by Kyla Qi.
A core part of the RoboJackets mission is to support local K-12 robotics programs. Since 2008, a major part of the support we provide has been hosting the annual GeorgiaFIRST Kickoff for the FIRST Robotics’ Competition (FRC). For the uninitiated, FRC is a high school level international robotics competition where students design, build, and program a robot to complete certain tasks and score points in a game that is devised by the FIRST organization each year. The game rules are revealed during the kickoff event, after which teams will have about six to seven weeks to build their robots before competing in tournament-style competitions with the goal of qualifying for the state- and international-level competitions.
The kickoff event is an important component of the GAFIRST experience. Not only do teams come from all over the state to watch the official FIRST kickoff stream and hear from speakers, they also come to pick up their Kit of Parts, a set of parts that each team starts out with to build their bot, and begin planning their strategy for the newly revealed game.
For years, RoboJackets has assisted the GeorgiaFIRST organization by planning the kickoff event. We organize speakers to get students excited about robotics, book space and catering, organize Kit of Parts distribution, and present a series of workshops following the reveal of the game to help students gain a better technical understanding of robot design and strategy.
Though this year came with a significantly different set of circumstances, kickoff was still on. Starting in October, our kickoff coordinator, Evan Strat, worked closely with fellow RoboJackets members Todd Hayes, Malak Bayyari, and Outreach Chair Michael Chen, along with GAFIRST Executive Director Connie Haynes and GAFIRST Board Chairman Brian Cooksy, to move the event to a virtual format. Moving online made a lot of logistical planning easier, as all of the physical overhead was removed. However, the uncertainty of the pandemic meant that many details didn’t get finalized until much later than usual. Said Strat: “The event itself changed forms a few times. Initially, we were going to have a little ceremony at 9am and workshops at the usual time in the afternoon. Then we decided we could compress it to just 12-3pm, and then FIRST said they’d have their webcast at noon and so we ended up structuring things around that.” He also worked to make sure all presenters and workshop leads were trained to use BlueJeans before the event and was on call on the day of in case technical difficulties came up.
Despite taking place online, over 230 people attended the opening ceremony broadcast and 168 people participated in the RoboJackets run virtual workshops following the ceremony.
The workshops this year included Strategy, Mechanical, Electrical, Software, a session geared specifically towards rookie teams to familiarize them with FRC, and a new Controls workshop intended to introduce more advanced topics to students. A major challenge the kickoff planning team ran into was translating the workshops to a virtual environment. Some sessions – like the one on bumpers – ended up not making an appearance this year when it became clear there would not be a good way for teams to get the same educational value from the session compared to what they would from an in person event, as RoboJackets members had limited resources available and were therefore unable to give demonstrations using actual parts. Furthermore, sessions that would typically have a larger physical component like Mechanical and Electrical were pivoted to introduce more theory and give students a deeper understanding of the concepts behind the designs of their robots.
The GAFIRST FRC Kickoff took on a significantly different form this year, with very different challenges. However, through the efforts of several RoboJackets volunteers working closely with GAFIRST leadership, the event ended up being a success, and we hope that next year will bring kickoff back to being in person. If you’re interested in seeing the content from this year’s virtual kickoff, we have uploaded recordings of the sessions and opening ceremonies on the RoboJackets YouTube channel.