Impact a Student's Life by Starting a Robotics Team

I have spoke in the past about the importance of After School Programs. My after school program is a robotics and engineering program. I love robotics because it teaches all of the major aspects of engineering (mechanical, electrical, programming, pneumatics, etc). It is wonderful to see something that you built come to life (very Dr. Frankenstein).

The students love it for this reason, and that every year the organizations frame the challenge in the form of a competitive game. Through teamwork, and ingenuity, students learn engineering and life skills.

At every competition I see educators in the audience get hooked by the excitement and motivation of the students. They want that for their students and the question is, "Which robotics competition is right for me and how do I get started?" Here is an overview of each of the main organizations and some tips on how to get started:

FIRST - FIRST is For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It was started by Dean Kamen who invented the Segway but also the Insulin Pump, and a Water Purification machine. His philosophy is summed up in the following quote, "In a free culture, we get what we celebrate." Seeing sports and celebrities being idolized by students but not engineers and scientists motivated him to start FIRST.

FIRST has been around for over 25 years and is a huge and diverse organization. The original competition FRC (First Robotics Competition) involves students building a large 120lb robot from scratch. Students have 6 weeks from the Kickoff event in early January to design, build, refine,  and test a robot. The students compete in regional competitions and the winners move onto the World Championship. The events are truly exciting and newcomers will be hooked immediately as they are just as exciting, if not more, than any sporting event.

Tips for FIRST:

  • FRC has a significant cost, teams spend $6500 to register and pay for their first regional, and up to $3500 for the actual building of their Robot. However, there are many companies willing to help out. FIRST has been around long enough that companies and colleges are well aware of it.
  • Creating a robot from scratch can be a daunting task, but while this is a competition, FIRST seeks to usher in a world of Gracious Professionalism. This means that teams are willing to share and help out one another for the true goal of learning and enjoying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). If you are interested in starting a team, the FIRST robotics website will help you find workshops and other teams in your area who will gladly help out.
  • Do not be discouraged if you are not yourself an engineer. Companies will gladly donate mentors to your team to help you out in all aspects of the program. This is another component of FIRST, getting students integrated into the community of professionals. Additionally, my previous Robotics Team MorTorq won the 2010 Chairman's award, the highest award one can receive in FIRST. This was done through the incredible leadership of Eileen Kahn who herself is a businesswoman. Through their partnerships though, the students were never at a loss for expertise. 

VEX Robotics: VEX was originally a part of FIRST but became so popular that it became its own organization and competition. These robots are much smaller (18"x18"x18") but the excitement and learning is as significant as with FRC. 
  • The cost is far lower than with FRC. Teams can build a great competition robot for well under $500. Many teams will use VEX to start their robotics team and then a couple of years later add on FRC.
  • VEX is great for prototyping, or testing ideas and designs. It takes less than a week to build a VEX robot and the parts are analogous to larger parts (e.g. gear ratios, torque).
  • These robots can be built by elementary/middle schoolers with support and the programming software Easy C teaches programming concepts while keeping the difficulty to a minimum.

Botball - Similar in size and cost to VEX, Botball has a much more significant reliance on programming and sensors as their robots are completely autonomous. This means that there is no human controlling the robot duing the competiton. Additionally, the parts are Lego Technic pieces. So while they might not be as robust, the time to build a robot is much faster. This makes it very useful in a classroom for exploring programming and robotics.

BEST - The BEST robotics program was inspired by Woodie Flowers of MIT (and later FIRST) with the hopes of bringing engineering and robotics to High Schoolers. The robots are larger than VEX or Botball but tend to be smaller than FRC robots. The parts are hardware like PVC and Wood, in addition to standard motors and electrical components. BEST is significantly different from other competitions in how heavily they rely upon other aspects of a team besides the robot. To go see a competition you will see beautiful and elaborate booths filled with detailed engineering notebooks, research, and financial documentation.

If you wish to sign up for any of the above Robotics teams, there is still plenty of time. Go to and sign up your team and register for competitions. Opportunities for funding can come from the numerous grants available for STEM, private corporations, community businesses, organizations, fundraising, and many more. People are going to come out of the woodwork to donate to your noble cause if you keep your ears open and mention it to everyone you meet.

Let me know if you have any questions about starting, funding, maintaining a robotics team. Trust me, once you start, you and your students will work hard but love every minute of it.