The varsity Sport for the Mind, FRC combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. Under strict rules, limited resources, and time limits, teams of 25 students or more are challenged to raise funds, design a team "brand," hone teamwork skills, and build and program robots to perform prescribed tasks against a field of competitors. It's as close to "real-world engineering" as a student can get. Volunteer professional mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team.
We have returned for the 19th Annual FIRST Robotics Competition Orlando Regional. There are 63 teams competing, including several from the Netherlands, and seven rookie teams. We speak with representatives from several of the teams, including the longest-running team in Florida, as well as a rookie team that has previously participated in FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Tech Challenge. In addition, we speak with a team from California, as well as one of the teams from the Netherlands.
In addition to team members, we also speak with Gabrielle Golden from FIRST Headquarters, Terri Willingham, Regional Director in Central Florida and Dan Swando, a member of The RoboShow, who livestreams all of the matches for the event.
Within the FIRST community, it is not unusual for a student to start in FIRST LEGO League and graduate into FIRST Tech Challenge or FIRST Robotics Competition. It is also not uncommon for a whole team to take that journey together. What is less common is a team moving through all three leagues, but that is exactly what the rookie Rock Star Robotics team has done.
Alexa Baires explains how she started with the team as a FIRST LEGO League member, upgraded to FIRST Tech Challenge and this year the team has joined FIRST Robotics Competition. With this unique view of FIRST, we talk about the differences between her experiences in the three leagues and what new challenges this season has presented that she has not experienced before.
While SigmaC@T Robotics doesn't have the smallest team number in Florida, they are the longest continuously operating FIRST Robotics Competition team in the state. In fact, the team has been around longer than the Orlando Regional itself, running 23 seasons.
We spoke with Maurice Solomon about his 4 years on the team. He has had a variety of positions over the years, including mechanical lead, captain and all-around guy. He started at his school with pottery and pivoted to robotics, which has kept his interest since. The team has changed a lot, but the support form their school, school board and sponsors has not.
One of the great parts of being one of the oldest competitions in FIRST is that teams from all over the world travel to Orlando to compete. This year, in addition to the more common locations, like Brazil, the Orlando Regional welcomed two teams from Turkey and two from the Netherlands. Tamara Hanegraff from Team Rembrandts spoke to us about the unique challenges her team faces.
For example, while there is a growing FIRST Tech Challenge environment, there are only two FIRST Robotics Competition teams in the country. That means that there is not an official competition, or even a scrimmage, for the teams to participate in. Every season the teams travel to a different competition in the United States, where the largest concentration of tournaments exist.
Joining the Orlando Regional from California, we spoke to Martin Lizarraga from Searing Engineering. The team traditionally competed in San Diego, but every four years they like to branch out and experience a different environment. In the past they have competed in Hawaii, and this year they are in Orlando.
As a senior, Martin is a driver for the team, placing all of the pressure on his drive team's shoulders. While the engineering team has the pressure in the first 6 weeks, now it is up to him and his drivers. He discusses the design decisions that his team made, and which aspects of the game the team decided to focus on early on, and where they are focusing today. For example, shooting into the boiler was not generating enough points, so they pivoted to climbing, with the help of S.P.A.M. We also discuss his plans after high school, including his participation in FIRST clubs at his school of choice.
One of the things that can sometimes be a challenge for our broadcast team at FIRST Robotics Competition early season events is getting a good grip on the game. Our team is far more familiar with FIRST Tech Challenge, so this event was our introduction to the game, outside of watching the announcement video during CES.
During a break in the broadcast, Scott and Daniele discuss what they do and do not understand about the game, and make guesses about the way that teams will and will not interact with certain aspects of the game. They might not have understood the nuances of the game, but they mostly have the basics.
In the 4 years that we have been covering the Orlando Regional, we have had the opportunity to see teams grow from rookies into real competitors. We have also had the opportunity to see members of our group grow within the FIRST organization. Some students have become mentors and FIRST VISTAs, and we have had some students join our broadcast team.
One of those friends that has grown within the organization is Chuck Stephens. When we met him he was a house painter, musician, tinkerer and maker. Today he works for Pasco County Libraries where he is the mentor for the Edgar Allan Ohms FIRST Robotics Competition team, FIRST Tech Challenge Team Duct Tape will be moving to his libraries next season, and they will be starting FIRST LEGO League teams, as well. He has found a great way to take his extensive knowledge about a wide range of electronics and fabrication and help teach students.
One of the things that currently exists within the Florida FIRST community that is fairly unique is our Alumni Association. This group, led by Barry Bohnsack, provides a variety of ways for students to continue their participation in FIRST programs after graduation. From volunteering with teams and at competitions to building competition-ready robots in a very short period, alumni have tons of opportunities.
We spoke with Barry about one of our favorite programs for alumni - the Robot in 3 Days (FIRST Robotics Competition) and Robot in a Weekend (FIRST Tech Challenge). This program encourages students at Florida universities to follow along with the game announcement video and build a robot for that game in a weekend. This season, at ROBOTICON Tampa Bay 2016, the Robot in 3 Days teams from around the state brought their machines for a scrimmage on the official FIRST Tech Challenge field. The idea of the program is to show current students what is possible with very little resources and time.
If you are a junior or senior of a Florida FIRST team, you can send an email to FloridaFIRSTalumni at gmail.com, or join the LinkedIn community and follow on Twitter to stay connected.
With almost 20 years under its belt, the Orlando Regional is a great place for Regional Directors and Affiliate Partners to learn about some of the tips and tricks of running an event. This year the team was joined by the FIRST Tech Challenge Affiliate Partner for the Netherlands. Marieke Peelen was here to see some of the ins and outs of a FIRST Robotics Competition, with the intention of trying an event in Europe in the future.
Fortunately, the weekend wasn't all about work. She got the opportunity to talk to teams from all over the country, see the two FIRST Robotics Competition teams from the Netherlands compete on the field and even witness one team make it to the winning alliance, securing a spot at the Championship in Houston in April.
We've gotten a lot of interesting viewpoints about competitions over the years. FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST LEGO League team members, coaches and sponsors, volunteers, Affiliate Partners, Regional Directors and organizers, but we have never seen all the way behind the curtain: a view from Headquarters.
We had the opportunity to speak with Gabrielle Golden, Manager of Field Operations for FIRST. She travels each weekend to various events to see how they are run and collects tips and tricks for other events. She tries to appear at new events, as well as events celebrating anniversaries, and can be at 2 different events in the same weekend. She talked about HQ's focus on Alumni and building loyalty after graduation, with a focus on what Barry Bohnsack has done in Florida. She also talked about our mutual goal of increasing FIRST's brand awareness.
Not everyone at a FIRST competition is involved with a team. Some come to see how they, or their companies, can get involved with the organization. Some want to be sponsors, some want to be mentors and some see their companies as the next step after FIRST.
Greg Serio, who founded The People of Manufacturing, sees himself in a couple of these roles. His organization focuses on adult education in the manufacturing space, including matching apprentices with professionals in their field of interest. Greg discusses how FIRST students, after graduating, could find themselves additional on-the-job training in manufacturing and fabrication through this company. He also talks about his initial impressions of the event and his interests for the future.
The team at PLuGHiTz Live is very proud of FIRST Looks. Since its inception, even before its name, we have worked hard to bring awareness to the FIRST brand. This series was inspired by one person, Terri Willingham, Regional Director for FIRST in Central Florida. She has been our representative at FIRST for years and, more importantly, a great friend.
FIRST STEAMWORKS is her last season with the organization and we will definitely miss her. We do, however, look forward to working with her on her new project, of bringing a robotics center to the Tampa Bay area. She and the Eureka! Factory are currently working with a few local organizations on finding a location for a permanent FIRST Robotics Competition field, two FIRST Tech Challenge fields and FIRST LEGO League setups as well. This will also help to bring brand recognition and student participation within the Tampa Bay market.
FIRST competitions are complicated, multi-faceted events. Because of that, multiple broadcasts are possible from the same event. While we spend time highlighting team members, coaches, mentors, staff and sponsors, RoboVisionOD and The RoboShow focus more on the matches themselves. Dan Swando spoke with us about the net work and program and how they work in the community.
RoboVisionOD maintains a focus on broadcasting and publishing individual matches through YouTube, while The RoboShow features SportsCenter-style coverage of the elimination rounds of competition. These platforms allow people outside of Orlando to feel like they are at the competition. This is great for kids whose friends and family live out of town, as well as teams that are competing later in the season at another competition to get an idea of what other teams are working on. Both of these services are offered, just like FIRST events in person, for free online.