Using Ri3D to maintain alumni interest

Yesterday, I replied to a thread from a university student wanting to start a Robot in 3 Days team at their school. There was a lot of discussion going on, and after replying I couldn’t stop thinking about some of the things that were said, and wanted to create a thread to discuss one the main points brought up and hear chief’s opinions. This topic is very important to me, my team, and my school, and I sincerely want to improve FIRST and need to hear some external opinions.

Reading the earlier thread would be a good primer on what chief seems to think about the current state of Ri3D, but essentially, the consensus was to not start an Ri3D team from the perspective that Ri3D is meant to provide resources that help raise the competitive floor in FIRST, and doing so is a truly difficult task unless you have experienced people, lots of resources, and tons of time.

However, I want to bring up another often unconsidered benefit of Ri3D - especially in the context of the thread being written by a university student. At the risk of just rewriting what I said earlier…

Don’t get me wrong, I believe Ri3D should remain a tool that at its core provides resources to help raise the competitive floor in FIRST. But at the same time, I believe a lot of good can be done by expanding the Ri3D initiative into more universities and colleges across North America, keeping alumni involved and bringing FIRST more volunteers so we can all keep doing what we love - playing with big metal buckets on a velcro field. Ri3D is perfect for FIRST alum in University, I speak for 40 kids here at the University of Waterloo. It’s extremely challenging, fun, and only takes 3 days of the majority of the teams time away from school, so we can focus on our studies while maintaining excitement about FIRST. It just works.

Having said all this, I need to know what can be done to reconcile these two benefits of Ri3D. Should university Ri3D teams stay away from the official Ri3D channel and focus on maintaining alumni interest, unless they can provide some serious quality content? Should all Ri3D content simply be vetted before being posted? Should university Ri3D teams have their own system, more focused on maintaining alumni interest than anything else? What do you think?

Can confirm, Ri3D is a great way to build a collegiate robotics organization and maintain FIRST alumni interest in the program.

I can relate to your struggle between using Ri3D to maintain alumni interest, and to actually help raise the competitive floor of FRC at the same time. Of course there are those that believe Ri3D does little to nothing to help raise the competitive floor of FRC, and if every FIRST alumni and their sister starts an Ri3D team, and all of that content is posted as official Ri3D content- I think those people will be right.

I can say from experience that Ri3D has a massive impact on local teams. The teams in the region where you build, and the teams that have first hand access to the Ri3D robot/team are impacted in a huge way. The process of going through Ri3D sets up the alumni to be highly effective mentors as they learn the game, experience many of the design challenges, and they can provide first hand experience to a team that they are mentoring.

So one recommendation I would make, is to start your first Ri3D season with the objective of helping specifically your local teams. This might shift some of your focus from creating and posting content online, to bringing teams in to your build so they can see what you’re doing first hand. Maybe at the end of the process you can make a cool reveal video and post that online. This is one idea to help keep the official online Ri3D content streamlined and useful to teams.

Another possible solution would be to have somebody from Ri3D 1.0 check through the content and only post the best content… I’m not a member of Ri3D 1.0, but I can say they have plenty on their plate already to add that task to their list of responsibilities.

One of the most impactful parts of The GreenHorns’ Ri3D program is we team up with pre-rookie teams to let them use our robot at off-season competitions the year before they start. We’ve been doing this since 2016, and have helped a number of teams. I think it would be awesome to see an expansion of this to other regions, and other Ri3D teams.

With regard to maintaining alumni interest specifically, I can say that Bison Robotics wouldn’t exist without Ri3D. Bison Robotics has 100+ members and we’ve supplied Minnesota FIRST events with around 30 unique volunteers per year going back to 2015 and many of these volunteers do more than 1 event (I’m doing 4 this year…) When I started the club my Freshman year, my primary selling point to people was that we were going to do Ri3D. Using that selling point, we were able to grow from 6 people in November, to more than 24 members in December. We only had 1 month from the time we started Bison Robotics until we were participating in Ri3D and the organization blew up in that short time.

Ri3D helped to kickstart a student organization that grew to more than 100 members in just 4 years and we’ve won NDSU’s Student Organization of the Year in each of the last 2 years (literally just because FIRST alumni are awesome and we destroyed the other organizations with our award submissions). If every College/University could have their own version of Bison Robotics/GOFIRST/Purdue FIRST etc. then that would be a win for the world. If it takes starting an Ri3D team to mobilize FIRST alumni into starting such a group, then that’s what should be done. But I completely agree that there is a right way to do it, and a wrong way to do it. Figuring out which is which and promoting the right way in new Universities is important. I’m looking forward to seeing what others have to say about this.

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This is something I forgot to touch on, and exactly what I think the natural progression for university alumni who start an Ri3D team should do. Ri3D is something that requires less commitment than mentoring / volunteering, and therefore is a great way to initially draw FIRST alumni back into the FIRST program, with something challenging, fun, and exciting. This is in no way to say Ri3D doesn’t require a huge commitment - it does - but to everyone except the organizers, in the grand scheme of things, it is just 3 days. That’s it.

Beyond this - there are many things you can do, but Ri3D is a wonderful start, and perhaps the only thing some schools might have the resources for. The University of Waterloo has loads of design teams, every team on this outdated link still exists, but there are still many unlisted teams. When FIRST alum reach higher education and (often) realize their school’s FIRST alumni group is not what they wanted it to be (robot building), they join a student team and eventually forget all about the FIRST program. That’s again not to say these teams aren’t great, they are fantastic, nearly everyone on UWRi3D is now a part of one, but because of Ri3D, they also remain engaged with the FIRST program. My team and I have been working towards starting a FIRST related design team and we are very excited to announce it in the coming months, as a next step for those who really enjoyed the Ri3D experience and want to continue here at UW. I hope to add to the list of larger FIRST alumni robotics organizations on campuses across North America, and continue to see these kinds of groups grow in number.

Very well said.

I stand in the middle on the effectiveness of Ri3D teams at this point. My team does use the prototypes come up with each season as a kind of sanity check for designs at the end of week 1 since we don’t meet often and have to focus on a few prototypes with a high likely-hood of being usable as a result. I like Ri3D for this. But finding good content is a challenge; there isn’t a good centralized site for all the content anymore like in the first 1 - 2 years with a handful of groups, and teams are very inconsistent on how much of their prototyping and mechanism functions they release videos of. I am starting to lean towards additional teams just adding to the clutter right now and not really providing more value.

Ri3D being used to maintain alumni interest (or build new interest for those who couldn’t do FIRST in high school) does shine a light on a broader issue than just building the volunteer base for FIRST. There is a demand for some engaging technical activity at a college level that it seems is not being met currently, and robot-building type challenges are one option to fulfill that demand. The growth we are seeing in both size and quantity of Ri3D college-affiliated groups as well as the development of the Vex U program both point towards something not clicking with just the existing programs that have already been around. When I was in college I remember being involved with a club that participated in IARC, and the total team count at that time was less than the number or Ri3D teams created at this point (they’ve only grown by about 10 teams in the almost decade since). It was an interesting program but at that time didn’t have the engagement or wow-factor to hold a lot of student’s attention. I ended up leaving the club after about two years and my old school no longer competes since there wasn’t enough faculty and student interest to continue.

This is something I’ve chatted with falconmaster about at events as he’s seen this same kind of vacant space at the college level among the alumni from 842 and other AZ teams. What is it about the FRC challenges that, even when you aren’t going to compete in them, still gets everyone excited and motivated to join in? If more Ri3D groups isn’t the right approach, then maybe doing something like more MCCC events would be a good way to get students engaged and contributing to FIRST.

This is definitely something that can be improved, and everyone probably has their own opinion on how to do this better. Quality content takes experience, and experience takes time, but little things can be done every day and bigger things every year to improve the content for next year. It’s difficult to centralize because that requires a single vetting authority everyone can trust - veterans such as Ri3D 1.0 would be great for this, but their hands are already full. This is something that could use a quick community opinion. My team and I are working towards more quality content for the following season.

Very well said. Something about the FIRST Robotics Competition somehow captures every alumni’s attention better than any other engineering competition, and as long as that remains the case, something related to FRC is the best thing we can do to keep FIRST alumni engaged. Without asking for more infrastructure from FIRST, Ri3D is the easiest thing for a student group to do that brings back excitement about the FIRST challenge. Although a program like Vex U would be ideal, that would likely be a long ways away, and until then, we have to make do with what we got.

Events like the MCCC are exactly what UWRi3D and our friends here in Canada are working towards doing.

FWIW, the Ri3D content is very valuable to my team, which doesn’t always have all the resources/time we would like to prototype to our hearts’ content. I think most of the “clutter” issues could be solved by creating better playlist structure on the YouTube channel, and then allowing all Ri3D teams to submit videos for moderation to the channel. I’m not sure if the manpower exists for that right now, but if moderation was split between multiple veteran Ri3D teams it might be possible?

Also, in my opinion, we would appreciate at least reveal videos from even the newest of Ri3D teams (just maybe refrain from the typical FRC editing scheme where you want to make your robot look infallible even when it only has 40% high goal accuracy). A video with cool music that also provides an honest look at what was made is invaluable.

I agree, however I would add a ‘robot walkthrough’ similar to what Team WPI did this year (and possibly others, WPI is the one I remember). The honest robot reveal is very helpful (2 mins), but a 10 min video of a few people talking about the robot (standing next to the robot, pointing things out and then cut to closeups while they are talking) is extremely valuable for those teams that cannot always prototype extensively.

If we can get a 12 minute video, the first 2 minutes of reveal and the last 10 of walkthrough, I think that any new Ri3D team can make a very valuable contribution to the community.

Would it legitamize or imporve the Ri3D if they had to compete? Wouldn’t it be cool to get some of these machines together to have a little scrimmage? Roll it into the Week Zero event to allow all sorts of folks (volunteers, robot inspectors, FTA, Game design…) to use these robots to seek out pitfalls in the latest game?

I think that’s the concept of the MCCC competition run in Texas this year-- and in my opinion it’s a very natural evolution for Ri3D, especially if there continue to be more teams popping up without much intent of producing their own content. Part of the beauty of MCCC is that it shifts the need for the actual teams to produce a ton of content into one big, inherenty useful event that can have more coverage and focus on it than any of the individual teams.

One of the other great things about something like MCCC is that you can run it without regard to team composition-- Alumni teams, community teams, actual teams can all potentially be involved. Heck, last year 'Snow Problem ran our first ‘Robot in 1 Week’ scrimmage for FTC. Something a bit more formally like that would be great to do for FRC if we could find the space.

I want to push back a little on this. You are welcome to play with big metal buckets all you want, but presumably the Ri3D initiative is being marketed to your sponsors as a way to help the FIRST program isn’t it? If so, then claiming the biggest benefit for what amounts to an expensive sleepover for bored alumni isn’t really truthful. Moreover, I would bet that most of the people who signed up to help your Ri3D team either a) motivated enough to volunteer with FIRST anyway, or b) didn’t volunteer even after Ri3D.

Why not volunteer for a local team instead? Teams are always desperate for experienced mentors and Alumni get another kick at the can. More importantly, you (by you, I mean your 60 Ri3D signups) can take all of that passion and free education they got from FIRST and give it back to the next generation of students.

Or if that doesn’t do it for you, consider entering one of the manyother engineering design competitions available at the University level.

I’m a student on an FRC team that has an Ri3D team. Many of our mentors, especially the college students, participate in Ri3D. From this perspective, I have mixed feelings about Ri3D’s effectiveness.

It is helpful to have mentors who have already analyzed the game and understand its complexities and challenges. They can help us decide what tasks might be easier or more difficult than we initially thought. One unintended benefit was that all the mentors were busy the first few days. This allowed the initial strategy and design discussions to be more student led than they have in previous years.

However, Ri3D does negatively impact us too. They share our build space and materials so we could not begin prototyping until Wednesday/Thursday this year and we didn’t have enough materials. Ri3D teams also have very different goals from us; they want to build a cool robot that does everything. I think that many FRC students adopt this mentality from watching Ri3D videos, causing them to lose track of realistic and strategic designs and goals.

As for maintaining alumni interest, I’m not sure Ri3D is effective. Yes, many of Ri3D members also mentor us, but these are the motivated alumni that would mentor us regardless. The Ri3D also has quite a few members that participate only for the robot and do not continue to mentor or support FIRST teams.

This is cool.

One of the key challenges to organizing Ri3D as a broke college student is how to fund it. Not all universities have a good source of funding for this since it is not a sustained research project or going to a national/regional competition. At Carnegie Mellon there’s this ECE-dept. sponsored HW Hackathon (Build18) in the first school week of Jan that would be an awesome candidate, but the budget was $250-300/project until recently. We floated the idea around FIRST alumni a few times, but the funds didn’t work. FRC robots are expensive…even when the cost of FRC COTs parts are way cheaper than common industrial parts.