3 Things I Learned from FIRST Robotics – and Why Everyone Should Try It

In FIRST Robotics competitions, students and mentors work together to build a robot to play a game. Being a member of a FIRST team gives students the ability to spend a large amount of time learning about robotics in a practical setting.

Many people wonder if the time and energy spent doing FIRST (either as a student or mentor) is worth it. As someone who participated for two years, I can confidently say that robotics taught me so many skills and provided me with professional and personal growth. Here are three big things that FIRST taught me.

1. How to Communicate Technical Concepts

Each team has several engineering groups (mine had Programming, Build, and CAD), and good communication among the teams was essential. As a member of the CAD team, I’d often have to explain how we designed a part or system to someone who was building the physical parts or writing the software to run it.

During a robotics event, a group of judges (community volunteers with different levels of tech experience) visits each team to learn about their robot and the decisions that went into it. Participants must present to these judges and explain their engineering choices and build process. This is a great way for them to practice synthesizing technical ideas for a technically diverse group. At the end of the competition, the judges give out various awards for things like community outreach and excellence in engineering.

Knowing how to communicate technical details is a daily part of my job at Atomic. My experience with FIRST Robotics provided a strong foundation on how to do it effectively with all groups of people.

2. How to Find Ways for Everyone to Contribute

The game that the robots play changes every year, but the competition structure is always three teams vs. three teams. In all qualification matches, you are randomly placed with two other teams to form an “Alliance.”

Frequently, games are designed with several different ways to score points. In the 2016 game, for example, there were goals on the ground, goals in the air, and obstacles that you crossed for points. In general, some teams focus on one area, while others try to be good at every area. This creates an interesting problem when multiple teams have the same skills.

Before each match, an Alliance’s coaches and robot-operators meet to come up with a strategy for the match. As a student, my focus was to find how my team could score the most points and win. My mentor had different priorities — he wanted to make sure everyone could contribute by doing what they designed their robot to do. He felt strongly that every team should get to show off the work and time they put into designing and building their robot to do something well. I would often get frustrated and disagree with him when we lost.

To make it clear to me that points were worthless, he wrote down “800 points” on a piece of paper and gave it to me. It was a funny thing to do, and it showed his desire to look out for everyone, not just ourselves and our score.  I’ve since realized the importance of creating a culture where everyone is able to use their skills to add value, and I owe him for that realization.

3. Don’t Stop Iterating!

One of the rules is that you only get six weeks to build the entire robot. It was always a time crunch at the end, and we had to make sacrifices to get everything done in time.

After those six weeks, the 120-pound robot gets put into a giant bag and you aren’t able to work on it unless you are at a competition. Because of the short time frame, it was not uncommon to need to fix things that broke. In some cases, we even had to make major changes to a robot arm or lift when it wasn’t working as well as we hoped it would.

At every competition, we looked for anything we could optimize to make the robot perform a little better or faster. One year, we even added an entire system to lift the robot off the ground. Even though we were drained from the intense build season, we strived to never be satisfied with what we had. This is the same attitude I try to have in my work. We can call our software good enough, or we can look for ways to refactor our code to make it even faster and cleaner.

FIRST Robotics taught me valuable life lessons, and I am thankful for the two years I was able to participate. I would encourage anyone who is interested to visit the team in your area to learn more. There are opportunities for people with various interests to join a team and do art, business, marketing, or engineering.

If you are too old to participate yourself, you could volunteer as a mentor or sponsor the team to provide opportunities for girls and boys of all ages to get first-hand experience in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math). You won’t regret it!