FIRST: From a judge’s perspective

FIRST Robotics Competition PTC Mathcad

Over the past 5 years I have had the privilege of being a judge at both regional and national finals. I have also held regional classes to train teams on PTC Creo and PTC Mathcad. I have held these in the Finger Lakes region (the greatest US FIRST Region!!). The cherry on top of the sundae is I judged my first FLL regional (FIRST Lego League) this past year.


I’m tearing up just thinking about how amazing those munchkins were. They were so rehearsed and prepared for any contingency it was amazing. I had no idea how advanced FLL was. If you feel you need your battery recharged, spend time with an FLL team. The energy they transmit is infectious. It takes years off.

Onto FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition Grades 9-12).  Now this is a competition, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different. These kids are fighting for bragging rights. “Our geeks are geekier than your geeks.” Though through it all there are examples of Gracious Professionalism everywhere.

For those unaware, a quick Primer on the FIRST challenge and teams competing. For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) is a non-profit organization that just celebrated its 25th year.

Dean Kamen, the founder of DEKA Research & Development, started FIRST to help get kids interested in science and technology. He created robotics competitions in the form of sporting events based on quarter finals, semifinals and finals. He also recruited the support of super stars such as and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as well as many corporate sponsors such as Boeing, Motorola and PTC.

The biggest key each and every year are the mentors. These volunteers work 3 to 4 nights a week plus weekends, helping FRC teams understand the challenge, break into appropriate sub-teams, and make sure forward progress is achieved at each status meeting. A new challenge is posted right after Jan 1 and teams have 6 weeks to build before their first meet. That’s it… 6 weeks!


There are so many moving pieces (pardon the pun) to get to a successful event. FIRST has support at the regional level and the national level. For the last few years the finals have been held at the Edward Jones Dome in St Louis, home of the Rams. Next year FIRST Finals will break into 3 different venues in St. Louis, that’s how big they are growing. And the scholarships they give each year are growing, tens of millions at last count.

The volunteers make FIRST happen. They turn chaos into a life changing event for so many kids.

As a judge, I get off easy. I show up, get my assigned teams and visit them in the pits and try to catch them in competition. I was asked to list some tips for teams from a judge’s perspective, so here goes:

  1. Have a single page handout of everything you want to be remembered by the judges. Most judges will not take bulky handouts, since we have 20-25 teams to judge. Keep it light.
  2. Have one or two people assigned to speaking to the judge. Make sure to take shifts, and do not let the two go to lunch together. Judges have limited time and may not be able to come back a second or third time. Make sure someone designated to speak to a judge is always there.
  3. Be original. Help the judges see what makes your team unique. Tales of hardship overcome always score points  🙂

I hope everyone who reads this will take a crack at volunteering for FIRST. The payback is enormous.

See PTC Mathcad in action or try it out for free.

Purchase the PTC Mathcad student edition.


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