On the Mythology of FIRST
Every winter, twenty kids from my high school started skipping classes.
You could find them, if you went looking, in “the cage”: the school gym's basement, split by chain-link fencing into a maze of work and storage spaces. You could hear the cage all the way to the locker rooms, leaking down hallways: screeching band-saws in conversation with the sharp pangs of hammers on metal, threaded with the hushed tones, scattered calls, and occasional laughter of students at work.
The teachers never went looking for these missing kids, because they knew: it was Robo Season.
A Sport for the Mind
FIRST Robotics is the golden brainchild of Dean Kamen, a prolific inventor responsible for, among other things, the Slingshot water purifier, the Luke bionic arm, and the Segway—he laments that people often think he has already died, confusing him with the Segway company’s former owner.
Kamen considers FIRST his greatest invention, and it’s probably his most impactful: if you visit the FIRST site, you can find pages aggregating metrics, longitudinal studies, and other analyses of the profound impact FIRST programs have on countless young engineers. FIRST has been called “the ultimate sport for the mind”, which captures most of the appeal: all the pomp and rigor of team sports, applied to engineering.
There are a few programs: the Lego Leagues for younger kids (which I’ve coached), and the Tech and Robotics Challenges (FTC / FRC) for high-schoolers. FTC bots are smaller, size-limited, and slightly easier to bootstrap; FRC bots are towering, weight-limited, and significantly more expensive. My experiences were with the FTC, which 90% of FRC kids I’ve met swear “doesn’t count”.
Each year, a new challenge is released and teams scramble to make sense of it: how scoring works, which elements will be easiest and hardest to accomplish. (Pushing flags around is easy; climbing onto and hanging from something is hard.) Strategy sessions stretch from in-person meetings to Reddit and the official forums. And eventually—immediately, or a few days in—people start building.
Some teams crank out a prototype build they use to burn through the early events, swapping it for a smarter, more sophisticated design before the big leagues. Others manage to tweak a v1 from event to event, grafting on new features. For the best-known teams, robot reveals are events, scouted by others for design insights.
The pace is heavy from the jump, and only accelerates as competitions begin. Some of my friends only left the cage to eat or sleep, until people set up tables of food for them. Kids with shit grades and little motivation became Ahabian in their pursuit of the next point-scoring feature. Creativity flowered under pressure, manifested in the reasonable (an inertial measurement unit for smarter autonomous mountain-climbing) and the fantastical (stripping away a sweeper-style ball collector for a single, huge, anthropomorphic arm, which picked them up as we would).
Early events swallow a weekend with preparation and stretch frenetically across a single day: teams show up to compete in matches of 2v2, alternating random “alliances”. After an opening bracket, final alliances are negotiated and solidified—a taste of Regency matchmaking partly based on performance, partly on curried favors, and partly on suspicions of latent potential (or a lack thereof).
The winning alliance advances to the next event, as do a handful of teams selected through other criteria. Some are competition-related, like best design, others less so. FIRST loves “gracious professionalism”, which can best be described as helping up a downed opponent before kicking their ass, and they love spreading FIRST to new places. Teams who embody these ideals stand a chance of advancing, with or without the highest scores.
The grander events take multiple days and usually require significant travel. For me, each southern Super-Regional involved a plane ticket and a few days of skipped classes, which I spent running across a convention center, from my team’s pit to judging interviews to the game areas laid side-by-side in a retrofitted ballroom (cameramen orbiting at odd angles, casting to friends back home).
At any FIRST event, there are time-honored customs: group dancing, flamboyant costumes, circulating team stickers and buttons. There are recurring characters: one man (let’s call him Joe) could be found at every southern event, driving a Tesla before it was trendy, known for helping his team publish patents and suspected of only ever wearing tie-dyed shirts.
There is even a grand Robo Dance, if you're good enough to make it to the World Championships (“Worlds”) and find the ticket-givers. One of my friends flew to Worlds not as a competitor, but as a date to this dance, invited by one of the teams she’d befriended between matches.
FIRST is as clear a force for good as you're likely to find in 2021, but its culture is what really fascinates—it rests on the bedrock that everyone involved, from the student competitors to the legions of harried mentors and volunteers, exhibits an unspoken, near-total commitment to its vision. Alumni are not just proto-engineers: they're converts.
At a FIRST event, no one will bat an eye at you clamping metals to the side of a food truck for blow-torching, or sitting in the entryway carving through a robot with a saw too heavy to sit on any of the fold-out tables (on loan, in my case, from total strangers). It's because everyone there—long beforehand, in so many late nights and early mornings—has already accepted the core tenets of a generous, accessible STEM. A single shared wavelength triumphs.
And maybe more compelling than that acceptance is the strength of it: FIRST drives people to work tirelessly, exhaustively, and they love it. I loved it. In a modern school system dominated by college-prep gaming and angling, test-taking, numerical fan-dancing, FIRST feels like a rare STEM experiment: letting kids exhaust themselves in the service of something they actually care about.
To this day, my memories from Robo Season collect and simmer like hypnotic fumes. Of blow-torching a nickel-titanium rod outside my friend's house in January, under a sunrise that looked cleared of clouds by a windshield wiper (a white line of residue gathered at one end).
Of metal axles that would warp subtly over time, refusing to pull loose from bushings during teardowns. We'd cut them out, squeezing with bolt-cutters until they snapped and the free end darted through the air; one even embedded into the far wall (to applause).
Of winning, with a split-second finish, using a capability we'd added between matches and never tested. Of flash ingenuity: my twin and his team chopping off the busted top half of their bot and winning with a souped-up bottom half.
In short, FIRST lingers: it becomes an identity, like any other group activity that swallows up time, and shifts the directional arrow of one’s life. It metamorphoses as it motivates.
Is it good to cut class and skip sleep if you’re doing it to build robots in a basement? I am not the only one who thinks so. Today there are more stages of competition than when I competed, to accommodate the explosion of teams. And if you visit the cage, it has expanded, with better lighting, more machinery, and all the chain-link pushed back, making more room for FIRST teams and their perennial desperate journey.