Note: This article is part of a series, documenting the All Sparks through the FIRST robotics season. To find the other parts of this series, see the list at the bottom of the article.
When most people think of a robotics team, their mental picture probably includes lots of metal and wires and sensors. While that is partially correct, particularly during our 6-week build season and the competition season immediately following, there is so much more that goes into a successful robotics team than just a good robot.
Our team preparation starts almost as soon as the robotics season ends. Typically we will end our season with a team debrief, and start discussing some of the things that we would like to improve for the next year. While our mentors continue from year to year, our most experienced team members move on to college after their high school career ends. This means an almost constant cycle of training and practice to help develop our incoming team members. Our end of season debrief helps us to determine what worked well and what didn’t while everything is still fresh in our minds, allowing for preparation and planning over the summer.
After the school year starts, our freshman training begins with a series of intensive training for our new members. We go over everything from CAD, to programming, to manufacturing, and electronics in detail. This year, in addition to our usual training, many of our underclassmen joined FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) teams as a way to learn the robotics basics in a more hands-on way. The FTC robots are much smaller, allowing for more innovation and creative problem solving without the expense of the FRC robots. Beyond the initial training, our school offers several robotics-focused classes for students that want to refine their skills even more.
Outside of the school, we also participate in events to bring attention to the FIRST program in particular and build an interest in STEM programs. This year, for example, we spoke at the local TEDx conference held in November, TEDxSMU, brought our robot and a portion of our field to a local science museum called the Perot Museum to allow participants a chance to actually drive our robot, and also demonstrated our robots at several fundraising events throughout the city. During the year, we also work to develop our team’s online presence through facebook, twitter, our website, and any other venues we find (such as Make). Our goal is to make our team’s process as transparent as possible to give other, newer teams more information about how to successfully build and develop a FIRST team.
During the 6-week robotics build season, our list of responsibilities as a team expands to include preparation for awards. One of the unique aspects of the FIRST program is that the highest awards require more than just a good robot. Many awards require essays and other supporting documentation to be submitted in order for a team to win. For example, the Chairman’s award, the highest award possible in FIRST, required a 10,000 character essay, an in-person presentation by our students to the judges at an event, and a video showing the team’s goals and objectives. The Chairman’s award is given to a team “which best exemplified the true meaning of FIRST through measurable impact on its participants, school, and community at large.” While it is possible to be a successful robotics team without submitting for awards, we always make sure to submit because even if we do not win, we receive valuable feedback from the judges on ways to improve our program for the long-term.
The FIRST Administration manual states that “the FIRST Robotics Competition is not about machines; it is about the experience of people working together toward a shared goal.” Although we certainly strive to create exceptional robots through our program, we always keep in mind that this program is about so much more than just the robot. We want to use our robots to instill a greater appreciation for science, technology, and making in everyone that comes into contact with our students and our program.
The All Sparks FIRST Robotics Season