For more than 20+ years, DISTek has been a proud supporter of FIRST teams and FIRST events. Much of the support has been through the employee-owners of DISTek volunteering their time to coach, mentor, judge, referee, and cheer for the accomplishments of various teams. DISTek has also financially sponsored events and teams associated with our employee-owners. This year was no exception. DISTek sponsored seven FIRST teams, as well as the Iowa Regional during the 2022-23 season. Ten of our employee-owners volunteered as coaches, mentors, judges, referees, or involved parents.
Please find a collection of thoughts from this year’s FIRST season from three of our DISTekians:
This was my twelfth season volunteering in some manner at FIRST events or with FIRST teams. I have coached (FLL & FLL Jr.), mentored (FTC & FRC), and judged (FLL & FRC) in the past. This year, I was a judge for FLL and FRC events. What stuck out this year was the students – the passion for STEM. One FRC team I met discussed their efforts promoting STEM and computer science education with elected officials within their state and surrounding states. This team also exhibited a positive view. Even when their robot failed to perform as desired, they didn’t dwell on the failures. Their attitude and passion were very contagious, and I was uplifted.
Another highlight for me was the friendly competition among the judges at the Iowa Regional for the coveted Judges’ Bling Award. This award is based upon how much bling a judge acquires from the teams and is judged by the teams and the audience during a break in the playoffs. In previous years, I didn’t try for the award given my reserved nature, but this year was different. After seeing another judges’ bling, my competitive spirit ratcheted up and I decided to compete like crazy. A fellow judge and co-worker, Dillon, displayed ‘Coopertition’ (which stand for always competing but assisting and enabling others when you can) and went with me to acquire more bling in the teams’ pits. Ultimately, I took another pass of the pits asking for help to win the bling award and appreciated the student’s willingness to help. Topping off my entry, a team allowed me to borrow a corn hat, which was fitting, given I grew up among the cornfields. In the end, I came in second. The experience was fun.
Compared to Shawn, I am a still a rookie with only 5 years working in the judge’s role with FIRST robotics. While it makes for a busy weekend, each year during the event, I am quickly reminded of why I continue to volunteer – seeing the passion and excitement from the teams and being reminded about gracious professionalism.
Through Gracious Professionalism, the teams not only strive to win the competition, but also to help each other along the way. The game format each year is structured to encourage collaboration and cooperation amongst the teams through random and draft groupings, but even off the field everyone is enthusiastic about telling stories of helping one another. When talking to the teams, I frequently hear anecdotes of a spare part donated here, of receiving help improving code there, and even a competitor assisting with repairing damage that they themselves may have caused in the previous match. All the while these gestures are freely given with integrity and goodwill, believing that by elevating others, we elevate everyone and through that, we all end up better for it. Wouldn’t this be wonderful to see in all our places of work!
At the end of April, a small group of mentors and students from the Cedar Falls high school robotics team that I mentor, FIRST Team 525 – The Swartdogs, were selected to present at a conference during FIRST Championships on how to incorporate a successful 5-part FIRST program across pre-K through 12th grade in our school system. As we prepared for this presentation, I reflected on the different positions I have volunteered with over the last 10 years. One of my favorite positions is being a judge.
I started soon after my son joined the Swartdogs team. They were looking for volunteers to be judges for the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Robotics Qualifier competition they were hosting. I volunteered to be one of those judges. Kids came in to explain the different functions their robots could perform. They showed us the various sensors they used and programming they did to make them work. It was quite amazing to see how much these 4th – 8th graders really knew about how these different systems worked together. After that first time, I volunteered to be a judge almost every year in one capacity or another in 4 of FIRST‘s programs.
This year was no different. I started out the robotics season as a judge for FLL Challenge along with Shawn Pezley. Once again, the kiddos presented their robot, their project, and their team during a 30-minute judging session. We heard about how and why they designed their robot along with their strategy in choosing which parts of the field to complete. They showed us their sensors and code telling us why they designed it the way they did. They also shared about a project they worked on. To me, this is the hardest part in all of FIRST. In addition to designing, building, and testing a robot, the kids must come up with a project to fit the theme of the season. This project is either a new invention or a current item or process used in a different way. For this project, they must research, design, test, and share with experts about their invention. The levels of research and design these upper elementary kids put into their project is astounding. I really love hearing about them each year.
For the FIRST Robotics Competition Program (FRC – 9th – 12th grades), I was the judge advisor’s assistant for the competition this year. This is my favorite job to volunteer with. I had the pleasure of talking to all the teams about their robots and their teams. I welcomed them to the event and took pictures of their robots and encouraged their competition play. I also collected feedback about the actions of the teams while they are at the competition and pass it along to the judges. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to work alongside Shawn and Dillon. It’s amazing to me to see how generous teams are with their time, knowledge, and robot parts. Students are willing to lend a hand to help a robot in need or to guide a rookie team to make the competition the best experience it can be for the new students. They don’t care that they may be adversaries in future matches. They share parts to make sure a team is able to compete at their best. This is Gracious Professionalism, an ethos of FIRST, as Dillon mentioned. This is all in addition to the amazing work they put into designing, manufacturing, and programming their robots.
New this year, I started reviewing, or judging, FLL Explore Teams. These 1st – 3rd grade students make a poster and a LEGO build to a specific theme. The theme this year was Energy. The kids explained how energy is generated, distributed, and consumed through their LEGO designs. Even at this level, they were using sensors and programming them to move windmills and electric vehicles. The imagination I could see in these designs was fantastic. They came up with some pretty ingenious stuff. Many of the younger kids are very shy when talking to adults they’ve never met before, but once they started talking about the areas they were passionate about, they were able to express the lessons they had learned.
Reflecting back on the season, after listening to all these kids show and tell what they’ve created and learned, as well as the people they’ve helped and what they want to do in the future, it makes me feel good to know that these kids will be our future. They will come up with new inventions and new technologies to move us all forward. These are some pretty amazing kids.