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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