Karthik Kanagasabapathy works for VEX Robotics as the Global Competition Manager, where he is responsible for exciting and engaging young people about STEM (Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics) education, via participation in the VEX Robotics Competition. Since 2006, he has been designing competition robotics games that have been played by hundreds of thousands of elementary, middle, and high school students across the globe. He has served as the lead mentor for FRC Team 1114 since 2004, who in 2012 won the Championship Chairman's Award, resulting in their induction into the FIRST Hall of Fame, as well as winning 26 regionals, 5 Championship divisions, and 1 World Championship. In his spare time he can be found watching and live tweeting sports, or reading the New Yorker and GQ magazines.
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How did you get involved with FIRST?
I got involved in robotics back in 1997. Our school had a pretty successful robotics program that competed in a small scale Canadian competition. A few teachers and students tried to get me involved because they thought competitive robotics would appeal to my analytical and strategic side. The connection they made to the sporting world particularly intrigued me, so I checked out and got really hooked. The following year our team was looking for a bigger and better challenge, so we did some research and discovered this American competition called US FIRST. It was bigger than anything we had been a part of, especially since we would be the first ever Canadian team. From there we formed a rookie team, Team 188, and dove into our debut season. We had a lot to learn, and our robot definitely displayed our lack of experience and acumen. So we packed up and headed down to what was then called “Nationals” (a name that would eventually have to change to reflect the new international nature of the competition). Arriving at the venue at EPCOT Center, I was blown away by the scale of everything. It was amazing to think that a show this big was being put on just for us and that we were actually competing on this rock concert like stage. I mean some of the judges were astronauts!!!The level of inspiration was off the chart; something that changed my life forever. Seeing the creations of teams like 16, 47, 71, and 111 was beyond words. To think that these teams, working within the same constraints that we were, were able to build such dominant robots who made the game look so simple was created such a shift in my perceptions of limits. I knew right away that I one day wanted to be on a team like that. I wanted to create a program that could achieve such excellence. I’d have to say, Nationals in ‘98 in many ways was instrumental in the development of 1114, 5 years before the team even existed
How did you get involved with team 1114, Simbotics?
I went on to the University of Waterloo where I studied pure mathematics. I had some bumps along the way, much like any university student, but it was a fun ride. FIRST was an afterthought for most of my college career. I kept up with what was going on in the community via Chief Delphi, but wasn’t involved with a team. Eventually FIRST started to take off in Canada with a regional coming north of the border for the first time in 2002. In 2003 I attended the Canadian Regional in Toronto as a spectator. I was sitting in the stands and I was really impressed by this one rookie team. They seemed to have all the ingredients to be really successful, but also seemed to be missing strategic direction. I eventually started up a conversation with a stranger sitting beside me about what I was thinking. Little did I know that this man was the Engineering Director for General Motors St. Catharines and the executive sponsor for rookie Team 1114. We chatted for the entire event, with me doing my best to teach him about FIRST history and strategy. A few months later he sent me an email that would alter the course of my life. He said he really saw some potential in the robotics program he was sponsoring with 1114, but he wanted to see it grow to the next level. He then offered me an internship at GM, where my main job responsibility would be running 1114. And that’s how I became the Lead Mentor for Team 1114, a role I’ve now held for 12 seasons. I’ve been a drive coach, strategy mentor, and heavily involved with our Chairman’s submissions. That’s my current role. I’ve also been an FRC MC for a good 10 years and love doing whatever I can to help put on shows than can hopefully inspire people the way I was inspired by my first Championship back in 1998.
Overall, what is the best part of the FIRST community?
That’s a tough one since it’s a pretty amazing community. When talking about the “community”, I’m referring to the collection of people that make up the teams and volunteers. This is very separate from the FIRST program, but obviously intertwined. I think I’ve always been impressed with how selfless so many people and teams can be. As a veteran, it’s easy to the kindness of the community for granted. People are always so willing to help each other out, no matter what the situation, that you just get used to it and come to expect it. Not only is it so prevalent, it’s very contagious. Newcomers to the program are always so quick to follow the lead of the veterans, as such this spirit spreads. Dr. Woodie Flowers definitely captured something special with the concept of Gracious Professionalism.
What advice would you give to a rookie FRC Team
I’ve talked a lot about this in the various resources put out by Team 1114, especially last fall’s Simbot Seminar Series. (youtube.com/simbotics) But if I had to narrow it down to one piece of advice it would be “Evaluate your resources and work within them, not beyond them.” This goes for building a robot and also for building a team. There is so much out there for an FRC team to do; you can’t possibly do it all well, especially in your rookie year. You’re best off to focus on a few things and to try in excel in those, as opposed to trying to do too much and being mediocre. Start small with your program, but always keep an eye on the future for how you might want to expand. Talk to other teams to learn about how they manage their resources, and pick and choose models to emulate that best suit your program.
With the shift to two champs coming up, what is your advice for teams to make the best of it?
First off, I think it’s important to recognize that the change is definitely happening. You might not be happy about it, but that’s part of life. Our world is constantly changing and many times we don’t like the changes that end up affecting us. Unfortunately, similar to #TwoChamps, in life we’re often powerless to stop the change from happening. At a certain point you need to accept that the change is coming, and find ways to adapt and make the best of it.
In all honesty, the shift should have little impact on how your team operates. The missions of FIRST haven’t changed and the goals of programs haven’t either. Just go out and build amazing robots and keep trying to change culture.
Would you encourage young women to get involved with FIRST? Why?
Absolutely! If there’s one thing FIRST needs it’s more diversity. Dean’s talked about this a lot in various speeches, and it’s a message we can’t afford to lose. Right now FIRST is very good at getting kids who are already interested in STEM subjects more exposed to STEM subjects. This isn’t a bad thing. However, FIRST and us as a community are not particularly good at getting people who are particularly interested or exposed to STEM into our program. The gender gap in FIRST is a very concrete and specific example of this.
Looking at this chart, we see that 92.2% of Mechanical Engineers are men, 90.7% of Electrical Engineers are men, and 88.1% of Aerospace Engineers are men.
There is a dearth of women in STEM fields and no one has yet to show me a good reason for this. I don’t buy the whole argument of “women just don’t like STEM”. I think our society, both consciously and subconsciously, makes it incredibly difficult for women to get involved in STEM. This is why it’s important to get women involved in FIRST. So they can see at young age that STEM is dynamic, interesting, and something they can excel at. So it’s on us as a community to be as welcoming to young women as possible. I want to take the nerdy old boys club, rip down the doors and usher in a new generation of STEM rock stars that can inspire people of all genders and races into our community.
What is your involvement with the VEX program?
I’m the Global Competition Manager for VEX Robotics and the Chairman of VEX Robotics Game Design Committees. Thus one of my main responsibilities is being in charge of the designing the VEX Robotics Competition and VEX IQ Challenge games each season. At the same time I’m also in charge of the VEX Robotics business operations up here in Canada.
Explain the differences between VEX and FIRST. What are the pros of each?
The biggest difference is that VEX Robotics is a product company, while FIRST is an organization that runs programs. VEX Robotics designs, manufactures, and sells the products that make up our three product lines, VEX IQ, VEX EDR, and VEXpro. We then help organizations who run robotics programs (e.g. FIRST) use our products in an effort to help change and revolutionize how STEM education is taught and delivered. Numerous organizations use VEX products. PLTW, BEST Robotics, Skills USA, the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, and FIRST are some of the major examples. We’re a crown supplier for FRC, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars of products each season. Not to mention we also sponsor a few FRC teams (#TeamIFI) and our employee base is heavily drawn from FRC alumni, many of whom continue to mentor FRC teams today.
Often people talk about VEX they’re talking about the VEX Robotics Competition / VEX IQ Challenge, which are competitions that are run by the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation, that features robots that nearly exclusively built VEX EDR and VEX IQ parts. Last year there were about 12,000 teams worldwide in over 25 countries. 800 of these teams competed at VEX Worlds in Kentucky.
How can people get involved with VEX in their areas?
To get involved with the VEX product lines, then just hop on over to www.vexrobotics.com and start browsing around at online catalogue of parts. If you want to know how to get involved with the VEX Robotics Competition, check out our competition landing page: http://www.vexrobotics.com/competition, which includes lots of information on how to start a team and links to contact your local Robotics Education and Competition Foundation representitive who would be happy to help you out!
What advice would you give to FIRST students? This can be to graduating seniors, people transitioning from FLL to FTC, general advice, all of the above, your choice.
In 2013 I gave a TEDx talk titled “The Subtle Secret of Success”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfC3JdkEVgQ There were three main ideas that I covered in that talk.
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I’m your average robot obsessed college student and today I want to talk about what happens to you and robotics after you graduate high school. I decided to put together a list of things to keep in mind and expect when you “leave the nest.”
Best of luck on your adventures! Remember there is always someone within FIRST Ladies to support you and offer advice should you need it.
This blog was written by Claudia Dube. If you are interested in blogging for FIRST Ladies, click here to sign up on the schedule.
As Ladies in FIRST we’ve all had some crazy “firsts”. The first time going to a competition. The first time getting up in front of the judges. The first time meeting your team. The first time BUILDING A ROBOT! But have you ever thought about what it would be like to be the first to start a program within FIRST? I have been one of the very few to have that unique opportunity.
My FIRST career as a team member took place between 2001 and 2009. At the beginning of that time, the FLL program was just kicking off. But by the time my all girls team and I had reached the end of 8th grade (the end of the FLL program in the US) we were hungry for more. We had joined our “brother” team in Atlanta at the World Championships in April 2004 and had seen the “big robots”. As many of you know, after seeing an FRC team in action there’s no going back.
But we had our share of obstacles. Mainly, we were not funded or supported by our school district. While they loved what we did and championed our STEM cause, there was no space for an FRC team and no faculty willing to put in the time or resources. As a “potential” naïve rookie team, we had no space, no funding and no mentors. Like many FLL teams that had come before us, we thought that our robotics days were over. On to sports, theatre and homework.
Or was it?
By late January-mid February of 2005 our group got the news. Now when I say our group, this is something VERY unique. My town has approximately seven or so FLL teams each season that all work under one organization. They meet together weekly to talk about problems, show off their robots and have fun! So our new group of engineers consisted of members from an all-girls team (grade 8), an all-boys team (grade 8) and an all-boys team (grade 9). These teams then mixed together to create two NEW teams to compete in our new challenge. Why did we do this? Our town’s organization was only offered two slots in the pilot program demonstration in Atlanta. We also wanted to mix things up, since team members had already spent the FLL season with each other. With a completely new challenge we had no idea what to expect. There needed to be an equal amount of builders, designers and programmers on each team.
Our two teams sat wringing our hands for a while. The only information that we had been given was that it was to be a “scale FRC event”. With that in mind, we thought: “shoot, we know NOTHING about building and designing an FRC robot”. So we had boot camp. Boot camp included everything from engineering basics (ie what’s a center of gravity) to how to code in C+. We were very lucky that all of the dads/coaches on our team were either engineers themselves or worked in software.
With the basics under our belt, we finally received our kits and the challenge on March 22, 2005! The First Vex Challenge (FVC) was designed (and continues) to be a stepping stone to the FRC program. Because of its intended purpose, the first year challenge was a scaled version of a previous FRC challenge (FIRST Frenzy: Raising the Bar). Like play today, the challenge started with a 30sec autonomous portion and a 2 minute driver portion. Each team had to drivers and a human player, similar to FRC play. By removing a small yellow ball from the side of the field during the autonomous section, the balls were released from the ball trays (these were released regardless after the 30 second mark). The object of the game was to try to shoot balls into your alliance’s moving or standing goal. Bonus points were awarded for “capping” a goal with a large yellow ball or for hanging on the metal pole in the center of the field.
We had four main challenging areas: building, testing, and programming (as any FIRST team can attest to) and the notebook. Building wise - none of us had ever made a robot out of metal. There was wiring to deal with, the construction of a robust chassis and CUTTING metal with a hacksaw (my new favorite). One of the interesting rules that was thrust upon us was that teams could ONLY use what came in the VEW box. Not only was the “measure twice cut once rule” enforced, but prototyping and brainstorming became a much more integral part of the design process than in FLL. Testing and running the robot was another main issue. An FLL table easily fits on most kitchen or dining room tables, or even the floor. The FVC arena was massive in comparison. There was no way it could be built, there was nowhere to put it! The only items that we were able to build (from scratch) were the ramp/platform with the hanging bar that sits in the center, and a moveable goal. In terms of practicing for a full scale tournament we were in tough shape. Software wise, I think we tried to keep it simple. There was not much that could be accomplished during the autonomous portion of the game, but like many teams, ours tended to leave programming until the last minute. Another new aspect was the engineering notebook. As this is not a part of the FLL requirements, no one really knew where to begin. The only items called for in the FVC engineering notebook were the basic tasks and reflections sections still in use today, with any blank or “deleted” sections crossed out with initials. Seemed easy enough. Assigning a team member to write in the notebook, now THAT’s a different story!
Like many teams, there was a trial and error period. But with only 6 weeks and a brand new kit we had a steep learning curve. What wheels would work well on the playing surface? What was the right strategy? What gearing should we use? Are we going for speed or torque? Do we even want to hang from the middle bar? Who on our team is good and accurate at throwing whiffle balls!?!
One of the teams was able to attend a scrimmage at WPI with other FVC demo teams on April 9th 2005, just two weeks before the World Championship. What a game changer! After designing for a month without a full scale field and without having a working knowledge of how a match would actually run- their experience was incredibly valuable. With pictures and stories in tow, both teams were able to redesign their robots in the following two weeks for the Championship.
A tournament can be a daunting place. Add on the additional pressure of it being the Worlds Championships (held in Atlanta). Add on the additional pressure of having never competed with your robot before on real playing field. You start to wonder if you should even be there… But as anyone will tell you, it’s an amazing experience. While only one team of the two teams made it through alliance selection and neither team won any awards, we all had an amazing experience showing off our creations. By the start of the 2005-2006 season in September we had created a total of three FVC teams stemming from the old FLL teams, and we never looked back- with at least two thirds of the teams returning to the World Championships each year until high school graduation.
In writing this piece, I contacted my team members (OF COURSE) to get their opinions on FVC and the move to FTC. One member pointed out the “VEX” is a much cooler name than “Tech”… but oh well! However the most common observation by my team members was in regards to the move to the new FTC kit in the 2008-2009 season. While game strategy and play remained the same, the Tetrix kit was a curve ball to teams that had become accustomed to the VEW kit. Tetrix kits were provided to teams that had already been involved with FVC, and our team took advantage of what we saw as “free metal”. The main change was the move from plastic gears and components to aluminum. This was received enthusiastically by our teams, as the plastic components (especially the gears and the tank treads) had a tendency to break very easily during competition. During the FVC years, it was not uncommon for a robot to die during a match because of a broken gear or wheel; many “spare parts” were often found on the field. But with “free metal” came a major challenge: the parts rarely matched up. VEX metal aligned with VEW metal and Tetrix metal aligned with Tetrix metal, but the two rarely fit together. As teams today know, the Tetrix piecies have a circular hole pattern. The vex pieces, on the other hand, had a simplistic square hole pattern. This created major problems in our design, and cost the team valuable build time as we sometimes found ourselves trying to put together pieces that didn’t quite fit. But in the end everything works out for the best…
I am so thankful for the opportunities that the FVC and FTC programs have given me. By allowing teams to partake in a competition that does not need major funding or a large workspace FIRST allowed middle and high schoolers to pursue their love of technology and their love of the game. Every student on the three teams from my town during the pilot years either pursued a degree in a STEM field, is working in a STEM field, or took a course in STEM during college (just for fun!). We had a blast during those five years creating friendships, making memories, and building robots, and I can only wish the same to all the other teams. Best of luck to the all FIRST teams this season!
Team Unlimited. “Our 2005 Spring FVC team activities in photos.” Sharon Youth Robotics 2013. 2 October 2015. <http://www.syraweb.org/eaglevex/Photo2005spring.htm>
Gawle, Julia. “Robotics.” Facebook. 8 March 2009. 3 Oct 2015. <www.facebook.com>
This blog was writeen by Michelle Parziale of FIRST in Alabama. If you are interested in blogging for FIRST Ladies, click here to sign up on the schedule.
Hello! My name is Vivica Lewis. I am 14 years old and I live in Wisconsin. I have participated in FLL for one year and one year in FTC. In FLL, my team placed third place champions at the 2013-2014 World Championships and last year my team made it to Super Regionals. To some of you frequent readers, I may sound familiar because I wrote back in July. Robotics season will be in full swing soon, if it isn’t already for your team, so I found it appropriate to write a letter to the rookie and veteran ladies of each FIRST program. Welcome to FIRST and welcome back for another season ladies! I have three tips for the season that will help make the experience more enjoyable and offer more insight for anyone who it is their first season in a FIRST program.
1. Be open-minded to learning and trying new experiences
FIRST has so many different opportunities for students to experience. Part of the overall experience is trying new things. If you stay in your comfort zone, you will miss so many chances. Being a pro at something the first time is not the point, but learning and trying is the point. I can relate to this because when I joined in 7th grade, I didn’t have another friend join with me. I knew no one on the team, but wanted to understand what robotics was all about. I took every volunteer that came my way including several team bonding parties. By spending time with my teammates, I learned how much I had in common with them and some of them are still my closest friends that I go to when I’m struggling. If I would’ve stayed in my comfort zone and kept to myself, the season wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.
2. Be confident
Part of becoming a strong and fierce leader and valuable team member is being confident in your abilities. Everyone has unique skills, so find where you can help the team the most and be proud of your skills! Being confident in your skills is the first part, but confidence also comes into play when you have to make tough decisions. There will be times you have to be strong in your opinion or strong in sharing an idea with the whole group. The skills of being confident enough to stand up for your idea can be a goal for the season, but will definitely take time.
3. Core values is the foundation
One of my favorite quotes I have heard about FIRST is, “Robots and sometimes project are what you do, but core values is how you do it.” Setting goals, some rules, and expectations for the team at the beginning of the season makes for a stable season. The team can be very knowledgeable about how to build an amazing robot, build the best engineering notebook, and does more marketing than others, but if the team lacks a bond or consideration for each other than the team will not succeed in the long run. Without consistent and quality core values the team will leave and neglect team members. Examples of good core values to have include value learning over winning, gracious professionalism, and team cooperation. Having core values as the foundation can be the first step, but it is essential that every team member understands, values, and will be part of the goals and core values.
The three tips listed above are important and can be applied to any team, so I hope this is blog post is a good reminder for veteran teams and will help rookie teams get setup for a great season! Thank you to FIRST Ladies for giving me the honor to blog twice now! Good luck to all teams this season!
This blog post was written by Vivica Lewis of FTC Team 4106. If you are interested in blogging for FIRST Ladies, click here to sign up on the schedule.
Half the Sky
“It's no accident that the countries that have enjoyed an economic take off have been those that educated girls and then gave them the autonomy to move to the cities to find work.”
Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn takes this thesis and spins it into a book full of both sadness and hope. The idea that women need an education might not revolutionary in the United States but in other parts of the world, it is a constant battle. I believe that one of the best ways to make use of the education we have access to here in the US is to learn more about those who do not have such luxuries and know what we can do to make a difference. Education and economic opportunity is, for many women, an escape from dangerous situations and ultimately it is the way for nations to move forward and nurture local talent. Reading this book will show you the gritty details of why and how this transformation must occur.
This content may be better suited to high-school readers, because it deals with some serious situations.
“There is no perfect fit when you're looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around. The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.”
When I first started reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandburg, I thought the book was going to focus on “how to have it all”. Instead I was able to read real stories and experiences of women in the workforce, told from the point of view of a highly experienced and savvy business woman. It was enlightening and it showed me important actions to take and thoughts I could change to continue moving forward in my career.
My favorite of many excellent quotes was, “Women need to shift from thinking "I'm not ready to do that" to thinking "I want to do that- and I'll learn by doing it.” I took that to advice to heart and it’s helped me throughout my career.
“My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this person in between me and what I want to do?’ If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.”
Bossypants by Tina Fey is first and foremost a completely hilarious book. Tina Fey, veteran of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, is a comedy genius and points her humorous criticism often at the treatment of women in American pop culture. In this book, she covers such wild topics as her own childhood, the treatment she has received as a female comedian, motherhood, and running a business in New York City. It’s as funny as it is enlightening and it just might teach you something about being a woman in the world. Incidentally, this might also be better for high-school age students.
Off the Sidelines
“Do not fall for the lie that ambition is counter to femininity….Trust yourself. Confidence is infectious and builds momentum. Share your faith in yourself. You’ll be surprised how quickly others will come to have faith in it.”
Off the Sidelines by Kirsten Gillibrand is one of my favorite books. The book provides an overview of Gillibrand’s life, how she transitioned from her law career to a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, her move to the U.S. Senate and how she created a work life balance. Mixed into the book are pieces of career advice highlighted by Gillibrand’s specific experiences.
One of these pieces of advice was to always speak up, and always ask questions, “I always know my ask, and I always raise my hand when the president comes to our caucus meetings. There are plenty of times I’d rather blend into the crowd and not add a mount of stress to my life, but I know how much speaking up matters.”
So, “... let’s stop talking about ‘having it all’ and start talking about the very real challenges of ‘doing it all’.”
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Gina Watts is the Information Coordinator at FIRST in Texas, specializing in communication, information management, and grant outreach. Prior to joining FIRST in Texas, Gina was an assistant at the A. Frank Smith Library Center, where she worked in special collections and interlibrary loan. Originally from Los Angeles, Gina graduated from Southwestern University with a BA in Communication Studies. Outside of work, she spends her time swing dancing, travelling, and writing.
Renee Becker-Blau is the Executive Director for IndianaFIRST and has been involved with FIRST robotics since 2003. She began as a member of FRC team 1675 from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and continued her involvement in college by founding GO FIRST, a FIRST alumni student group. After graduating from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Scientific and Technical Communications, Renee became the FIRST Senior Mentor of Minnesota before moving to Indiana in August of 2013 to become a FIRST AmeriCorp VISTA to work on creating capacity building programs. She became Executive Director of IndianaFIRST in September of 2014 and managed the Indiana transition to the District Model of competition.
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