Events are being canceled left and right, and it is likely that you have had one canceled. These events were certainly unexpected, but I think it reflects very strongly on the culture of FIRST, both the good and bad. This post, more than anything else, is a brain dump on how the COVID-19 disease reflects FIRST culture.
Engineering is About Solving Problems
Imagine if everything in engineering worked perfectly the first time. As nice as of a dream as that sounds, anyone who has been in FIRST knows very well that it does not. Engineering is about trying, failing, and then trying again. In my opinion, this resiliency is what makes FIRST so strong.
Every season, roadblocks are both intentionally and unintentionally put in place. Up until this year, the development time was very short due to Bag Day. Teams in some regions have had severe weather issues, while others have had important religious events take place during competition. The FIRST community handles these by making adjustments and realizing that things may not go according to plan.
COVID-19 is yet another roadblock, albeit a much greater one than most in the past. Uncontrollable circumstances mean that teams aren't able to compete, which can be seen as very disheartening. However, COVID-19 does not mean that FIRST is over. Some events may be rescheduled, and there also are an abundance of off-season events.
FIRST is About the Process
When you compare time spent competing with time spent developing the robot, it becomes very clear that FIRST is more than just a competition. It is a framework to learn, where the end result is competing against other teams. Most of my memories of FIRST do not actually happen in competition, but rather happen during team gatherings or work-sessions. While I love going to competition, there is so much more to the program than just competing.
I would guess that most FIRST students learned something this year. It is in the nature of the program. The passion and understanding of engineering do not primarily stem from the competitions themselves, but rather the process leading of designing, building, wiring, and driving a robot.
Even though competitions are postponed and/or canceled, this learning experience still took place, and I would argue that the learning is more important than any other aspect in FIRST.
The Harsh Reality of COVID-19
COVID-19 is a serious problem. It can be deadly, especially to elderly people or people with preconditions, and it spreads easily. Since news is constantly coming out about COVID-19, I am not going to go into details here. However, given the current understanding of the disease, having competitions would be disastrous.
FIRST is not the only community that its participants belong to. Everyone lives in towns with other people who are not involved with FIRST. FIRST students go to schools with non-FIRST students. Mentors work in offices with people who have never even heard of FIRST. By preventing competitions, not only is it reducing spread within the FIRST community, but it also is reducing it abroad.
At the time, COVID-19 is still not very well understood. However, at least in my area, the presence of it is closing in on the community. From former FRC team members to family members of school staff, most people now knows of someone (through two degrees of separation) that is confirmed for COVID-19. Especially during the time when it is not well understood, it is important that we mitigate transmission risks to keep our communities thriving.
FIRST is Global
Despite arguably not being as effective at international adoption as other STEM programs, FIRST still has a very wide array of team locations. At the San Francisco Regional, a regional that my team was signed up for, teams came not only from California but also Brazil. Brazil has a much lower infection rate than other places, and by bringing Brazilians to California, Brazil could be placed at a much higher risk. Outside of Districts, I have seen very few FIRST competitions that only have participants from a small geographic area.
In my opinion, it would be completely selfish and unreasonable for FIRST to continue operating events because disease would spread very quickly. It could take one person to bring it from the US to Brazil, and the disease there could skyrocket.
Sadness is a Part of FIRST
Many students are feeling sad or demotivated as a result of not being able to compete. However, one of the most important lessons that I learned with FIRST is resiliency. Last year we literally had a robot split in half in a match against one of the best teams in the world. However, we were resilient and ended up having a much stronger robot.
Whenever a match is lost, someone feels sad. Whenever a robot doesn't work, someone feels sad. Whenever a project gets behind schedule, someone feels sad. However, FIRST students overcome this and strive to be better.
The point is that FIRST wouldn't be FIRST without the impact of curve-balls and emotions. I believe that most FIRST students will be on the other side with a greater sense of compassion and understanding for their communities outside of FIRST.
Everything is an Opportunity
I want to preface this saying that you should always follow advice from federal, state/provincial, and local government as well as your school regarding disease management. Safety is the number one priority, and everything outlined in this section follows the current set of guidelines that apply to my school but not apply to yours.
The power of engineering is turning a problem into an opportunity. The resilience of FIRST teams will come from taking this extra time to make themselves, their robot, and the world better.
My Team's Plan
For the time being, my team is planning on continuing very small work-sessions that exclusively consist of people who already are at a high risk of transmission to one another (i.e. sit next to each other in class). These work-sessions consist of around three students and one mentor. We have a plan of new advancements that will make our robot and code much stronger than in past years. It basically has turned into a R&D session for next season as well as preparation for off-seasons.
Learn Something New
The great thing about the modern age is that, even if you are in self-quarantine, you can still work from home. Some ideas for activities include:
- Write a scouting app
- Learn CAD
- Do research on other teams
- Document your code (yay!)
Despite COVID-19, I am still doing a similar amount of work since I can now focus on learning things for next year, and I have the time to work on projects that I would not otherwise have time for. The biggest one is our scouting app, whose development is now in full swing thanks to our reduced work-sessions.
One of the things that was made very clear during the COVID-19 upcoming process is that effective team communication is critical. The key to our team handling the situation as well as we did was early, frequent, open, and honest communication.
Even though many of these happened in the past, there is a lot that can be learned for handling general team communication and communication in the event of future potential roadblocks.
After the Science Park Taichung regional was canceled, the threat of COVID-19 impacting our season started to be realized. This is because it was one of the earliest high-profile examples of a regional cancellation outside of Mainland China. At this point, our mentors mentioned that COVID-19 may have an impact on our season. We were still working as planned, but at least it was in our minds as early as possible.
When our regionals were eventually canceled, it wasn't a surprise because we had known for a while that we may be affected, and that going to a regional was a best case scenario, not the only scenario.
Our mentors did a very good job of frequently updating us with the latest news. Especially as COVID-19 spread to the United States and as San Mateo and Santa Clara counties (our home county and the one immediately next to us) started finding cases, we were again updated, hearing that it was more likely that stuff would happen. This approach helped make the impact less jarring, since we were aware that things were constantly getting worse.
One of our mentors also attended our school district board meeting to update us with the latest information, which made sure that the students were hearing the latest.
Pandemic information changes very quickly, so by having frequent communication, we could be sure that we always had the latest information.
There are three schools in our district that have FRC teams. Very early on, a group text was made with students from these three schools. We also share some mentors, so they would share information from other teams on ours. It had a couple of benefits:
When you have tight intra-team communication, it can be very easy to update everyone with the latest information.
Creating a Plan
When a plan is interrupted, often the best step is to create a new one. We worked with students on other teams in our district to figure out what plan could work well given the restrictions placed on us by the district. Many of our plans were developed collaboratively, and it allowed us to get a more diverse set of perspectives with the problems at hand.
One of the best things that you can do to create a positive team culture when it comes to communication is to be honest. Especially on FRC, many students are almost adults if not adults. In fact, many of the core people on my team are over 18 years old. Since we are adults or almost adults, we would like to be treated like adults. Our team mentors did a very good job of communicating with us like we are adults, which created a culture of open discussion.
Whenever the district or county sent out an update with COVID-19 to our mentors, it quickly was forwarded on to students. They did not attempt to sugarcoat the potential risks of COVID-19, and explained that even though we are not in high-risk categories, we need to be careful to not overload the medical system.
They also employed the use of logical explanations from reputable sources. We are engineers, we like logic. The use of logic allowed us to make sense of the argument in the same way that we make sense of anything else. Our mentors spent a lot of time finding the latest research, and this logic was one of the biggest factors in us supporting the closure of schools.
Making the Hard Decisions
I am grateful that my school district, FIRST California, and FIRST HQ made the tough decisions to support the well-being of society. Being brutally honest, I think that if our events were not canceled, we would've still gone to them, even if it would help society, because we were so emotionally invested in our robot. I am so grateful for the school admin from San Mateo County's decision to reduce school activities (and as of yesterday, cancel school), Teresa and the entire FIRST California team's decision to cancel SFR, as well as FIRST HQ's decision to cancel the season, because it was the right decision for the well-being of society.
Despite deciding to cancel robotics work-sessions, our school admin were very respectful and professional, and I am grateful that they continued to show support for the robotics programs at my school and in the district. When we had questions, they answered them very quickly and they made sure that we were in the loop on all of the latest news regarding COVID-19.
In the interest of protecting the health of our community, our team has canceled all, including unofficial, work-sessions. Robot materials are at someones house in case of something going wrong, and it may potentially be used for development with a single person, but we have no intention of actually being productive during this pandemic.
One of our mentors sent out the following to our Slack:
In case anyone is thinking about getting together with your friends over this break, every expert says DO NOT DO THAT! It seems that Coronavirus carriers are contagious for a few days before they show symptoms, and young people may not present symptoms at all, but still have it. A number of your friends may already be carrying it and you don't know which they are. And if you get it, and don't know, and give it to your grandparents, they will die. STAY HOME! WITH YOUR FAMILY AND NOBODY ELSE! This is not a drill.
This message was accompanied by a Medium post that is well worth the read. It is a Medium Premium post, so you may need to open it in an Incognito window, but it is completely worth the read. I think that the idea of social distancing is important, so I encourage you to share this post with your team, family, and friends.
I want to restate the most important points from this article, so that everything is perfectly clear:
- This was unexpected but can turn into an opportunity for improvement
- The needs of society are greater than the needs of FIRST teams
- Social isolation means social isolation
- Communication is critical all the time, but especially during emergencies
Thank you for reading this brain dump about COVID-19 and FIRST. The FIRST community will come out of this stronger, more empathetic, and more prepared for the future. Stay safe!
If you think that it is helpful, feel free to share or read some of my other posts.