What event would have thousands of screaming spectators flocking to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia, to cheer on teams engaged in hard-hitting action to determine a champion? Could it possibly be the Georgia High School League Football state championship? How about the South Eastern Conference championship football game or the Chick-fil-A Bowl? Maybe even the Super Bowl? How about this, it is not a football game. While these events would be excellent guesses the event I am talking about is the FIRST Robotics Championships.
FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The program was founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen as a way to show practical uses of math and science. Teams from all over the world come to Atlanta every year to see what team of middle and high school students can design, build, program, and drive the best robot. However, this is not just a competition; it is a “coopetition” (it’s trademarked) in which students are expected to display “gracious professionalism” (trademarked too). Teams are expected, no required to show teamwork with other teams to reach their championship goals while displaying good sportsmanship.
FIRST robotic coopetitions are broken down into three levels. The FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC) or “Big Bots” is high school teams who design and build large, complex robots. Three teams make an alliance and must work together to score points so their alliance can win. These robots compete on a playing area with a trailer attached to the robot. The object is to put as many scoring “rocks” or soccer ball-sized balls into their opponents trailer while preventing “rocks” from getting into their trailers. In the last 20 seconds of a round, there are balls called “super cells” that are worth more points if they are placed into an opponent’s trailer. Rocks can be delivered by human “payload specialists” who try to throw rocks into trailers or robots collecting rocks then dumping them into a trailer. Teams are required to complete some form of community service project and expected to mentor other robotics teams.
The FIRST Technical Challenge or “Little Bots” is designed for high school teams who do not have the money to compete in FRC or just getting a robotics program started at their school. These teams design and build smaller robots using the brain of a Mindstorm and Bluetooth enabled controllers to operate their robots. The coopetition requires teams to work as allies of other teams to complete tasks on their playing grid. This task is usually taking objects to a scoring area while preventing their opponents from doing the same. The alliance with the most points after a round is the winner. Teams are also required to perform some type of community service and mentor teams in elementary or middle/junior high schools.
The FIRST Lego League (FLL) is middle school or junior high teams building robots using the Lego MindstormLego parts. The coopetition consists of programming a robot to carry out a variety of tasks on a specially designed playing field. Playing fields are changed each year depending on the theme of the competition, this year it was “Climate Connections.” Along with the robotic challenge, teams are also required to present a research project based on the theme. I was fortunate enough to have been part of the first place team in Research Presentation for South Carolina. Teams are also scored in teamwork and robot design to determine the winner. robot kits and any official
My original intent was to participate in conference holds in Atlanta along with the competition. However, the FLL coach and fellow Instructional Technology Coach I work with asked if I was willing to volunteer. Somehow I knew I was going to say yes but just to get back at her, I had her explain the switch in plans to my wife who was holed up at my sister-in-law’s house in Snellville. My wife was not happy but agreed to my volunteering. FIRST coopetition volunteer coordinators must work in the personnel branches of the military. You can request a certain position but they are going to put you where they think FIRST needs you. I, with one season of FLL under my belt, was assigned to FRC, about as far away as you can get. My colleague must have bribed someone because she eventually became a FLL Field Resetter. Like the military, I was given the task of handing out safety glasses then promptly switched. On Wednesday evening I helped check-in FRC teams as they delivered their robots to the pits located in the World Congress Center. Then I was told to check back with the volunteer coordinator in the morning. Thursday morning arrived and after prayers of thanksgiving for not having been killed in Atlanta morning traffic I reported to the Volunteer Coordinator. Forget safety glasses, I was sent to the Curie Field to be a resetter.
When I and the other field resetters reported for duty we were introduced to Matt, our team leader. Matt gathered us around and asked if any of us had never seen a FRC match? Everyone stared at me as I quickly found out my hand was the only one up. I tried to gain some credibilty by stating I have only been working with FLL bots. The continued looks told me while FIRST may be one big family, FLL and FRC don’t usually mix. Still, everyone, including Matt, was nice enough and answered any questions I had. For the benefit of the one of me Matt quickly went over the rules and what the duties were.
Thursday was practice rounds and for some reason beyond my comprehension someone scheduled 44 of them. To make sure teams were getting their money’s worth they tried to squeeze 2 matches per round. We didn’t even come close to 88 matches but we did get the 44 in plus some. All during the day Matt must have been fulfilling a secret wish to be a drill sergeant. He kept after us to work faster and faster trying to shave a minute off the turnaround time. Actually, Matt was very positive while working us like galley slaves and pulled his share of the load and helped teams get robots connected to the network. By the end of the day I was exhausted and could barely stand much less walk. Eventually I made it back to my Sister-in-Law’s and collapsed in the bed.
Friday was much better. I guess the coopetition brought the energy level up for everyone involved. Also, I knew I was only working half of the day because I had to head for home. Another thing was Matt was far more positive than the day before. He actually called us a “machine” which I am sure was as good a compliment as we would ever receive from him. As the matches went on, I found myself becoming more and more of a FRC fan. It does not take long to get acquainted with the rules and strategies of each team. Teams scout each other as much or more than any athletic team I have been associated with. Some teams come into a match with an offensive game plan or try to dump as many rocks into an opponent’s trailer as possible. Other teams play more defensively by either avoiding offensive robots or jamming the offensive robots into corners and not let them out. It became so addicting I was glued to my computer at home on Saturday watching the finals which were webcast. I really wished I could have stayed though the finals on Saturday just to experience the excitement firsthand.At the end of Saturday the champions were crowned and other awards were handed out. Teams shook hands and congratulated each other demonstrating gracious professionalism. That night Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta was host to an after event party. I am sure kids swapped e-mail addresses and promised to stay in touch. Others made vows to return next year and win the overall championship. Still more started planning for next year’s robot incorporating what they learned from this experience. Through it all, two things were in all participants’ minds Saturday as the fireworks exploded in the Georgia Spring sky. One, science and math do matter. Two, it was fun!