The Incredible Impact of FIRST Robotics


Jason Stoeke

The Iron Maidens, Attack on Robot, and the Regal Kiwis after their competition in Rochester in 2015.

FIRST (which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a world-wide organization aimed at promoting STEM and robotics for students everywhere. The vision of the organization is, as stated by founder Dean Kamen (who also invented the segway), “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.” The FIRST cultural shift celebrates scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and other STEM professionals like society does with professional athletes, actors, and musicians. The organization is also unique in its twin concepts of “gracious professionalism” and “coopertition.” The ideas state that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many points a team scored in a match—what matters instead are the transferable skills gained. This makes robotics a very positive community where teams often collaborate and share ideas with each other.

Tai Hendrichs
Robots built by the Iron Maidens, Attack on Robot, the Regal Kiwis, and a Valley Middle School team.

The most common misconception about FIRST robotics is that you have to be a “nerd” who loves science and technology to join. Although a persistent stereotype, this is simply not true. There is a place on a robotics team for anyone who is willing to work hard and collaborate with others. Teams are required to build and program robots, while also running their organizations like small businesses with marketing, budgeting, branding, documenting, and more. This creates a unique dynamic between technical and nontechnical roles, which allows many different types of people to join the activity.

Since its conception in 1992, FIRST robotics has grown rapidly. Originally composed of only 28 American teams, it has since expanded to over 400,000 students in more than 80 countries. The FIRST program is divided into four different branches, each with its own distinct benefits. The elementary and middle school level programs, FIRST LEGO League, Jr. (for grades K-3) and FIRST LEGO League (for grades 4-8), help establish a basis of building, programming, and collaborating through use of LEGOs and simple drag-and-drop programming. FIRST Tech Challenge (for grades 7-12) and FIRST Robotics Competition (for grades 9-12) allow students to apply their STEM skills to a more real-world setting.

The Knights of the Valley
The Knights of the Valley after their regional competition in 2017.

FIRST is a life-changing program that has impacted students not only all across the world, but also here at home. The Apple Valley High School FIRST robotics program began in 2008 with the conception of our FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team, “Knights of the Valley.” Originally titled “How ‘Bout Dem Apples,” the Knights have maintained a strong presence ever since, even drawing former team members back as coaches. A Knights of the Valley alumnus and current mentor, Joey Lake, says that FIRST students can, “. . . find what they like and follow the path that best suits them.”

In 2014, the many STEM-based changes happening around Apple Valley were accompanied by the formation of the “Iron Maidens,” the first FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) and the only all-female robotics team at our school (all others are co-ed). As Barbara Tan, builder and social media manager of the Iron Maidens, points out, “FIRST gives unique opportunities to a diverse group of students who probably wouldn’t get them from any other activity.” In 2015, the Maidens helped expand the robotics program to four teams with the addition of “Attack on Robot” and the “Regal Kiwis.” Tai Hendrichs, programmer for the Regal Kiwis, states that he “. . . already had an interest in computer programming, which made robotics appealing since it provided a real world challenge to overcome, and there were no comparable activities that came to mind . . . the welcoming introduction I was given to FIRST robotics at the start of freshman year here at Apple Valley High School kept me enthused about the activity.” Within the last few years, the program has seen rapid growth and won recognition all the way from local competitions to the FIRST World Championship. The robotics program at Apple Valley has also helped inspire the creation of teams at Valley Middle School, which now has three FIRST Tech Challenge teams and three FIRST LEGO League teams.

For prospective robotics students, the main differences between FTC and FRC, the two FIRST programs offered at Apple Valley High School, are the season length, team size, and robot size. FIRST Tech Challenge teams typically have 5-10 people and build robots that fit into 18” cubes. Their season typically runs from September until mid-February, which is when the state championship is. The top 256 FTC teams out of 5,500+ will qualify to the World Championship at the end of April. The FIRST Robotics Competition robots and teams are quite a bit larger. Their build season is an intense six week period in January and February. FRC teams then compete at regionals and qualify directly to the World Championship, which includes the top 800 FRC teams out of 3,400+. The decision between FTC and FRC for students is often based on what works best for their schedules and preferred work style. FTC members can often expect to help with many aspects of the team, while FRC members typically specialize in a certain area like building, programming, 3D modeling, or marketing.

The impact of FIRST robotics cannot be overstated. It helps students gain new skills and experiences, while also forming lifelong friendships. It gives direction to students who don’t know what they want to do or have too many options to decide. Even if you aren’t sure whether you want to join, stop by the FIRST robotics booths at the Apple Valley High School Back-to-School Night or contact Mr. James Lynch at [email protected] You never know whether robotics could be something that changes your life!

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