I’d like to preface this article by saying that this article is absolutely not a criticism of FIRST, rather it is an analysis of alternative programs and the problems associated with them. For those who don’t know, FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology —is an organization that provides mentor-based PreK-12 robotics programs. FIRST remains an extraordinary program for students by giving them an incredible hands-on experience where they can build real-world skills; however, the overlap between programs creates a disadvantage for one program in particular, the FIRST Tech Challenge.
Specifically, the two programs I’ll examine are the FIRST Tech Challenge and the FIRST Robotics Competition. The FIRST Tech Challenge, or FTC, is a program for students in 7th through 12th grade, while the FIRST Robotics Competition, or FRC, is a program for students in 9th through 12th grade. This creates a decision for high schools that want to run a FIRST team. Currently in Connecticut, FRC is much more popular with 62 teams, compared to FTC which has 39 teams. Note these statistics are from the firstinspires.org teams and event search and likely don’t account for how active the teams are. Regardless, this poses the question: Which program should a school participate in?
FRC is a much more intense program, with a much bigger robot, longer competitions and more meetings. In my hometown, our FTC team meets 6 hours a week, while our FRC team typically meets for over 20 hours a week during their respective seasons. For that reason and others, I believe that FRC provides a higher quality experience, yet it excludes kids who perhaps cannot make as much of a commitment to the team, and requires much more financial resources. FTC on the other hand is a cheaper program and the commitment is much less intense.
It is possible to have both programs in one town, however, this would mean that FTC is middle school only, thus preventing students from obtaining the skills necessary to succeed. Students get two years of experience max and have to go up against students who may have as much as six years of experience. It is important to note that the program before FTC, the FIRST Lego League, extends up to 8th grade, making it possible for FTC to be bypassed entirely. Schools can also have both teams available for high schoolers, with FTC being the equivalent of a junior varsity team. However, this strategy also has its downfall as now students’ time is split between two teams with conflicting schedules. The Connecticut FTC season ends in February and the FRC season starts in January, so students either split their time or have to choose which team to be on, thus inhibiting the ability to create one cohesive and strong program. Schools have to choose which program to participate in or risk using a strategy that does not facilitate the success of the overall program.
This is the part where I would like to offer a magical solution to the problem, however, I don’t have one. This is a huge problem because the intrinsic value of FTC as a stepping stone from the FIRST Lego League program to the FIRST Robotics Competition program is undermined by the fact that its age range conflicts with FRC in high school, and FLL in middle school. In other words, for a student to participate in FIRST from PreK through 12th grade, they never have to participate in FTC. This makes it hard for FTC teams to proliferate, especially when its biggest selling point is that it is a cheaper alternative to FRC rather than part of the FIRST teams progression. As FTC is a natural stepping stone from FLL to FRC-based content, it should be expanded in order for students to get the most out of the FIRST pipeline.
You are forgetting that in many places, all over the world, FTC is the end for many students. There is absolutely no need to do FRC if you want a true engineering experience.
The FTC game this year, strategically, is much better than the FRC game. I can run 3 FTC teams for the same cost as 1 FRC team and the engineering aspect is really no different. In many ways FTC is more difficult because you have to fit your solution in a 18″x18″ box.