If you follow me on social media, you know that I am a dedicated volunteer in the FIRST Robotics Competition and FIRST Lego League programs. I’ve been a volunteer mentor for FIRST Team 172 Northern Force and a Game Announcer at events, such as the World Championship event in Detroit each spring. This year, 2019, my team was fortunate to be selected to attend the Detroit Championship tournament, and they had their best outing ever, which is pretty awesome in its own right. Not only were they ranked #8 going into the playoffs in the Daly Subdivision, but they also received the Team Spirit award for the Carson/Daly Division, which contains 136 schools.
In addition to being an event volunteer and team mentor, I also make a tool for Game Announcers that provides them with real time scoring, ranking, schedules and team data. Never one for fancy names, we call it gatool. It eliminates paper at events (which can be up to 150+ sheets just for match schedules) and uses crowdsourcing to deliver better data to the Game Announcers from previous events. It’s a mobile-friendly web app, built with Adobe tools and modern Web frameworks (of course!), and it’s available to all of the Game Announcers and Masters of Ceremonies across all of FRC. Here’s a youtube demo of the tool, which has matured since this recording. In its 4 years of life, it has seen widespread adoption around the world.
Imagine my surprise when, during the round robin playoffs, I am named the Outstanding Volunteer of the Year for the Detroit Championship. Of course, I was so focused on the job at hand (we were in the playoffs, after all), that I had to be prevented from moving between the fields and missed the citation because I was trying to escape to do my job. Here’s a video of the citation and my emotional reaction.
My entire family is involved in this program, as student participants, mentors, alumni and volunteers. You’ll see my wife and youngest son in the video, and my oldest son is the one mentioned in the citation. My middle son is an FLL and FRC alum and is a volunteer at events. We firmly believe in the power of sports combined with electrical and mechanical engineering, software development, business planning, program management, persuasion, creative design and thinking, and of course team spirit. Sports provides a focus for communities as well as the team members who compete, and we firmly believe that we can focus communities to not only embrace Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), but also to support and respect students who choose to go on to careers in STEM. Adobe is a creative company, so we add Arts to the list and get STEAM. FIRST promotes all of these concepts, despite it being a Robotics sports league. The highest award in FIRST, the Chairman’s award, is not for the quality or performance of a robot. It’s for the team who embraces the ideals of FIRST, as embodied in its Mission and Vision statements (below).
The mission of FIRST® is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.
“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.” Dean Kamen, Founder
Core to achieving these is diversity. Cultural, socioeconomic, gender and racial diversity are embedded in the operational goals of FIRST across all of its programs. It’s a global program, so what may seem like diversity in one place are the norm in another. There are many girls-only teams, many religiously diverse teams in places where religion is a point of conflict, and many teams in schools with only hand drills and hand saws for tools. FIRST teams help each other, so when new teams form, other teams will lend a hand either in person or virtually. This culture of assistance applies to mentors as well as students, and there are several vibrant online communities where FIRST volunteers and students share ideas, best (and worst!) practices, and advice.
FIRST partners with the Lego Group to deliver FIRST Lego League Jr. and FIRST Lego League programs to hundreds of thousands of Elementary and Middle school students and their mentors worldwide. These programs are affordable and portable, designed for maximum impact with minimal investment for schools or parents. Competition involves three measured components: Core Values, the Problem, and Robot Performance. Core values looks at how the team aligns with FIRST Core Values. The Problem is a presentation (much like a science fair) where the students discuss their solution to the overarching issue for that year. Issues include subjects like water quality, life in space, recycling, elder care, and more. Robot Performance tracks how well a robot, built entirely of Lego bricks and powered by a Lego micro-controller, can navigate a field of obstacles and perform skill tasks on its own. The robots operate entirely on their own during this period.
FIRST has a crossover middle school-high school program called FIRST Tech Challenge. This program had harder challenges and larger robots, powered by low cost Android-based controllers. This program serves a very large base of schools around the world with events that can fit in a school library or half of a gymnasium. Competition involves two alliances of two robots competing to solve a technical challenge. There is an autonomous period where the robots perform the game tasks on their own, followed by a tele-operated period, during which the drivers must remotely control their robots to score points by moving resources around the playing field. It is usually a frenetic game that is fun to watch and fun to play.
FIRST has a high school program called FIRST Robotics Competition. This is the “big leagues,” with robots topping 120lbs and often the size of a kitchen appliance. Competition involves two alliances of three teams, each alliance working together to score points via physical and skills challenges. There is often, but not always, a portion of each match that is autonomous, and there is often but not always an opportunity for a team to play defense. The playing field takes up most of a regulation basketball court, and events happen in arenas and high school gymnasia.
FTC and FRC have tournaments with qualification rounds, where teams play with randomly selected partners. Each team will play 8 or more matches, depending on the tournament format. Each team will carefully observe all of the other teams, because the top 4 (FTC) or 8 (FRC) teams will select partners to join them for playoff rounds. From this point, the alliances do not change, and teams who win their pairings advance in the tournament. The Winner of the tournament is the alliance who wins the final pairing, and the loser of that pairing is known as the Finalist. Both receive performance awards.
As mentioned before, the highest award is the Chairman’s award, so winning the tournament is only one of the ways teams can receive recognition. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, there’s also awards for Team Spirit, Business Plan, Imagery, Gracious Professionalism™, Autonomous Code, Engineering Excellence, Engineering Inspiration, volunteer service, Mentorship, and individual student character among others. There’s even an award for making a video to promote safe practices in the shop and at competitions.
I am very fortunate to work at a company that encourages volunteering and community involvement. Volunteering and philanthropy are core to the character of Adobe, and our Founders, John Warnock and Chuck Geschke, often remind us to share our talents in our communities. Adobe firmly believes that corporations have a responsibility to their employees, communities and to their shareholders, and that by forging strong bonds between the employees and their communities, we can all benefit. Adobe offers several incentives to volunteer, including rewards for volunteer time (currently $250 for each 10 hours of recorded volunteer service, capped at $10,000) and for serving on Boards of Directors (amount varies depending on the employee’s job at Adobe, but offered in addition to the funding for volunteering and matching grants).
Having an incentive plan to encourage volunteering is a very nice thing, but I would volunteer without it and did for many years prior to joining Adobe. Whether as Game Announcer or robotics team mentor or Cubmaster or Alumni Board Member or President of the local Chamber of Commerce, the community is stronger from direct involvement in programs. None of these programs work without financial support, of course, and for many years, our family could not provide financial support and chose to volunteer as our tithe (or more than tithe in the case of the Scouts!). Adobe makes it possible now for us to provide both volunteer hours and financial support to the organizations that mean the most to us and to our communities. Thank you, John and Chuck, for making it possible for us to spread your vision so far and wide.