May 6, 2015

FIRST Robotics in Michigan - Program Concerns

Anyone who knows me knows my biggest joy in life is coaching FIRST Robotics teams. I have dedicated much of my free time in the last 12 years to making sure kids had somewhere to foster their love of science, engineering and technology. I wanted these kids to have a place to come where they could geek out with other kids just like them. A place where their desire to learn could be nurtured in a fun environment.

Over the last year, I (along with many other coaches) have noticed some startling and scary changes in the way FIRST Robotics is run here in Michigan. Please understand that when I say this, I am focused only on problems that are specific to the operational partners here in Michigan. As far as I can tell these issues are specific to our state and are not an issue for other areas.

This weekend I drafted an email to FIRST HQ in hopes of starting a dialog about the issues we are seeing. After sending the email, I realized that maybe the dialog needed to happen with more than just FIRST HQ. FIRST is a large, connected community (which I am very thankful for) and we can only solve these issues if we are all able to talk about them. So I have decided to post my email here in hopes of starting this discussion.

Email sent to FIRST HQ:

My name is Carla and I am writing to you to express some concerns over what I am seeing with our FIRST program here in Michigan. I have been coaching FIRST teams in Michigan for the last 12 years. Until this past season I have been very proud to talk about FIRST and my involvement with it. This past season however has left me feeling uneasy about the future of FIRST here in Michigan.

I began to see problems last summer when I stumbled upon a document for start up teams showing that Michigan had changed to non-standard age ranges for all FIRST programs. This was not listed on their main site and is not inline with national age ranges. For example, the FLL age range was changed to a generic upper elementary while FTC was changed to middle school.

At this point, I had already registered our FTC team that included a couple 9th grade students. When I contacted FIRST in Michigan to ask where we would be able to compete, I received a response that in short said I should create an FRC team. I explained that we only had a couple students that were old enough for FRC and they were not ready to move up yet.

After two more interactions like this with the FTC coordinator in Michigan, I was starting to get very concerned about the FIRST in Michigan organization. During both interaction the FTC Coordinator pushed for us to start an FRC team, ignoring the fact we only had two 9th graders.

After contacting other states looking for a place for out kids to compete, I contact FIRST HQ. Thankfully, Nancy Paul was able to help us get some answers. We did find out there was a single event in Michigan that allowed high school teams. It was bewildering to me that FIRST in Michigan would not have mentioned this during any of the times I talked with them.

I contacted the organizer of the Michigan high school FTC event. She was very kind and let me know that she has been having issues getting FIRST in Michigan to let people know the competition was even available. In the past they had refused to place the competition on the events page. While I do not understand the reasoning behind it, the whole exchange left me feeling like FIRST in Michigan was simply interested in collecting money not helping students.

I am hearing similar concerns from many coaches here in Michigan. Most of the coaches are afraid to speak out about their experiences for fear of retaliation against their teams. While I have the same fears, I feel someone needs to speak out if we want to see these problems corrected.

These program changes plus the interactions with FIRST in Michigan have left me with a sickening feeling about where our program is headed. The goal of our organization is to foster a love of STEM in kids so they can continue onto careers in these fields. This new system of blindly forcing children to move to the next level team based on age alone, not when they feel ready, results in students leaving the program and harboring negative feelings towards STEM.

FIRST in Michigan is not the same organization I started with 12 years ago and it feels as though they no longer put the students first. I am hoping in writing this, you will be able to give me some insight into the future of FIRST here in Michigan and the intentions you, as FIRST HQ, have for our teams.

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.