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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

FIRST Robotics and Alumna-hood by Anna H. '14

I miss my team.

The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is an annual Robotics challenge for High School students. I won’t describe the program itself in too much detail, since Chris and Natnael did it justice here and here, but it’s worth mentioning that I was on a FIRST team for all four years of High School. It was a huge part of my life.

I initially joined FIRST because my eighth grade science teacher – who I honestly believe is the reason I am now at MIT – encouraged me to. From what I remember, there were about ten students on the team that season; we traveled to New York for the regional, and raised travel funds by making presentations to companies. I tagged along and watched, wide-eyed, as the upperclassmen in our sponsorship group boldly asked panels of businesspeople for money. For the three years to follow, I was on that sponsorship team: we wrote presentations and delivered them to companies and my school’s Board of Trustees. I realize now that knowing how to explain why one’s cause is worth supporting is just as valuable as having the practical skills entailed in that cause, whether it’s building a robot or performing science research at a university. All hope is lost for the latter if you can’t do the former.

Of course, those practical skills are valuable, too. My freshman year, I wanted to become a programmer, but we had too many of those already, so to my great disappointment I was put on the build team. I picked up a saw for the first time, and made a gazillion horrible uneven diagonal cuts before finally converging on the correct method to saw in a straight line. I learned to use a tap by accidentally snapping off the tap while it was still inside the bar. I sat quietly by myself for fifteen minutes, too scared to tell anyone, until finally our other mentor came over, took a look, and said “ah, it happens.” I remember tasking myself with sorting out all the nuts and bolts into little compartments based on size – it took me and my friend an entire two-hour build session. The next year, a number of our programmers graduated, and there was suddenly room for more – but I was no longer interested, because I loved “black and greasy” being a regular color for my hands. I loved finding aluminum shavings in my hair and sawdust on my jeans.

I had grand plans for our team. I was going to become team captain, and lead us to glory and victory: we were going to start the first UK regional, and win the Chairman’s Award (the most prestigious award FIRST offers its teams.)

I did become team captain, in my junior year, as well as coach for our drive team. I wrote an essay for our Chairman’s Award application, about our plans to bring FIRST to Europe, and about how our team brought students together who would otherwise never have met*.

*This is a story that could have an entire post to itself. In a nutshell: our team was made up of kids from my school (an American school) as well as kids from the British school across the street. When I got to 9th grade, I was told to be wary of kids from “that British school”, because they were dangerous. Later, some of my best friends on the Robotics team were from “that school”, and told me about the stereotypes they used to have of us: rich kids with no street smarts. We put all that aside to build robots, and only experienced any friction when we tried to mimic each other’s accents.

We never won a regional. We never started a UK regional, and we never won the Chairman’s Award (take heed, people who think you have to win Robotics competitions in order to get into MIT!) I remember standing on the field with the drive team during my junior year, heartbroken and at a complete loss for what to do or how to react, having just lost very narrowly in the quarterfinals to what I felt was a great injustice. We were so close! DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MUCH TIME WE SPENT BUILDING THAT ROBOT? No? Let me tell you. Yes? Let me tell you anyway. During the six-week season, we spent four hours a day in that build room. We were there all day Saturdays and snow days and holidays.

To have all that work comes to no tangible reward was painful and bitter. Also, as team captain, it felt like I hadn’t delivered. I was furious with myself and with the rest of the team, who were cheerful and upbeat as we drove to the airport. Why weren’t they upset? My petty answer was that they didn’t care as much as I did. My friend Sophia’s (much more perceptive) answer, which she delivered calmly and patiently while I freaked out, was that the others were upset, too, but weren’t letting it weigh them down.

That day, I learned the distinction between being flippant and being upbeat. I also learned that taking defeat well means taking it with a smile, and without trying to be the judge of what is or is not “fair.”

Have I made the point that one learns a lot more than “how to build a robot” by doing FIRST?

Have I mentioned that my senior year was when we and our robot hit an all-time low? I graduated and passed over the reins, on that low. I can’t really describe how scarring that was. I’m still mortified whenever I visit the team and my old mentors; it’s hard to look them in the eye.

This weekend, my team is competing in the WPI regional. It’s very strange to watch a group of people (many of whom are strangers at this point, since I graduated two years ago) complete tasks that my friends and I did two, three, four, five years ago. During the day, the team unpacked the robot and ran tests while I fidgeted impatiently through Statistical Physics recitation, Quantum Physics lecture, Astronomy lecture, and Studies in Drama class. While I booked it over to Worcester, the team ate dinner and debriefed.

On Friday, I sat in the stands for all our qualifying matches, and was blown away by our performance. This is, without a doubt, the best robot our team has ever built.

It’s weird to see a team be better in your absence.

At the Awards Ceremony, I was texting an old team-mate to fill him in on the excitement when the MC announced that it was time to give out the Entrepreneurship Award. Whatever that meant. I wasn’t really paying attention, haunted by memories of the missed Chairman’s Award, when suddenly I heard “…for their business plan to start a regional in the UK…”

…what? I snapped my head up so fast that it almost sailed off my neck.

“…the Entrepreneurship Award goes to our friends from across the pond, Team 1884!”

Oh. My. God.

I stopped mid-text and gaped at the MC. I was totally stunned. To be honest, the rest of the team looked stunned, too, but I think I took “stunned” to a different level. Earlier this year, it turns out, the kids won an £11,000 grant from Google Rise to start new FIRST LegoLeague teams in London, with the idea that by getting kids invested in Robotics early, they can start enough FRC teams to hold a local regional. They laid all of this out in a very professional-looking business plan. Immediately, my fantasies of running up to collect an award with the team disappeared. This wasn’t my victory at all: it was the victory of a new generation of team members. They filed down to high-five the judges and collect their trophy, while I stood in the stands screaming and applauding. On their way back, I stood and high-fived each of them in turn. My place was to congratulate, not to be congratulated, but I still felt honored.

That evening, over dinner, I overheard someone mention “2010” (my senior year.) The guy talking used to be on the team with me, and is now one of our most beloved mentors. He was telling the younger members about that season, in a thoughtful reflective way. “That year,” he began, “we hit rock bottom.” My stomach clenched. “But we needed to do that – we needed that year, because we realized that we never wanted that to happen again. Since then, we’ve improved so much. We needed that year to reset – we wouldn’t be this good without it.”

I thought about how we used to finish building the robot at the last minute; during my junior year, we spent something like fifteen hours on the robot the day before it had to be shipped. We arrived at 10am and worked until 1am. I remember bleary eyes, kids calling their parents, parents calling their kids, the thought “I probably shouldn’t be wielding a drill in my state”, the thought “it’s weird to see teachers at this hour.” Now, the robot gets finished well ahead of time, which gives the drive team the opportunity to practice. My years felt very experimental: we floundered and struggled to find an effective way to structure our build season, and never really hit on it. We never figured out how to saw in a straight line, if you will.

We didn’t build a winning robot: we built a team. I mentioned that we had something like ten members during my freshman year – I remember having 60 sign up at the beginning of my junior year. We took 30 kids to the regional this year, all of whom had an important role to play during build season. We created Middle School LegoLeague teams (the younger version of FRC) and began to mentor them – now, those kids (including my sister!) are juniors in High School and leading the team to new heights of success.

When my sister was appointed coach, she sent me a Facebook message asking for advice. I was suddenly struck by the cyclical nature of the student-alumni system. You learn, and you move on, but then you come back and help facilitate that learning. You share your mistakes, what you wish you had known at the time, and then hope that those you advise do better than you, so that when they move on, they can update and add to what you had to say. Together, you build up a collective network of alumni experience that makes the students’ experience better every year.

Middle School kids get excited about robots, become High School kids who make Middle School kids get excited about robots, and then graduate to become mentors who return and teach the High School kids to solve problems.

This morning, I said goodbye to the team and took a train back to MIT campus. I followed their matches via phone and the Internet. Two incredible victories, one defeat – and a 9th place finish. For those of you who don’t know: the teams that finish in the top eight are the “alliance captains” for the quarterfinals. They pick two other teams (which can be each other) to join them. The quarterfinals, therefore, take place between 8 alliances of 3 teams each. The first alliance tends to be strongest, because the first place team is on it and gets first pick – however, they also get last pick, so things tend to balance out.

This is how picking works: the alliance captain says something like “Team [Alliance Captain] would like to invite Team [Invitee] to join Alliance [#].” Then, by some weird FIRST tradition, a representative of the invitee gets up to the microphone and (unless they don’t want to be on that alliance) says “Team [Invitee] graciously accepts”. Realizing that this doesn’t actually make sense (“graciously” accept? what?) I got up to the mic during our 2009 regional and said “gratefully accepts” instead.

At 11:45am, when alliance selection began, I opened the webcast and pressed my ear to my computer’s speakers. First pick went by. Second pick went by. Third pick went by. Fourth pick went by, and by this point (because of inter-captain picking) we had been bumped up to being alliance captains. We were therefore guaranteed a place in the quarterfinals. Fifth pick arrived, and one of our top choice teams invited us to join their alliance.

YES!

I heard my little sister’s voice. She’s now in the same grade that I was, back when I accepted our alliance offer. “Team 1884”, she said, in a voice that many have commented is creepily similar to my own, “gratefully accepts.”

Bring it on, elimination rounds – it’s worth mentioning that our team has never progressed farther than quarterfinals. I desperately want to publish this within the next minute, before the lunch break ends and the matches begin, because I want to make the point that I don’t care at all what happens next.

Dear Team 1884,

YOU ARE THE BEST GROUP WE HAVE EVER HAD. Ever. Your robot is fantastic and you have done fantastically. I’m sorry that I can’t be there in person to watch the match, but I have the webcast open right now and I am SO EXCITED FOR YOU! Also, I didn’t quite finish this post in time; the MC just announced your name to kick off the match. I’m screaming and applauding from a bench in the middle of the sidewalk. Please know that whatever happens, I could not be more proud to call myself an alumna of The Griffins.

Gratefully yours,

Anna

15 responses to “FIRST Robotics and Alumna-hood”

  1. Chris Peterson SM '13 says:

    I know what you mean Anna. My team – 1073 – qualified for nationals our rookie season my sophomore year. We ended up declining to go, assuming with naive confidence that this would be a regular occurrence. My junior year, in 2004, our robot just totally destroyed at competition but we lost in the finals when WPI’s robot did a backflip off a hanging bar and knocked off our bonus ball.

    The team eventually made it to finals two years ago in Atlanta, with my youngest brother on the team. The team is so different now. When I was on it it was 20 guys. Now it’s 80 people split almost evenly between boys and girls.

    FIRST is amazing. It’s such an incredible experience. One of the things I love about my job is the fact that I can still stay involved in it.

  2. Connie Liu says:

    That made me tear up smile
    This is seriously one of my favorite posts I’ve ever read, and I wanted to thank you for posting it.
    I think for me, Science Olympiad is what FIRST was to you. Although there’s the dismay, and the disheartening defeats, there’s also the spirit, and the love for the competition.

    Best of luck to Team 1884!

  3. Peter Kowalczyk says:

    FIRST Robotics… <3

    My team is still in that “finish robot at last second” phase. Maybe someday…

  4. Natnael G. '15 says:

    Oh man, I absolutely love this piece. You described how it FEELS to be on a FIRST team better than I ever could.

    And CONGRATS to team 1884 for making it to finals! You must be proud. =)

  5. Andrew James says:

    My team (Team 4311) is a rookie team this year and we went through that stage as well. It may be the worst robot out of the rookie teams, but in the end we finally understood the sense of teamwork. But we’ll see how our robot does at Boston University on March 21st wink

    Go FIRST!

  6. Brandon J. says:

    Add 3507 to the list of teams in the “finishing at the last second” category.

    Actually, to be fair, the robot was done about a day early this year. The last day was spent shaving weight off (sometimes literally) and trying to get the ridiculously important and complex image processing code up and running. (it’s still not, after our first regional in Kansas City, and I think the programmers have given up). A far cry better from last year.

    This story gives me a lot of hope in our team, actually. We’re only in our second year, and we look to be doing even better than last year – we made it to the semis in Dallas (our second regional last year) and handed 148 their ONLY defeat of the regular season, as alliance captain. We have almost entirely new members this year, due to a lack of participation from juniors last year (the founders/captains were seniors, and we only had 5 juniors last year, and we weren’t as active as the seniors. Especially me… I actually wrote my Common App essay on that, and boy did I change that this year. This year’s junior crop isn’t that much better.), but we (I…) have big plans to get the current 9th and 10th graders who are moving to the main building next year excited. The district is moving the 10th graders to our building, and it’ll make a huge difference.

    Then we just need to get the financial/sponsorship/booster club ball running as soon as possible…

    Yay plans!

  7. Rachel F. '12 says:

    this was a really wonderful, nostalgic read. thanks for sharing.

    petey I was 1072! let’s stalk each other.

    ughhhh graciously accepts. how did that ever happen.

  8. Lyndsey Penman (16?) says:

    This is a really great post! I wish there was a UK regional when I was trying to start a FIRST robotics team at my school in year 11 (now in upper sixth). No one would take it seriously (much like my applying to MIT) because it was “an American thing”. Oh the disappointment…

  9. Anna H. '14 says:

    Thank you everyone! An update, which Natnael G. ’15 already gave:

    WE MADE IT TO THE FINALS! We won the quarterfinals, and then won the semifinals (with a stunning 80+ point count!) Our finals match was really (painfully) close, but we lost. It’s okay. We were spectacular and will only get better.

  10. Matthew P says:

    I just got back from the Portland regionals yesterday. I was captain and Drive Captain, and we did not do the best. Our bridge manipulator broke, but by the end of the second day, our team was very spirited and kept morale up. One of the teams from our hometown won, and it felt just like my freshman year, when we won the regionals. I am going to sound like someone who sounds like a broken record, but this year really taught us that it is Not About The Robot. We learned so much, and did good-we took home the Coopertition award. The team feels good, and the fact that they learned things really is the whole point.

    Captain
    997

  11. Silky Smooth says:

    Just came back from the Autodesk regional in Portland…I was a rookie, and a senior, and I wish I had joined back as a Sophmore when the Teraviks, team 3145, was founded. I’m blown away by the level of ingenuity, of hard work, and perhaps most of all, that GP that just permeates the building. After a dissapointing close second for the Chairman’s award (Perfect scores except one!), I was still able to feel proud of our use of QR codes, our famous oar, and the exuberance that makes us a team. After just one season, I feel like, in the words of so many a FIRST mentor, that I “Get it.” Congratulations to team 1884, and thank you so much to FIRST!

  12. Silky Smooth says:

    Oh, and congratulations to team 997! We probably ran into each other, I hope you signed our oar! wink

  13. Danish says:

    Hi all

    I m an Electrical Engineer from Pakistan. I applied for Fall 2012 admissions but got rejected by MIT :( (sigh)…

    My intended area of research is Active Power Filtering (that is related deeply to Power Electronics and Control). I m also looking for Financial Aid (RA or TA or fellowship) and I m determined for PhD.

    I would be highly pleased if you guys guide me to the best profile of a prospective student that is acceptable at MIT in terms of test scores, no. of conference papers prior to graduate admission, GPA etc etc.

    Thank you

  14. jj says:

    cool great motivation mine is pretty much the same story but only with FTC(First Tech Challenge) one level below FRC. this year was my teams first year and we qualified for state on our first qualifier. We spent a lot of time on it but when we went to state we lost due to problems. But i still consider it by far one of the best things i did in high school and also a blessing to have been a part of FIRST.

  15. Cho says:

    Greetings from 1073!

    This post really hit home with me, I have to say. I’m currently a co-captain of my school’s team and this describes so much of my FIRST experience. I started out as a meek rookie who (how coincidentally!) broke a tap off in the only clean piece of 8020 we had left in the shop during Week 1 of build, and I witnessed my little brother do the same thing this season.

    We just had our main competition last weekend and, to put it kindly, the robot was having…issues. But, we all came out of it with deeper knowledge and it was a fantastic experience for our freshmen even though we weren’t picked for elimination matches.

    With only a couple months left of high school, I’m on my way out; however, everything I’ve picked up through FIRST will definitely stay with me for the rest of my life. I look forward to mentoring a team in the future–possibly even my current team–and passing the torch to a new crowd.

    Thank you so much for posting on this subject. FIRST has defined my entire high school experience and, looking back, it’s been one crazy ride…but what a fun ride it was. smile