Things we love about FIRST Robotics

Grandville RoboDawgs

Advertisement appearing in the Honolulu Star “The Pulse of Paradise” on Sunday, March 16, 2014

This morning, in the Sunday paper in Honolulu, there was an advertisement for the FIRST Regional Competition here in Hawaii. Seeing the ad triggered two thoughts. Some day the RoboDawgs need to play in this event. We love FIRST.

Many people ask us why Grandville has built robots to compete in FIRST Robotics Competitions for sixteen years. Some question the amount of money we invest in this competition each year, as our FRC costs this year will exceed $200,000. Others raise concerns about the level of commitment required, as students and mentors each put in more than 1,000 hours between the first week of January and the end of April. New parents often question the wisdom of our student-designed, student-built, student-run robots in a competitive league where many robots are designed by professional engineers, where many teams’ parts are made in the machine shops of major US corporations, and where many competitive drive teams include a player who is bald and wears a wedding ring. To all this, we answer: because FIRST creates a learning environment unlike anything else available to high school students.

We have just returned from a Michigan District competition where our scouting teams reported several pits with adults working on the team’s robot, and with no youth in the pit. Return visits to those pits confirmed that it was still adults that were working on the robots. They commented on the beautiful, custom anodized aluminum parts that some team’s corporate sponsors had made for them. Observations like these are part of the educational process – an education that you will have to learn to compete in a world you may not always believe is fair.

With all this – we still love FIRST. Our teams learned a tremendous amount in the last two weeks. Learning that doesn’t come until you’re in the heat of competition, until you’re headed to the field in front of 3,000 people. FIRST competitions force our teams to bring together knowledge, experience, talent, and teamwork.

We love FIRST because no one individual, or two, or three can successfully build and compete with an FRC robot. These machines and their programming are complicated, and it takes a team to compete and win. Nothing that happens in a classroom during the day forces kids to work together like FIRST does. No sports team brings together the passion, teamwork – and brainpower that an FRC team does. A winning FRC team has all the interpersonal and team dynamics of a championship basketball or football teams – but FRC teams also require massive amounts of knowledge about drivetrains, electronics, pneumatics, sensors, cameras, and control systems.

Our teams learned a lot about what they need to do to win over the last few days. We have a team where nearly 1/3 of the students are new this year, and there is a lot of robot knowledge these kids are still learning. We have a phenomenally talented Senior class, but they’re once again learning that it takes a team to win. We lost a few rounds over the past few days when RoboDawg teams took to the field without completing their checks and maintenance between rounds. Loose power connections cost us at least three matches. An open pneumatics valve cost us a match. The only path to winning on a student-run FRC team is when the captains fully engage at least eight students and the whole group works together to keep their machine running and winning.

We enter every year with new captains, and a new group of students. We structure our year so that they have the opportunity to learn the things no adult can tell them. Every year we expect our first couple events to generate huge learning for the kids, and this year has been no exception.

We’re off to a great start. I’m guessing that we won’t go to the field next week with loose power connections. I’m guessing our captains will be working with good pre-game checklists, and I expect all three teams will be shooting and scoring in the autonomous period. This year we have three amazing teams, and it’s all going to come together next week in Midland. Watch next week! You’ll see the magic that happens when you let students design crazy contraptions they dream up, build those machines, and play under the direction of other students.

If you’re watching, you’ll see why we love FIRST when we play in Midland – and then you’ll see these kids hammer that point home in Calgary. These students will continue to learn and grow at an incredible pace over the next three weeks.

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