Here at SOLIDWORKS, we understand the impact we have on different companies, industries and people who use our software to further develop their own products. While we partner with many big corporations, we also attempt to have an impact on the community by offering out licenses to entrepreneurs, startups, and even student competitions, like FIRST Robotics.
FIRST Robotics is a year-round operation with a mission to motivate young students to be science and technology innovators. They do this by engaging these students in mentor-based programs that help cultivate science, engineering, and technological skills, while also learning the importance of self-confidence, communication, and leadership. Kids from kindergarten to high school can join different teams in their respective regions that all compete under FIRST Robotics.
Every team runs as if they were a business. They work year-round trying to find sponsors to help garner resources, so they are able to afford to travel to competitions and construct the robot. These resources range from people donating money, all the way to colleges offering labs and mechanical equipment to manufacture their robot. This obviously depends on what the team needs, however the reality of every team is to promote their robot to attract sponsors and donators. In doing this, students learn how to speak publicly, as well as sell products; and this is no joke. If the students want to have a chance to compete against other robots around North America, then they need to persuade people to help afford that goal.
The cool thing about FIRST Robotics is that it does not just take place in the United States; it is also very popular in Canada. FIRST ROBOTICS Canada hosts 14,000 participants making up 860 robotics teams; 160 of which competed in the FIRST Robotics competition held in February. In this blog, we will be talking with the 1325 Inverse Paradox team based out of Gordon Graydon Memorial Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario. In this interview, I talk with one of the team’s mentors, Stefan Sing, and one of its junior leads, Clayton Haight, as they discuss the experiences they’ve endured as one of the most competitive teams under FIRST Robotics Canada.
How often do FIRST Robotics competitions play out each year, and what is your mission heading into the competition?
Clayton Haight (C): It’s every year. We start in January, and from that point on we have six weeks onward to design and build the robot
Stefan Sing (S): The beautiful thing about FIRST is it’s more than just the robot. There are varying levels because it’s a high school robotics program. So your team involvement and your team outreach really revolves around your resources, such as sponsors, mentors, and students… We have kids in India right now doing STEAM workshops at rural schools in India. Just showing them what a robot is and stuff like that.”
“Then from that, we do community outreach as it is… We run workshops with our sponsors for grade school children, and then we build a robot in January. There are 3500 FRC (FIRST Robotics Challenge) teams. NASA helps FIRST release a game, and in that game you build a robot. Historically, it’s been 3-on-3, so it’s the size of BattleBots, but a lot more strategic, not as destructive. Depending on what the game is, you build a robot to fill those goals within the game, and you go through a season. You have six weeks from January to mid-February to build a robot, and then… in Ontario they have a district system. You do two districts, and then go to District Champs, and at District Champs, you can qualify for Worlds. This coming year, there will be two World Championships, one in Houston, and one in Detroit. Then depending how you do there, you can theoretically go to FIRST Festival Championships in New Hampshire; so there’s a lot going. FIRST doesn’t really stop, especially FRC teams. In the summer we tone down, but in September we ramp back up [from] training new members, and then we start building a robot in January. It’s a competition basically until end of May.”
Explain the logistics behind your team’s experiences at the competition itself.
C: “Each team is supposed to make one robot or two, so they have one competition robot and one practice robot. When he says 3-on-3, he means three different teams versus three different teams, so it’s three robots on three robots… [The teams are] all different high schools…”
S: “It varies drastically form school to school. We have a very well-funded, well-resourced team, and we use that accordingly. We use that to help other FRC teams. There’s a very good network within FIRST… but fundamentally, it’s that we will do anything within our resources to help another team. To make sure they get on the field and are successful, because at the end of the day, it’s about outreach and exposure for students. FIRST Robotics Challenge is for high school students, FIRST Lego League (FLL) is for grade school students, and Junior FLL is from grades 1-5; so there are different levels. As a team in FRC, first and foremost we want to make sure other teams are competitive and have what they need to get on the field, because that’s where all the learning is.”
How do you recruit students to join your team?
S: “Each school board and each school has different rules that kind of regulate their teams in terms of where and how they can recruit. We recruit within our school, Gordon Graydon Memorial Secondary School. If you’re a student at Gordon Graydon, you can be on the team… We promote FLL in other schools, and the beauty of Gordon Graydon is that it’s a regional academic program, so you don’t necessarily have to live around the block to go to Gordon Graydon. We have 60 students on our team, so if you make it into the academic program, you can go to the school, therefore be on the team. The team has actually been a pretty big recruitment tool for the school, helping to try and get its numbers up.”
Are there any students, or mentors, on your team who are certified in SOLIDWORKS?
S: “…We don’t quite do that.”
C: “The kids that went to university last year, the students on our team in grade 12, they were teaching the incoming grade 9’s and 10’s how to do it. When they left, they mentor from university, and they help us out. This year was my first year designing for the team, and I used my knowledge from the previous summer. They give us little projects and stuff, so you kind of figure it out and ask them questions, and by the time that adult season comes around, we’re … I don’t know if you could say certified, but we know our way around it, and we know enough to help out a little bit.”
“There were mainly two guys. They’re both at [the University of Waterloo]… so they would teach the new members coming in grade 12 and 11, then hopefully those guys would teach the new kids; so it just keeps going on like that.”
S: “I helped teach the two that taught them, so it’s kind of like handing down knowledge.”
Since the program runs year round, what events do you hold outside of the competition?
S: “We have cultural events, such as a South Asian cultural event, where we show up with the robot and people come out and check it out. There are also Canada Day parades where we walk the robot down in the parade route. It’s all about awareness, right? First and foremost, trying to let people know that this program exists and that there’s relatively easy way for you to get it in your school, institution, or community; it’s however you want to set it up.”
“I know we’ve done events with sponsors where we bring out a robot to a sponsor’s workplace. We’re also [sponsored with] Boys and Girls Club of Canada. We’re running STEAM workshops where we get kids that from the charity come in, and we… build and program a robot. It’s a relatively streamlined operation, but they get a very hands-on introduction to what a robot is and what programming is and what basic engineering is, and all the design principles and stuff that comes with that. That’s a really big initiative that we have going this summer. I think we’re hitting 600 kids with this workshop.”
“That’s all on top of the outreach we’re doing in India and so forth. We brought a whole bunch of LEGO kids to India, and they have to design a bridge and then program a robot to drive across the bridge suspended between two tables. It’s all about encouraging the benefits of math and science. It’s basically taking the hard theory and keeping them motivated, so that they can complete their education.”
How do you get sponsors to donate resources to your team?
C: “We contact them and normally, we ask if we can bring a demonstration. Then we meet up with them, and there’s usually a meeting room or something. We demonstrate the functions of a robot, what the challenges are, and what the basic fundamentals of FIRST are. At the end, they ask questions, talk about it, and [if they agree to sponsor us] we arrange how the sponsorship is going to work out.”
S: “We also do ask for an entry fee to be on the team, but that mainly covers things like good, drink, building season, and some travel to the events we are competing in. But the parents also work for companies. We have probably close to 70/30 split; 70% being parent companies and 30% being just going out in the community and asking for services. It’s usually services, and very rarely money. At Gordon Graydon, it is a unique situation where we don’t have a machine shop, so we partner with a local college where we get access to their machine shop, and then we have a few sheet metal sponsors where… we have to send these parts out to manufacturing sponsors to get parts made; so it’s a bit of everything. We don’t use just the kids or just the parents or just the community. We use the resources that we have at our school.”
“General Motors gives us quite a decent amount of money, and they do awesome things. The big thing being a Canadian team is going to go to the U.S. for competition, and having to pay in U.S. dollars. What some of our sponsors will do is sponsor us in USD, and that gives us a huge advantage when we have to cross the border and pay fees. It’s good so we don’t have to rely on a… stock market or something like that, which is a nice benefit. IMAX is a sponsor of ours, and they give us all sorts of stuff. They had some old computers, which we ended up turning into the CAD stations, and I’m pretty sure they give us some financial support as well. Agora is our sheet metal sponsor. Budget Rent-a-Car pays for our team shirts, and then we also get a moving van to move all our robot and materials to competition.”
What does the layout of the competition itself look like?
C: “People are selected that can work fast and kind of know their way around the robot. Normally, these are the people who dedicate the most hours to the team. These people end up in the pit, and it’s a 10’ x 10’ square at the back of the competition, and that’s where the robot ends up. That’s where it gets repaired, and if upgrades need to be made really fast, that’s what happens there. The rest of the team normally is supporting in the stands, and they sometimes come by and help out with robot maintenance.”
“Last year in STEAMworks, there was a lot of little [obstacles]; there wasn’t one main goal. There were lots of ways to score points, so we had lots of elements on our robot. We had a lot of different subsystems, and we had people that were working on those individually. We had some people that knew how the robot worked really well, and we would have to call them from the stands if something broke from that. By the end of the year, if you were watching the match and you saw something that broke and you knew how it worked, you would run down to the pits and go and fix it.”
S: “There’s also another part of the team. One of my favorite parts of FIRST is that the biggest and most prestigious award in FIRST has nothing to do with the robot. That’s where the business and awards side of the team comes in. There’s a presentation team that goes and presents our team outreach and all the stuff we do for an award. We also present business plans and stuff like that to basically prove that we’re financially viable as an institution; so there’s the mechanical side in the pit, but there’s also a judging aspect in the pit, and the kids are responsible for that as well. 1325, through its explosive growth in the last five or so years, has even won a Chairman’s Award. 1325 is my baby, and I just love the team and everything that it represents.”
How do you guys differentiate your team from all the other FRC teams?
S: “I’m biased, but I think southern Ontario is one of the more competitive regions, so being a top 10 team in Ontario says a lot. I’m not trying to diminish other regions, it’s just the level of competition in Ontario is, at some points, insane!”
“I think what makes 1325 special [is when] I joined 1325… it was a room of 12 seniors. The team was ready to fold, and I came in and recruited a whole bunch of sponsors first and foremost. Then I got a whole bunch of parents involved, and from that we grew the student base. Without the mentors and the sponsors, you can have students in a room, but if you don’t have anything for them to do, it’s kind of a waste of time; but that was six or so years ago, to the point where the first time the team had made championships was three years ago, and the first Chairman’s Award was two years ago… 1325’s banner count has theoretically, exponentially taken off in the 13 years the team has been around.”
“That’s a huge point of pride for me. Going from 12 seniors to a diverse team, business and mechanical, of 86 [students], is huge. The fact that we’re a regional program, a lot of teams are like, ‘Yeah, we just walked down the street, and we go to our school, and we work on the robot.’ A lot of our students have to drive across town just to get the school, so when you have weekend meetings and evening meetings that go to nine o’clock, it’s another level that you have to deal with.”
“1325 is also in a very interesting position such that the school is closing next year. We still have a season at the school, but we are now going through the process of the logistics of moving the program and dealing with the school board and everything that that entails. It’s an added layer of challenge that the students and the mentors have to deal with, as well as trying to stay successful.”
Clayton, how do you think 1325 is helping you achieve your future aspirations and goals?
C: “I personally want to go into the [University of Waterloo] Mechatronics Program. I think it’s a mechanical major and an electrical engineering minor. To be able to do both those things and work on [them] through SOLIDWORKS and through the team has really given me the amount of resources that I need to practice and learn those kind of skills in such an open way; with positive people and mentors that help you out along the way. Also through the people that have moved on from the team to that program, some of the projects that they have are very much the same, where the students that were on the team were able to make such a bigger difference using the skills that they learned in SOLIDWORKS to design certain projects, instead of just drawing them up on paper.”
For more information on the 1325 Inverse Paradox team, and FIRST Robotics, check out their websites:
For more information on SOLIDWORKS Student Competition Sponsorship, visit: