2023 FIRST Robotics Challenge Kick-Off

January 8, 2023

Day 1 and 2 of Build Season

We just had the kickoff for the FIRST robotics competition on this Saturday. This is where we find out what the new challenge is going to be for this high school’s FIRST Robotics Competition. We started by gathering together for team building. The game is revealed through a video and then a series of field tours where we get to see what the field is going to look like. For those of you that aren't familiar with FIRST robotics, an example would be a field where you would be playing as an athlete for one year. You're playing football and you have to figure out the new layout of the field as well as learn the new rules of this game. The very next year you are playing soccer instead. So you can, picture in your mind, how the field is different, the goals are different, the game pieces, sometimes even a different setup of your players, and how you are going to play offense and defense.  Some rules allow you to use your hands and some don't, sometimes you can use your hands depending on where you are on the field or what position you're in. I have the pleasure of being a mentor to so many high school students who are just incredibly intelligent, talented, driven, and who are just curious, hungry to learn, and excited to work with other students who share their passion and learn from adults and industry professionals, like myself who are volunteering their time.  What's so fun about kickoff is that we're all getting introduced to this brand-new game or this challenge for the first time together.

I don't know any more than my students do when we first have the game revealed. I'm learning everything at the same time and the same way they are. What types of game pieces? Is our robot going to need to interact in what ways? Is our robot going to be able to score points? What does the field terrain look like? What are the limitations on how big our robot can be? There are just so many different things that we have to learn together. So the way that we spend day one of this FIRST robotics competition season is by putting aside any ideas for designs and just trying to absorb and comb through the rules. Plus, understand how the game can be played.


We are going to get to talk through our strategy and so as a mentor, my job is to make sure that students are understanding what is legal to do during the competition. Hopefully, we've hashed that out yesterday, but I'll try to make sure that we're keeping those things in check. We are strategizing things that are legal, which is number one. Number two is going to be a little bit of a cost-benefit analysis. For example, football. Are we going to be kickers, people who can kick the ball? Is that something that we think is worth getting points and advancing through the competition? Is that worth it? Do we have enough mentors? Do we have enough money? Do we have students interested and building whatever mechanism, we're going to need in order to complete that particular task? There are lots of things that we're going to evaluate today.

During that cost-benefit, we need to determine what our strategy is as a team, and what's important to us and prioritize some of those functions. Then, make sure that we have the proper resourcing. How difficult will it be for us to do to accomplish these functions? Do we think it's worth it? So that's really where the cost-benefit analysis comes into play and sometimes we don't know. I'll give an example. There are two main game pieces. One is an inflatable object, so it's going to be very light and squishy. It can be deformed a little bit. The second is a cone and this particular cone is made out of almost rubbery plastic, so it's also pretty squishy. When you pick it up, it might be scattered or go around on the field in different orientations. So, we might be trying to decide today if it is a priority for our robot to be able to pick this cone up off the ground. And if the answer is yes, then there's a follow-up question: Do we think it's a priority to be able to pick up this cone in any orientation? So that’s an important question to be asked in order to drive some of our work for the rest of this season. We might not know our team has never tried to pick up a cone before with a robotic mechanism.

We have never tried to pick up a cone that was laying on its side. And so we never tried to pick up a cone that was really close to a wall, so we might need to do a little bit of prototyping. In order to answer some of these questions to even figure out the cost-benefit analysis, we may not know how hard it is. We might think it's easy in our mind because our hands can go and pick up a cone, pretty easily. Depending on what our strategy is for now, scoring this cone and in order to get points, we're going to have to decide as a team, what's important to us about that. Depending on what our answer is there, we might need to reorient the cone once we have picked it up.

We might need to pick up the cone on its side from the ground, and if we want to be able to score that, the way that it is scored at some of the levels for scoring one is a ground level and it can be in any orientation, but the middle and high levels. It has to be placed on a pole which means it has to be scored in a very specific orientation so which adds a little bit of complexity. So all of these questions need to really be to be answered now. What we're going to do as a team today? This is where we're going to decide what our strategy is. We're going to prioritize and then we might even have some stretch goals and what that means is we might decide that there are some things that we think are important. But they're not the most important. So we're going to have some of our bare minimum criteria or priorities if you will and then we're going to have some stretch goals that say we would like to be able to do this but only if it doesn't interfere with us, being able to achieve some of our other goals for today.

Today will be a really fun day. It’s not as fun as getting to build robots. But this is what's going to set us up for the rest of the season to drive. Not only what our subsystems look like, which means there's maybe a particular function and we have a small team of people including students and mentors, or mentors working with those students to build a mechanism that can do that function. Today is going to be the day where we are really going to be able to outline how many groups of students we are going to have to work on different mechanisms. What's also fun about our team is that we're in our ninth year this year. We started in 2014 so I probably need to do the math or some debate on how old we actually are because our first competition was actually in 2015. We're a fairly old team, but we had a few setbacks during the pandemic as most teams did. We can see a big difference in our students, and their confidence levels, in their interactions with each other. Also, one thing that came out of the pandemic was we had students come back with a renewed interest and doing things in person.

We had the biggest team than last year and we've got an even bigger team this year. It can be kind of difficult to run a program with this many students, we have about a hundred students interested and I guess only time will tell how many students are actually going to be engaged and exhibits a high level of participation. But already 100 students are many and we are fortunate. We've got several volunteer mentors like myself. We also have industry professionals, some in academia, many mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, computer science engineers, computer engineers, and even marketing professionals to work with some of our students who are more interested in the business and marketing side. We are very fortunate to have those resources. In order to keep this many students engaged in hands-on, we are going to be building robots this season so it's a lot of moving parts and it's very challenging for me as a mentor. But just to describe these to you these robots, we're going to be building two. Two robots will be more on the basic side. So what could we expect as more of a baseline robot? We’re in a competition and this really allows some of our newer students, our younger students to really still put together a machine that can accomplish tasks without being very complex and needing a lot of industry mentor input or requiring a lot of time.

So for whatever reason, we do have students that can fall into this category and this gives them a place where they can still learn some incredibly valuable skills and help them figure out if they like electrical or do they actually like gear ratios gearboxes, and motors better than connecting wires or do they actually like programming? It still gives them those hands-on skills to learn how to use tools and how to maintain a robot. There are so many amazing skills that they can learn. Now, the two other robots we will build will likely be a little more complex. It's going to try to accomplish more things, which is really to stretch and challenge the upper-class men, our highly engaged students. And so we're going to build what we referred to as our competition robot.

We’re also going to build a practice robot. Now, the practice robot concept really came from previous years where the rules force you to stop working on your robot after a certain point and we could continue to work on the practice robot and get our drivers more practiced, trying to use a replica of the robot that was going to be going to the competition. And now we don't have those same rule restrictions anymore. We still choose to build a practice robot because anytime the robot is down from maintenance and it’s a lost opportunity. For our drivers to not be able to continue getting that driver practice that can be really critical for our competition.  We have to give our drivers time so they can find flaws that need to be fixed. Our intent is to have two identical robots so that as one is being either upgraded maintained repaired, the other robot can still be utilized for our driver practice.


It's going to be an intense next few months. We're going to have a hundred students trying to build four robots and we only have a little more than six weeks in order to try to accomplish this. So to give you an idea of the time frame, we happen to choose to compete in a week for district competition and then we fully intend to be competing at the district championship, which will be around more of a week six and then two weeks after that would be the world championship. We're obviously hoping to be competing in the world championship as well.

That is absolutely our goal and that's something we'll be talking about today because we'll need to ask ourselves what would a world championship qualifying robot look like if that's our goal, then we need to figure out what strategy we need for that.

So going back to what we're talking about today, it's going to be a long process for me as a mentor. This blog is really to just communicate better with some of my supporters, my audience, and my sponsors and what my time outside of my normal job really looks like. How do I give back to the community? How is my business giving back to the community? You know, this experience of me mentoring every year in such an intense way is really what led to the creation of this business. It's a passion of mine to work with all students, but I'm extremely passionate about reaching the underrepresented and underserved. So, being a woman in STEM, that was maybe one of the first things I decided to focus on. I really wanted to help inspire girls to just try new things and have the courage to speak up, try something, make some mistakes and then just learn for themselves. If they are interested in continuing to do those activities, there's no harm in using a power tool and deciding that they don't really like it, but I want to make sure that that experience is giving them good data. If you have a bad experience with something, it could be a lot of factors, and maybe something that's unorganized or you don't have a good mentor that is supportive. All of those things can factor into someone quitting something or choosing not to pursue something.

I really want to be that positive driving force that is not intimidating but really encourages students to try new things. And then encourage them to try it again or support them in their decision to not continue it. So I've had students that we were not planning to pursue STEM who are now pursuing STEM, and have graduated with engineering degrees and are working at amazing institutions and are very happy. That makes me incredibly happy for them, but I’ve also had the opposite happen.

I've had students show up with the intent to pursue a technical degree after high school. And because of their experiences with me, they actually went a different way that was outside of STEM. Honestly, that's okay. I know that I try to get more students involved in STEM so that they can give it a try and hopefully pursue it but ultimately plan is just to help students better understand what makes them happy and not based on what someone else tells them will make them happy or what they watch on TV that will make them happy but really get their hands dirty and build something that they can be proud of and that's really my main mission.


I’m going to have to sign off for now and head into day two of mentoring and I will see you again tomorrow. 

Let me know in the comments if you are a robotics mentor and where you are from!  Best of luck this year in the competition!