You all know what NASA is and does. "FIRST" is an acronym that
stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and
FIRST is also a 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission is to
generate an interest in science and engineering among today's youth.
Currently, our primary means of accomplishing this goal is through
our annual robot competitions, which began in 1992. NASA, who needs
many more engineers and scientists than our schools currently
produce, is one of the primary sponsors of the high school event -
the FIRST Robotics Competition.
We are sending you this information because we think you will find it
VERY interesting...It's long, I know, but we wanted to give you a
good idea of what's involved.
FIRST Robotics Competition Information
The FIRST Robotics Competition is a national
engineering contest that immerses high school students in the
exciting world of engineering. Teaming up with engineers from
businesses and universities, students get a hands-on, inside look at
the engineering profession. In six intense weeks, students and
engineers work together to brainstorm, design, construct and test
their "champion robot". With only six weeks, all jobs are critical
path. The teams then compete in a spirited, no-holds-barred
tournament complete with referees, cheerleaders and time clocks.
The partnerships developed between schools,
businesses, and universities provide an exchange of resources and
talent, highlighting mutual needs, building cooperation, and exposing
students to new career choices. The result is a fun, exciting and
stimulating environment in which all participants discover the
important connection between classroom lessons and real world
Each year, the competition is different, so returning
teams always have a new challenge to look forward to. However, the
details are kept secret until the unveiling at the Kick-Off
workshop. This provides a high level of excitement as everyone sees
the new challenge for the first time and ideas immediately begin
forming in people's minds.
To give you a flavor of the FIRST Robotics
Competition, we have pictures from the 1997 competition available
online (www.usfirst.org). If you have a lot of time, you can
download a cool video showing the excitement of the 1995 FIRST
Robotics Competition at EPCOT '95. You can also browse web pages
setup by some of the teams that have participated in past FIRST
Preparation for the 2001 competition is now under
way. Dates and locations for the 2001 FIRST Robotics can be found on
the website mentioned above.
The deadline for registration for the 2001 FIRST
Robotics Competition is December 8, 2000. If you have questions
about the Competition, please contact FIRST via mail, email, phone,
or fax (www.usfirst.org), or you can contact me at
. My phone number is 650-604-0992.
If you know you want to participate in the 2001 FIRST
Robotics Competition, you can register online.
Scholarship Opportunities for FIRST Team Participants
NASA is able to provide 100 teams nationally a $6,000
team scholarship, to assist with registration and the costs of the
Kick-Off. You can access this information at
BUILDING A TEAM
A FIRST team may range in size from a small
group of a few engineers and high school students to a small army of
engineers, students, faculty and parents. The secret of building a
successful team is not to assemble the largest team possible, but
rather to assemble a team that can work well together. To do this,
the team must recognize and capitalize on the unique abilities of
each member of the team.
To understand what is needed to build a FIRST
team, it is important to realize that the FIRST project is more than
the not-so-simple task of designing and building a robot from a
standard set of raw materials. It involves such diverse aspects as
financing the project, coordinating logistics, arranging
press coverage for your team, and documenting the impact your team
has made in your community.
Other than having high school students as the
robot drivers and on field players, there are no other rules that
specify who else has to be on a team. Typically, a FIRST team will
include some combination of the following categories
High School Students - All students have
different talents and enjoy different activities, and the FIRST
project is a forum for these individual talents to shine. Though the
goal of FIRST is to motivate students to pursue careers in science
and engineering, the participating students need not be primarily
interested in these fields. There is room on the team for every type
of student. By their participation, many become attracted to
engineering and others leave with an appreciation for and an
understanding of the engineering profession.
For example, a student that likes writing can
be assigned as the team's publicist to handle press relations, a
student with vocational training can help build the robot, a student
strong in math may calculate the required geometry for the robot, a
student that enjoys computers can develop a web page
for the team, and a student interested in art can design the
logo and robot aesthetics. In short, every ability can be applied to
Teachers - Faculty involvement is critical
for the project. The faculty serves not merely as supervisors, but
also as coaches for specific components of the project. Also, their
involvement is crucial to generate enthusiasm and support for the
project from within the school system.
Industry Engineers and Technicians - For
many teams, this group is the nucleus of the project team. The
following people are needed in this group: an electrician, a
machinist, and at least two engineers, one of who should have
experience in product development. Included in this category of
industry participants are government employees from technical
research centers operated by the U.S. government.
University Faculty and Students - A number
of FIRST teams have included university participants. There are many
ways for university students and faculty to participate in FIRST.
Some schools have used FIRST as an undergraduate capstone design
project, others have participated as a student professional society
activity, and others have used FIRST in their graduate curriculum.
Others - This group includes interested
parents, community members, retired teachers/engineers, and non-
engineering industry representatives. Typically, this group
coordinates any or all parts of the project beyond the design and
construction of the robot. Having one industry team member from the
public affairs office or the company's executive office is a
way to help secure the resources, exposure, and recognition that is
critical to the project's success.
Though the distribution of these five
components varies from team to team, there are generally four types
of teams that participate in FIRST: an industry-high school
partnership, a university-high school partnership, an industry-
university-high school partnership, and a coalition team. While the
first three team types are self-explanatory and involve a single high
school, industry and/or university, the coalition team involves
multiple companies, universities and/or high schools competing as a
single team. For example, one company may elect to sponsor a team
that represents each high school in a school system, and, as a
result, have four high schools represented on a single team. As
another example, a group of small companies may join together to
collectively sponsor and staff a single team.
During the project, the students witness the
leadership needed to run organizations, and many students will be put
in positions where they must lead critical elements of the project.
The critical criterion for the team is their ability to work with
each other to complete the many individual tasks needed to create a
competitive robot. As such, the size of the team, beyond a minimum
core of four able adults and a group of interested students, does not
matter. What does matter is assembling a group that can respect each
other's opinions, form consensus, and work together.
Perhaps the best perspective to think about
your team is to view your FIRST team as your own personal company.
You certainly want to have a successful business, so you want to
involve the best people on your team. You will need to "hire"
effective managers for your company: people that can follow
a chain of command, be delegated responsibilities, and deliver the
required products. These managers must direct the work of motivated
and energetic employees (that may be students, faculty, parents, or
industry participants). Like the real world, you will need to work
hard to recruit talented people to join your company.
You must convince others to accept the same
realization that you made when you committed to the FIRST project:
yes, this will take time, but there are few opportunities that can
give a better return on the investment. To recruit these people,
videos of previous FIRST competitions can be an important
resource. Let them watch the videos on their own and afterwards
approach them to join your team.
FINANCING A TEAM
Few programs give a larger bang for the buck
than FIRST. Like your personal decision to invest your time in FIRST
because you receive a valuable return on your investment, the
financial costs associated with FIRST must be evaluated in a similar
fashion. The financial cost must be evaluated
relative to the return on the investment.
In addition to the $5000 entrance fee for
each competition, there are other items that must be funded by each
FIRST team. These include travel for team members to attend the Kick-
Off Workshop, building materials, administrative costs, shipping,
uniforms, and team travel to the competition. Though there are
exceptions, the minimum budget needed for a FIRST team is
approximately $15,000. This budget covers expenses, and does not
include the financial value of the engineers and faculty volunteers
that participate in the project.
Comparisons illustrate the return on
investment in the FIRST project. Costs of $3,000 a person for one-
week professional training courses are not uncommon in industry. Past
industry participants in FIRST have vouched that they have learned
more through the FIRST project than in any professional training
course. Also, Baxter Healthcare Corporation and Procter & Gamble have
sanctioned the FIRST competition as product management and prototype
development activities for their engineers.
The financial models used by FIRST teams vary
as much as the make-up of the teams themselves. In all cases though,
cost sharing is a common attribute of each team's finances. Under
cost-sharing model, all components of the team contribute to the
project budget. For example, the corporation may
fund the entrance fee, construction costs, and travel costs for their
employees. In this case, the high school would be responsible for the
travel costs of the students and minor administration costs. As a
source of funding, many of the high schools solicit donations from
local businesses and initiate fund raising projects to pay travel
expenses for members to attend the competitions.
Any needed fundraising should take place
during the period before the competition. The six weeks of the
construction phase pass by too quickly to devote any of that time to
fundraising. This time is also a good time for the support and public
relations components of your team to work together and practice some
of the skills they will need during the competition.
Though the competition does not begin until
the first week of January, it is never too soon to prepare for the
competition. Since the competition game changes each year, there is
no way to build your robot ahead of time, but there are many other
things you can do to practice for the competition.
This pre-season time is the right time to organize
your team and identify key people to lead the engineering,
management, and operation sections of your team. Activities such as
creativity exercises, studying previous competition game videos, and
working with some of the actual kit components are
worthwhile team projects to gain valuable
experience and promote teamwork.
Sparking Creativity - There are many types
of creativity exercises to introduce high school students to
engineering problem solving. Weekly pizza-powered mini-tutorials on
engineering concepts, electronics, and the design process are a
popular way to introduce students to fundamental concepts needed to
design and build the robot. The tutorials also act as an icebreaker
activity to help the team members begin to know, trust, and value
Learning By Doing - A good understanding of
the range of possibilities that can be created from the standard kit
of parts can be gathered by reviewing videos of past competitions and
classifying your observations. For example, each year the robots must
move, pick up or move another object, and
probably lift that object. Using these three functions, you can break
up your team into groups to review old competitions and study how
these tasks were accomplished. By requiring the groups to classify
methods for each task (propulsion, grabbing objects, and lifting)
they can visually dissect the video
images to see the engineering involved in the project.
Once you have classified the types of
mechanisms that can be used for each of these three movements, your
team can then try to build some of these components using material
purchased from a hardware store. Though you do not know for certain
that battery powered hand drills will be supplied as part of the kit,
assuming so would be a safe bet. To understand how the rotational
motion of a hand drill can be efficiently converted to transitional
motion, the team could design and build a hand drill powered
Similarly, another part of your team could
design and build a device to grab an object, while yet another group
designs and builds a device to lift up an object. Small, high speed,
low torque DC motors could be purchased to investigate the gear
reductions necessary for your prototype devices. Through these
projects, the team should begin to see the difficulty in constructing
physical systems that operate as intended. Materials such as plywood
and sheet insulation are useful to work with as a prototype material.
Safety Education - Learning about and
practicing safety procedures for power tools must be included during
these activities. All members of the team should know proper safety
procedures, and each team must take responsibility for their own
actions and the actions of those on their team. Each
member should be comfortable calling a time-out whenever a safety
violation is observed, and all members of the team should be briefed
on the observed violation.
In addition to learning about design and
construction techniques that will be needed for the competition,
these activities serve as a test of the team's operation. By
conducting these pre-event building activities, your team can
evaluate your logistical plans regarding meeting locations, shop and
availability, procedures for purchasing parts, and team
organization. Identifying problems to correct will be time well spent
during the months before the competition begins.
The competition begins in early January at
the Kick-Off Workshop when the game for the year is unveiled, and the
kit of parts distributed. The Kick-Off Workshop is shrouded in
secrecy to ensure that the game is revealed to all teams at the same
time. With Dean Kamen (the founder of FIRST) and Woodie Flowers
(FIRST's technology guru) standing before representatives of every
team, a signal is given, the stage curtains surrounding the playing
field are lifted, and the game is revealed to all participants.
Six weeks later, you have to ship your
completed robot to a regional competition or, if you are not
participating in a regional competition, to the national competition
at EPCOT. Six weeks is a tight time frame to go from problem
statement to final product, and a clear plan of action is needed.
The most important aspect of your design is
that it must be able to play the game. You can only inspire the high
school students if you design and build a robot that can gather
objects, take them somewhere, and score points. The design need not
be elegant, the construction need not be production quality, and the
operation need not be the smoothest, but, in the end, your robot must
work. Having a robot that is unable to play the game severely limits
your ability to inspire the high school students on your team.
Local Kick-Off - Since only a handful of
participants are allowed to attend the Kick-Off Workshop, your team
will need to have its own "local Kick-Off" as soon as
unveil the game to the rest of the team members. Your local Kick-Off
should be as dramatic as possible to allow all the
team members to share the excitement and
anticipation of the actual Kick-Off Workshop. After revealing the
game, you should pass out copies of the relevant sections of the game
rules and divide your team into sub-groups.
AND A FEW MORE THINGS...
Throughout this intense six-week construction
project, your team must also document the impact the project is
making on the community. This documentation is sent to FIRST during
the sixth week of the project and is evaluated for the premier award
associated with the Competition. Also during this time, logistics for
attending the regional and national competitions must be finalized.
Once you have some working components of the
robot completed, the press should be invited to see your team in
action. In general, the interest of the press parallels the
construction of the robot: there is little for them to see during the
design phase, the prototypes don't photograph especially well,
completed subsystems are parts that they can understand, and the
completed robot makes a huge impression on people.
You will have at least a week to relax before
the actual competition, and you will need it to recover from the past
six weeks and to prepare for the next few weeks. To put it mildly,
the competitions themselves are intense. So
much time has been devoted to the project, and everyone wants to do
Above all, take in the grandeur of the
competition, see the enthusiasm in thousands of high school
faces, and take pride in the fact that your personal commitment to
others made this possible.
Welcome to the 2001 FIRST Robotics Competition
Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can answer any questions
Robotics Education Project
NASA Ames Research Project
Moffett Field, CA 94035