In my post about our little robotics team, and our experience with VEX robotics, I promised that I would give a review of FIRST robotics. Well, the dust has settled and the verdict is in: WE LOVED IT! You will love it too, and that it why I’m sharing it with you today.
What is FIRST robotics? It is one of two major robotics programs for school aged children (VEX is the other brand). FIRST has something for every child, from kindergartners to high school seniors. You can go to firstinspires.org for more information, but I’ll give you the basics below. (Bear with me– there’s a lot to go over, but I’ll try to keep it succinct.)
The bottom line is: We love FIRST, and will never switch back to VEX (sorry/not sorry!)
Overall Experience with FIRST Robotics
We LOVED FIRST, and we will never go back to the other brand we used before. Here’s why:
- Gracious Professionalism is mandatory to belonging to FIRST: This means that it is a collaborative experience, instead of a cut-throat competition. Teams lend each other parts. They are expected to help solve glitches with other teams’ robots. They cheer for each other. The competition is real, but so is sportsmanship. Our kids learned that everyone rises together in this kind of environment- which is also crucial to success as a professional adult.
- Every new team is eligible for grants: This is super helpful, because often homeschool and community groups do not get the same financial breaks that schools do–which means fundraising can be challenging.
- Major sponsors: NASA, Boeing, Bosch, Google, Microsoft, FedEx, Qualcomm…
- A website with $50 million in scholarships is available for the kids to apply for, plus excellent articles to help kids with their applications. This is waaaay more than what the competition offers.
- More safety standards for the kids. They have a minimum of 2 background checked mentors for each team for safety reasons.
- Easy to find info. and is better organized. The provided curriculum is really great.
- The team that hosts the competition does not compete. This eliminates conflicts of interest that we struggled with repeatedly in VEX last year.
As I said, we participated in two leagues within FIRST: The Lego League and FIRST Tech Challenge. Our middle school team qualified at regionals and went to the state competition, winning the teamwork award there. Our high school team qualified regionals, state, and went to the Super Regional competition in Spokane, WA. It was an amazing experience.
Overview of FIRST Lego League
Lego League is for kids ages 9-14. Using an education-specific EV3 Lego kit, the kids build and program a robot to complete a very specific set of tasks. They use block programming, which is easy to learn, but sets them up to learn more rigorous programming in the future.
This isn’t a cake walk, however. The kids have to measure and input every angle, individual wheel speed, and every distance. They develop detachable arms to help them with various tasks. These kids learn a lot. They also speak with judges and explain why they made the robot and programming the way they did.
Not only that, but part of the competition is researching a real world problem and designing solution for it. Last year, we learned about hydrodynamics. This year, it is space. We research, speak with professionals and try to develop something new. Some teams even apply for patents.
Pros for Lego League
- The culture is super fun. It’s collaborative, creative, and the kids dress up. So fun!
- The standards are high. These kids learn a TON.
- They get a really solid background in programming.
- Lots of public speaking opportunities.
Cons for Lego League
- The kids were disappointed that there wasn’t a driver controlled portion of the competition. Everything is programmed.
- This is a LOT of work. A lot more work than VEX. But I also think the pay-off is a lot bigger.
- There is a big jump developmentally from the Lego team to the FTC team.
Overview of FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC)
In the high school division, students build a robot, program it, and also drive it. ANY materials can be used, which is awesome sauce. Although a parts kit is available, anything from the hardware store to the junkyard is allowed. This fosters true creativity, gives more options and you can also get higher quality parts. 3D design and printing is also allowed– letting kids learn yet another practical skill set.
Programming can be done either in block programming, or in Java– say hello to being prepared for the future job market! This programming is pretty intense. These kids are brilliant. I sat in on a workshop where one team was explaining an advanced programming technique to get a camera to scan an image, and then act according to which image it viewed. Did I understand a word? No, I did not. Google didn’t even understand the terms these 17-year-olds were using. These kids are employable NOW.
An engineering notebook is also kept, which teaches technical writing, keeps track of the engineering process and successes and failures. It’s really impressive to see the process these teams go through as they develop their machines. They are using real world techniques, software and research.
Our kids are helping with fundraising, service projects, and community outreach, all while practicing public speaking, leadership, and collaboration. It truly is an all-around win- even before you throw in all the scholarship opportunities!
- Can use a variety of materials, including customized parts made with 3D printers. This was HUGE for us! You can choose between different types of parts or even make your own. We really appreciate this difference from VEX.
- Programmers use Java Script.
- FTC has advanced challenges. These kids have to know what they are doing.
- More teams advance to the next level– which is very encouraging!
- Community engagement is rewarded.
- With their recent restructuring, a team that wins at State now goes directly to the “World” competition. Except that it is in the United States. And there are two of them. What???? It really seems to cheapen the experience of going to “World” when really, you are only going to the Semi-Nationals. Other nations attend . . . but still.
- The learning curve is huge. If you have zero background in programming especially, things can seem pretty daunting.
- We would not be competitive, or even functional without extra parent support. These parents are a necessary part of our group. It is extremely hard to do this on your own.
All in all, this program has been literally life changing for some kids. In some towns (like mine), sports is the only thing available and “cool” for kids to do. I really love that we have created another option. The confidence building, the real life skills being taught, the scholarships won . . . I can’t say enough good about this. If you are interested, learn more at firstinspires.org.