don’t have the tool they need? Maybe 397 does, or 494, or 68, or 27… Obviously, I am quite familiar with 2337’s story but I am sure that 2834 and 2771 share similar stories.

I guess I will just put a short list of things that imho a team requires to be sustainable:

  1. Mentors (NEMO and Engineering, NEMO being most important)
  2. Community Support
  3. Network of regional FRC teams
  4. Sponsors/Money

These don’t assure success but they can’t hurt. And yes, they are in order of importance.

What concerns me more, and these may be selfish concerns, is the death of old teams. How many teams are no longer with us or are no longer competing at a level accurate to their history? Those teams that are dying that slow painful death despite the best efforts of their mentors? To me it evokes images of the decay and ruin of Detroit, once majestic but now just sad to look at.

As always, I’m a few posts late to the tea party, and agree with just about everything that has been said. I’ll still add my two cents, though, and also as always, I feel like I’m going off on a slight tangent that is not as on-topic or as well-organized as it could be (read: “well, it made sense in my head…”).

As a freshman, I didn’t really get FIRST until my first competition. I also did not understand how beneficial CD and the FIRST community are until I was almost done with my first year on the team. It takes some time for new people to get the picture - not everyone learns at the same rate.

This is only my 2nd full year on CD, and I have already noticed how different it has become. I outlined some of my concerns here. Though that post is specifically about the changes on the forums themselves, I still believe that a lot of it can be traced back to the team environments. FIRST can preach all they would like about their ideals, but if nobody carries those ideals home from Kickoff with them, then it is the team’s fault for not doing their job as a FIRST team. After all, this program is about inspiration as much as it about recognition. You can recognize science and technology all you want through building a robot, but being able to inspire others takes confidence, passion, and a genuine desire to help others better themselves. Sometimes people fall short in their attempts, and some don’t try enough. I can’t speak from a mentoring standpoint, but as a student, I feel like inspiration naturally falls down the chain of command: it starts with Dean, Woodie, and FIRST, and trickles down through the existing mentors and students to the new mentors and students, and through the students to their friends and family. If mentors are coming into FIRST not knowing what they are supposed to be doing, it is their fault for not reading the fine print before signing themselves away. But even then, the problem will only worsen if nobody takes initiative to sit them down and explain what this program is all about. It may also be the fault of the students for not attempting to open their minds and embrace what others are trying to teach them. I’m not going to point fingers, because everyone shares some of the blame. It is also everybody’s responsibility to help fix the problem that you have identified, and it may take several rebuilding years. They will be hard, but they will be successful if executed correctly.

I too am disgusted with the amount of complaining, whining, and stubbornness that I’ve seen lately. I’ve also been disgusted in the responses that I have seen to users who do not yet realize that these forums are not the place for “lol guys water game IT’S A TRAP,” bashing others, and not thinking their responses through. I have also seen kind words pointing the lost travelers in the right direction, encouraging them to take part in the intelligent discussion that occurs here. I see inspiration on these forums every day, and I am still inspired daily by what I read. Seek, and you shall find.

Media and social influences should also get some of the blame - Hollywood and politics don’t take the “stand-up-straight-and-respect-your-father-and-mother” attitude that many of the older members of CD were raised knowing. These forums have simply adapted to the newer generation. Respect and honesty are always going to be staples in the community, but everything else will change with the times, as much as some may try to stop it.

What a thread! It was only started at noon today and by the time I read through it I was logged off! Lots of great thoughts, loved it.

IMHO, there is not a master plan here from Dean, FIRST or anyone else. No more than Michael Dell had a master plan in his garage or Bill Gates had a master plan when he represented that he had an operating system ready to go!

FIRST started and I would think that if the NASH Equilibrium could be applied to it, it is predictable. It started with advocates of the initial principles and grew until it became statistically significant to real life. It now includes great people, competitive people, lazy people, people with apathy, people wanting something out of it only to their advantage, etc…real life huh!

Is the fact that teams are failing bad? Obviously I would like for every team to be sustainable but that will never happen. Does every business or organization survive? It can be a valuable experience because the students involved might learn why the team failed. In most cases that mirrors real life…poor leadership. Better to experience failure early, learn why and be able to see it coming the next time than to always be successful and not know how to deal with failure.

GP seems to be analogous to employee involvement, team building, focus groups and all the other buzz words you hear in the corporate environment. You are in competition with your co-worker for rankings, etc. and yet asked to work together in a team. Real life!

To me the bottom line is that FIRST is a program that offers opportunities galore. Not only for my son who is learning valuable lessons (mostly through the failure mode but that’s OK) but also for me to be involved with him and to have the most fun of my life volunteering and enjoying all the great people involved with FIRST. And CD mirrors all that I said, again and lastly IMHO.

So many great points in this thread.

On the other hand - This is my first year although my team has been around 5 years so I cannot compare with past years. I am incredibly impressed with what I have seen all season long. As a person who has worked building and designing custom automation for over 20 years I can only wish that the attitudes of almost everyone I have met involved in First were more common in the workplace. This forum is amazing - informative, entertaining, was it really developed by an FRC team? The Granite State Regional ran smoothly and was the most fun I’ve had in a long time (can’t wait for Boston). And I really think that the many varied skills will be extremly helpful to the students as they move on to the workplace, whatever career they chose.

I guess my point is that whatever it takes to make it succeed is worth it.