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.
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.