This past weekend I volunteered as a judge in the New Jersey Regional FIRST Robotics Tournament. Sixty one teams competed, coming from as far away as Brazil. The competition was played in three-team alliances, alliances playing against each other to shoot soccer balls through goals with some significant wrinkles thrown in. The tournament lasts two full days. Team objectives are to win the tournament and go on to the national championship, and also to compete for more than a dozen FIRST awards celebrating both technical achievement and team attributes. These are presented at closing ceremonies each day.
The game rules this year were more different from past years than normal, which meant that veteran teams had to change their robots more, to make more fundamental design decisions, than what they were accustomed to. Early rumors from the practice field were that teams were struggling, that a lot of things weren’t working… and the first matches were indeed low scoring without much action. Some of us wondered whether the changes had gone too far, if and how the players could adapt during the course of competition.
These issues hit the judges square on during our Saturday working lunch, when we caucused about that day’s engineering quality awards. What to do with well designed machines that met most of the criteria for an award, but that hadn’t worked on the field? Would they be performing by day’s end or not?
We needn’t have worried. Teams scouted the field to learn best practices, shared information, worked together, analyzed and adapted, and the quality of play went through the roof. In the end the judges struggled this year with too much excellence, we had more teams deserving awards than we had awards to give.
We had grand debates as well. Should the Entrepreneurship Award go to the young team with the big vision, the experienced team that was rededicating itself to greater service or the team whose written business plan most clearly articulated their plan? Should the Quality award go to the simple machine that performed at outstanding levels, the more versatile robot that had mastered several game skills or the robot that had outstanding machine quality features but was average on pit quality & team integration?
In the end it was an outstanding experience all around. If you want to discover the best of young America, get to know more about FIRST!