What is FIRST?
FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology is a non-profit founded by inventor Dean Kamen more than twenty years ago "To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders." See www.usfirst.org for a description of the four programs: FLLJr, FLL, FTC and FRC.
This the most frequently asked question, and the answer is not a simple. For high schools students interested in FRC, the Robo-Lions team is open to new members all year, and they do have year-round activity. For younger students, the seasons generally run Aug-March for FLL and FTC. Teams are organized and coached mainly by parent volunteers. Some teams continue year to year and may add new members, others transition all their members to other levels. FLLJr teams are the easiest to run and may start or end their season almost any time.
The FLL and FTC teams have been somewhat more structured within PIE3 over the past several years. For 2016, we plan to add workshops to introduce families to FIRST, to some existing teams and to each other. Meanwhile, we encourage participation in a summer session for FLL (3rd-8th grade students) to get acquainted with the robots.
FIRST Lego League Junior (FLLJr) - grades K-3. Kids research a topic and build a Lego model. They present their work at an Expo, if desired, or more than one Expo. Teams can be as small as 2 or 3, or up to around 6 or 7 kids. It is very inexpensive, informal and low-key. Season is flexible; expos happen all the time.
FIRST Lego League (FLL) - grades 4-8. Teams of 5-10 (max) kids build robots based on Lego Mindstorms, and present an innovative solution to a problem presented each year - the theme changes annually. Teams use Mindstorm NXT or EV3 robots to solve a series of challenges, called 'missions' described for them and created on a 4'x8' playing mat with models made of Lego parts. The can use the robot and any Lego parts to create and program a device to accomplish a mission. A typical mission involves moving the robot to a point on the field, grabbing or manipulating a part, and returning to base; there are 20 or so missions and the teams get 2 1/2 minutes to do as much as they can. This is evaluated in an interview with judges and in a fun, exciting, and public contest. The teams must also show teamwork, sportsmanship and creativity at competitions.
To start a team, including registration ($225), field kit ($75) and basic Mindstorm ($450-$500) is $750-$800 plus shipping. It is a bit less for the NXT, more if you go with the new EV3 Mindstorm. Typically, about $200-$500 more will be needed to cover t-shirts ($100-$250 depending on source and number), local event registration ($65), additional parts (varies greatly) and props/costumes (varies).
Up until about the end of September, there is time to find a sponsor through corporations. Teams are often supported by PTA/PTSOs to some extent, and local business contributions obtained through team parents. Teams may also hold traditional fundraisers, and most teams collect a small amount ($50-$75 per team member) in dues. Finally, PIE3 will offer some matching funds to teams who successfully raise some of their own.
The times and locations for meetings is entirely up to the coaches and other parents. If space is available at school, or if a teacher is interested in hosting, it is a bonus. PIE3 can submit a Use of Facilities form for after school and evening hours to get the access if no teacher is involved. This will not allow teams to store materials at a school. Churches and libraries are also possible meeting sites. Many teams meet at homes at least part of the time to get greater access and flexibility.
I recommend 2 meetings/week for 2 hours for middle school, but sometimes for elementary kids fewer and/or shorter meetings are better, with occasional long meetings on a weekend as the competition approaches. Coaches are free to set reasonable goals for new teams and adjust the meeting times accordingly.
The new game is released in late August. Competitions begin Dec 7th and finish by mid-Feb at the latest, with the state tournament in late Feb. Teams compete only once, on a weekend, unless they qualify for the state tournament. Competitions are usually within a 45 min drive, sometimes a bit farther, and are a full day (9 am-5 pm typically). The state tournament is at UMBC in Catonsville.
Coaches need no specific knowledge, though at least one adult with a little programming experience can be helpful. Mostly, coaches need a bit of patience and the ability to help guide and direct the kids, while making this a fun experience.
The teams are part of FIRST Lego League. You can find out much more about the international program at http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/fll. We also support FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics for older kids, and some JrFLL for the very young.
Our non-profit, PIE3, runs a rec program along the lines of a sporting program except for robotics. Teams meet once or twice each week with two or more coaches through their first competition in December of January. If they qualify, they compete at the state level in February.
As in any rec sport, we need to recruit and train coaches, which is ongoing over the summer. Coaches get a manual, one or two Saturday training sessions, on-line resources for them and the kids, and contacts locally and state-wide for support. Meetings generally take place at one of the team member's homes in a basement, family room or garage. We do not have space and are not associated with any school, but sometimes arrangements can be made to use a school or library, or even to store some materials there.
FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) - grades 7-12. Kids used the Mindstorm 'brick' but program in RobotC or Labview. They compete in one, two or three one-day qualifiers on weekends to advance to the state tournament, and may then go on to a 'Super Regional' (this is new and ours will be in PA, so there may be travel cost this year). The robots are made of Tetrix metal parts, must be smaller than an 18" cube, and can also include other materials or specially made parts. The challenge is announced Sept 10th this year; it changes annually. On that day there will be team training - kids and coaches should try to be there. Teams can exceed 10, and should be at least 5 students. Robots operate autonomously for 30 sec and then via driver controls for 2 min. Cost is $1200-$1500+ depending on how many qualifiers you go to and what special parts you buy.
FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) - grades 9-12. The robot can be made of anything, but not exceed 120 lbs and some size limits that change each year. These are the 'big robots', and play 3 vs 3 on a 27' x 54' field. Cost for teams, which can be any size but typically are 20-50 kids, is at least $15,000/year for most teams. Registration, materials and travel are much more expensive since the events are 3 days and all around the country. Off-season events take place most of the year. The Robo-Lions FRC Team is open to any high school student, and occasionally accepts exceptional 8th graders.