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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

Kickoff! by Chris Peterson SM '13

and away we go...

No, this entry is not about Kelly Clarkson. It’s about FIRST Robotics. This past weekend, I attended the Founder’s Reception and Kickoff Event on behalf of MIT Admissions. I’ll explain how FIRST and KC are connected in a moment. But first, let me explain…FIRST.

FIRST (which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by inventor Dean Kamen and MIT professor Woodie Flowers back in 1989, before most students now applying to MIT were even born. The goal of FIRST, broadly speaking, is to inspire students towards a lifelong devotion to science, technology, and engineering.

FIRST works something like this: every year, in January, a star-studded team of engineers on the Game Design Committee unveil that year’s game to the 37,000+ students on 3,000+ teams in 12 countries worldwide. The games change every year, but always certain things remain the same: two alliances of three robots each compete against each other on a small, enclosed field, roughly the size of a small basketball court. The robots are based off of common kits to which teams add their own modifications and designs (subject to a sort of “salary cap” meant to mitigate economic, rather than engineering, advantages). Teams then have six weeks to conceive, design, and build their robots, which are then sent out to at least one of 57 Regionals across the world. Then, at Regionals, they’ll compete against a field of dozens for the chance to qualify for the Championship Event in Atlanta.

But the competition isn’t the point of FIRST, or rather, it’s a means, not an end. The point of FIRST is, in the words of Wikipedia, to “promote a philosophy of teamwork and collaboration among engineers and encourages competing teams to remain friendly, helping each other out when necessary”, in addition to getting students excited about science and technology.

And boy, do they get excited. Trust me, you haven’t seen excited until you’ve seen 6,000 students in an arena, dressed and painted in their team colors, banging away on noisemakers, screaming themselves hoarse with chants, with every emotion they have riding on the backs of the robots they’ve built. I’m not posting a competition video here because a grainy 480×360 video can’t do it justice – you need to go to a regional event and see for yourself.

FIRST might just be the best opportunity for aspiring techies to learn not just how to wield a soldering iron but how to interact with others in the spirit of “gracious professionalism.” The spirit of “coopertition” that FIRST inculcates among its participants characterizes the MIT campus spirit too – students working hard, working smart, collaborating well, and tempering their technical, interpersonal, and leadership skills under a healthy, educational, and beneficent duress.

Perhaps that’s why – as Woodie said at Kickoff – 1 in 9 MIT students participated in FIRST in high school. That’s not to say that FIRST is a prerequisite for admission, or that it gives you a dispositive advantage in admissions (after all, invert that statistic and you’ll see that 8 of 9 MIT students didn’t participate in FIRST). What FIRST does is help inspire students to pursue careers in engineering, science, and technology; to endow them with the time-management and prioritization skills that will make them successful competitors in any field; and to develop in them the collaborative spirit that will make them a success in any interpersonal endeavor.

These characteristics are shared by many great students, and thus many great MIT applicants, and so the subset of students who participate in FIRST and those who enroll at MIT intersect comparatively often. To use the language of formal logic, FIRST is not a necessary condition for admission to MIT, but excellence in FIRST (as demonstrated best by letters of recommendation from mentors and/or examples of engineering work) may be sufficient to show us some of what you’ve got to offer.

So what does FIRST have to do with this Kelly Clarkson song?

First, when it dropped in 2004, I was a subteam captain and the spirit leader (which is sort of like cheerleader, only much geekier) of Team 1073 during my personal favorite FIRST game. After graduating, I continued to mentor the team throughout college. Now, I am, to the best of my knowledge, the first FIRST alumnus to be an MIT Admissions Officer. So the date on this song makes me more than a little nostalgic. I did a lot in high school – football, newspaper, theater, skiing – but all these years later FIRST remains the best thing I ever did, because it taught me all the skills I outlined above. I didn’t even pursue science or engineering in college, but I am far and away the better for my FIRST experience.

Second, and more importantly, the song shares the title of this year’s game: Breakaway. Here’s the animation describing the game, created by NASA’s Dave Lavery, posted to YouTube by Team 801:

To read more about the game, you can read this great article in Popular Mechanics about FIRST, this year’s game, what went into its design (sneak preview: the lead engineer of Cirque de Soleil was brought in to help this year!), etc.

For those of you who are seniors, I know the excitement and stress of applications season has been inexorably followed by the excitement and stress of FIRST season. Let me give you some advice, bad news first. Bad: your college application season will not go perfectly. No matter how good of a student you are, no matter how polished your application, some irreconcilable tension will remain. Good: your FIRST season CAN go perfectly, because the point of FIRST is not to win or lose, the point of FIRST is to develop all the skills I mentioned above, because they will help you be successful no matter where you go and no matter what you do.

Come to think of it – why are you still reading this blog? Isn’t there a robot that needs building? That crate won’t pack itself! Good luck, and see you at the championship!

24 responses to “Kickoff!”

  1. Anna says:

    Yes! I went to the one in Upper Darby, PA. First time this year joining.

    And I am reading this blog, not working on any robot, because I’m taking a break from studying for midterms. ;p

  2. anon says:

    too expensive

  3. Jeff says:

    Yay for FIRST publicity smile

    Unfortunately, my MIT interviewer didn’t know what FIRST or robotics was :( I had to show her! :D

    Team 2854 – EVHS Robotics

  4. What, no “FIRST” pun for the first post?

    I’m very disappointed in all of you smile

  5. Andrew says:

    I am the Captain of my school’s FTC team(FIRST TECH CHALLENGE), but the FRC never stops to amaze me.

    This year’s game only makes me wish that our school could have the time and dedication to do FRC (even though FTC is fun itself). Goodluck to all the Teams and I hope to see you all at Championship!

  6. Liam says:

    Wow, that looks intense! I too, participate in the FTC (First Tech Challenge) and I agree with Andrew– FRC never ceases to amaze me.

    Good luck to everyone who is participating in this and FTC!

  7. makesense says:

    Joining FRC is easily the best decision I have made in my entire life. This year’s challenge is…amazing. Watching the first match’s last 20 seconds at the regional will be epic (whether positive in that regard or negative). I wonder if I’ll end up driving…
    Q/A session tomorrow!
    See you all at Championships!

  8. genius ('18) says:

    That’s soooo cool! I participated in the FIRST Lego League, and I have to say, even though that was cool, this is waaaaay cooler!

  9. VAL '14 says:

    YES!! I love FIRST! Looks like someone’s working on Dean’s homework. ;P

  10. Anonymous says:

    I used to participate in first when I was in middle grade. It was really fun and we’d put alot of effort, but we’d always fall short of winning because the arena mats was rolled up for a long time, so it basically consisted of a bunch of hills. (we didn’t want to risk ajusting because we didn’t want our robot to pick up a program other than ours, since everybody was trying to download their bot something.) Unfortunately, our school dropped FIRST after we got into highschool :-(

  11. Jeremy says:

    I can’t get into MIT, but you guys are awesome, if i ever have the chance, i’m going to donate to MIT regularly.

  12. rohit says:

    I guess the best way to mitigate for falling over when the robot attempts to cross a bump is to build wheel on both sides;D

  13. 233 // PINK TEAM FTW! :D

    If all goes well, I’ll be programming the Pink Team robot to play soccer. Epic way to end senior year. ^_^

  14. feel says:


    thanks for infoematiom good tips


  15. “Trust me, you haven’t seen excited until you’ve seen 6,000 students in an arena, dressed and painted in their team colors, banging away on noisemakers, screaming themselves hoarse with chants, with every emotion they have riding on the backs of the robots they’ve built.”

    So true. Regionals are pretty much the most fun even t of the entire year.

    So excited that build season has started! Can’t wait to see how all the robots turn out.

  16. Ammar'14 says:

    010001100100100101010010010100110101010000100000010001100101010001010111 !
    (I hope this one makes it up for the loss of the ‘FIRST’ pun)

    If the goal is to inspire students towards a lifelong devotion to science, technology, and engineering, I think I fit the bill perfectly, but sadly we had nothing of the sort here.

    But that’s what I’m applying to MIT for, right ?

  17. '13er says:’s technically not victory. A few years ago they added rules about the destruction of the stadium/playing field. I heard from my coach that there was one team which added spikes to their robot so it could better grip the carpet. You can guess the state of the carpet afterward.

    Also, bottom right illustration: does that count as being in possession of two trackballs?

    I must confess that when I first skimmed through the comic I thought he was making a Simpsons joke (the episode where Homer becomes an icon on modern art after failing to assemble his barbecue). For shame…I know.

  18. Ammar'14 says:

    Well, there’s the unspoken rule that says “It isn’t illegal if you don’t get caught”*, maybe you can’t get away with this one but there are other ideas that may work. And let’s not forget that this one’s just for us to get a laugh out of.

    EMP Device and Faraday caging anyone ?

    Just kidding, working that way kills the spirit of the game, unless they do ‘FIRST Robot Wars’, that’d be another story, a very interesting one though.

    * Yeah I know, it is still illegal.

  19. Ammar'14 says:

    P.S. : I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if umbrellas became semi-standard in this year’s FIRST

  20. '13er says:

    Awesome sauce! I was just about to post that link. =]

  21. Ammar'14 says:

    @Andrew and ’13er
    Now this is true creativity! That’s hacking your way to victory, a genius unorthodox solution!

    Glad to see there are other xkcd fans around.

  22. Meher says:

    So, I’ve been involved in FIRST for about 2 years now, and I’m already Junior Captain of the team…and I love it!!! As nerdy as it is, FIRST is the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Our team is probably going to Champs this year, so I’d love to see you there, as I’ve been RSS sub’d to your posts since they started smile
    -Inconceivable; 2530