What’s this FIRST Robotics stuff all about?

I hear that question pretty frequently when I post about my sons and their robotics team on Facebook. Here, I will explain what it is and how it all works. First and foremost, I will say that, speaking as a teacher with 21 years in the classroom, FIRST Robotics is the most incredible educational opportunity I’ve found. I will explain that later.

What is FIRST Robotics?

FIRST roboticsFIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. For 24 years now, kids have designed, built, and programmed robots to compete in competitions – learning tons along the way.

Throughout the years, FIRST has grown and added programs so they now have robotics programs for kids starting at age 6. As children grow, the programs get more complex and more challenging until, in the high school years, teams create large, powerful robots designed for that year’s task. Seeing as how my sons are in high school, I will explain how the high school program works. I would love it if parents of other kids would leave comments about the younger programs.

FIRST Robotics robots

The red alliance is ready to play! The center robot – team 2122 – is ours. The match is 2 ½ minutes long. Robots score points by throwing frisbees into windows. At the end of the match, they can score additional points by climbing the pyramid.

What do they build?

Each year on the first Saturday of the year, a kickoff is held. Broadcast by the NASA television channel, the people at FIRST headquarters introduce that year’s game to the world at the kickoff. It is broadcast live, and kids watch it at whichever time it happens to be shown in their area. The kids from Hawaii get up at four in the morning for the event. We are lucky in that here in Idaho, we could watch it at nine in the morning.

During the kickoff, a general overview of the game is presented. Here is the video shown to the kids this year:

This year, the challenge is frisbee. Last year it was basketball, and the year before that the robots needed to pick inner tubes up off the floor and stack them on a ten-foot pole.

UltimateAscentEach year, there are two aspects to the challenge. There is some sort of game, and then a special something at the end. This year, robots can get extra points if they can climb a pyramid. Last year, they got additional points by balancing on a teeter totter with another robot. Generally speaking, they try to do that last bit in the last 30 seconds of the match.

In addition to the video animation of the challenge, FIRST has extensive, detailed regulations available for teams.

How long do the teams have to build their robot?

Six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, they need to bag their bot up and they won’t be able to touch it again until they are at competition.

As you can probably imagine, six weeks is not very long. In order to maximize their time to work on the robot, some teams choose to make two identical robots – a comp bot (competition robot) and a practice bot. Our team (Team Tators) here in Boise does this.

All changes and modifications made to the practice bot will be quickly made to the comp bot the first day of competition. That means all those changes need to be meticulously recorded so that the team knows what they need to do when the comp bot comes out of the bag!

kids building a robot

Davy and Daryl working on their robot very early on. At this point, all they had was a basic frame and they were working on getting wheels put on and wired.

How is the game played?

Robots will be paired up with two other robots to make an alliance of three bots. One alliance puts red bumpers on their bots, the other alliance puts on blue. Think of the matches as a 3-on-3 basketball game – the three bots of one alliance work together against the other alliance.

Alliances work together to figure out a strategy for the game. They might have one robot that is excellent at shooting, but isn’t all that strong at defense. Another robot might be very strong and is great at defense, but can’t shoot well. The three teams making up the alliance work together to figure out how they can best work together.

Each match starts off with a 15-second autonomous round. During this time, the bots are pre-programmed to do something and there is no human control at all. For the remainder of the round (2:30 in total), the robots will be driven by a drive team using remote control.

FIRST robotics field

The game starts out with each alliance on their own side. They have 15 seconds to make as many shots as they can, then things start getting crazy. Some robots will start playing defense, trying to prevent others from getting or throwing frisbees.


Some robots are amazingly precise and can throw their frisbees through the window every single time. Others are not quite so precise.

What happens at the competitions?

The competitions are amazing. In Salt Lake City, there were 45 robots. Each robot was built for the exact same challenge, yet each was designed uniquely. It was amazing to see all the different designs!

Scouting for FIRST Robotics

Davy scouting. Team Tators makes sure that they watch every single robot and record what it can do. Daryl was on the team that programmed an app for everybody to use to evaluate the robots. They will use this information to choose their alliance partners if they make it to finals.

The first day of the competition does not count toward the final score. Teams can access their bots early in the morning, and spend the day working on them. At some point in the afternoon, practice rounds begin, so teams can put their bots through their paces in the exact same setting they will competing in. By the end of this day, robots should (theoretically) be in working order and ready to compete.

The next day, qualifying rounds are held. For each match, one alliance wins and all three robots making up that alliance get the same amount of points. In SLC, each robot played in roughly ten matches during this part of the competition.

Eventually, it’s time for the finals. The top eight teams are allowed to choose their partners for their alliance. They will have meticulously watched every other robot and recorded their strengths and weaknesses. Now they need to choose robots that will best complement their own strengths and weaknesses.

Here is a video of a match. It starts out with the bot in the pit, then it’s transported to the field and positioned for the match.

First robotics

Each team has a 10′ X 10′ space (called the pit) where they can work on their robot. The right side of the arena floor was set up as the field, whereas lots of action took place back in the pit area. It was interesting to watch everything in the pit – robots are coming and going all the time on their way to the field or back to their pit.

What do the kids learn?

Where do I even start? The team has adult mentors that work with the kids in building the bot. The mentors are excellent and push the kids to do everything they are capable of. They patiently walk the kids through both the theory and the practical application of the engineering involved, and the kids miraculously understand. I’ve seen my sons grow by leaps and bounds through this.

As much as I love the engineering and design lessons happening, I think the learning extends FAR beyond that. One of the biggest problems I had as a teacher was helping my students understand that there are multiple solutions for most problems. In mathematics, there might be only one right answer for a problem, but there are many ways of getting there.

In FIRST, that lesson is driven home very clearly. By simply walking into the arena and seeing dozens of robots built for the exact same challenge, but will such different designs, you can’t help but learn this lesson. There is no right and wrong – only varying degrees of efficiency.

Kids also learn the value of teamwork. There is no possible way that one person could design, build, and program a robot in such a short amount of time. By breaking the team into sub-teams, with each sub-team focusing on a different aspect or part of the bot, they got it done.  For our team, we had four major sub-teams: mechanical (built the actual bot), electrical (got it all wired), programming, and scouting (watching other robots to see what they can do).

Sportmanship is a HUGE part of FIRST Robotics. I’ve heard stories of teams arriving at competition with nothing more than a box of parts; the other teams jump in a build a robot for them so that they can compete.

After having built a robot themselves, the kids have tremendous respect for the skill that goes into each robot. As Daryl so aptly put it, “The Hawaiian kids deserve to win. They’ve got the best robot here.”

FIRST robotics team 2122

This is our bot. There are many smaller sub-systems within this one machine.

FIRST robotics team 2484

Here is team 2484. Notice how different their bot is from ours. They have a totally different kind of shooter.

FIRST robotics team 359

This bot was amazing! It was fast and nimble and could race around the field like crazy. Needless to say, they won and will be going to nationals in St. Louis.

FIRST robotics team 4178

…and yet another design from Team 4178

FIRST Robotics team 4585

I loved how this team coordinated their clothes with their bot.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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4 Responses to What’s this FIRST Robotics stuff all about?

  1. Andy Amick April 3, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    Wow, what an incredible learning experience. They may learn more in the competition than they learn in all other classes combined. Great to see them learning problem solving and teamwork because those skills will stay with them forever.

  2. Adam Sommer April 9, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    I watched the FIRST competition in StLouis last year….really amazing!

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