First Robotics Teams: An Intro for Autistic Students

We often hear from people looking for participatory STEM opportunities for autistic students. In our quest to learn more about possible opportunities around STEM camps, teams, and related groups, we connected with Jennifer Marchman. Jennifer co-organizes a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team in Austin, Texas, the Howdy Bots. Thanks, Jennifer, for this terrific overview of FIRST, the robotics competition, and what autistic and other curious students need to know about finding an FRC group.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest in science and technology. Based in Manchester, NH, the 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.

FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), their high school level program, is called the ultimate “Sport for the Mind.” Under strict rules, limited resources, and an intense two month build season, teams of students are challenged to raise funds, design a team “brand,” hone teamwork skills, and build and program industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors. It’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get. Participants call it “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.”

images of students on FRC team

Our team, Howdy Bots FRC 6377, is based in Austin, TX and is unique in our area for being the only team who accepts anyone and everyone, regardless of ability or school affiliation. Our only restrictions are maturity, enthusiasm, and commitment. A student does not have to be enrolled in a particular school or club, be a boy or a girl, have a lot of STEM knowledge or experience, or even have to have good grades or be considered by others to be a “good student.” None of those things matter to us. Any student who is excited to be at the shop and willing to work hard is welcomed with open arms to the Howdy Bots family.

We particularly focus on reaching students without access to STEM programs at their school. We began when one of our students wished to join an FRC team but was unable to join because he was not enrolled in a school that had a team. We are going on our 4th year and have built a reputation of quality engineering and gracious professionalism.

One of the beautiful values of FIRST is “Coopertition,” and it is something that we feel sets FIRST apart from other academic competitions. Teams compete in alliances of three against another alliance of three teams, and everyone wins or loses as an alliance. During an entire competition, we will play both with and against almost all the other teams. It forces a level of cooperation that is unheard of in other sports. It is in our best interest that our alliance partners field their best robot, so teams are constantly helping each other out with spare parts and coding advice during stiff competition.

FRC is uniquely positioned to prepare students for college and future careers. Many teams are structured like engineering firms with mechanical, programming, and marketing departments. These departments must collaborate to fund, design, build, program, and market their product. Students in the Howdy Bots program learn technical skills in mechanical and electrical work, CAD, and computer programming, but they also learn 21st-century “soft” skills such as teamwork, communication, conflict resolution, leadership, respect, and integrity by working shoulder-to-shoulder with industry professionals through an apprenticeship model. Howdy Bots believes that the most consequential learning that students do should be fun. As FIRST founder Dean Kamen has said, “We don’t use kids to build robots, we use robots to build kids.” The collaborative effort of building and competing with a robot provides that element of fun.

While Howdy Bots is open to all students, we do require that students be mature and engaged with what we are doing. Some students may need a bit of extra scaffolding or accommodation in order to participate, and some students may need to wait a year before trying to participate again. We take each student on a case-by-case basis, and work with the parents to determine if Howdy Bots is a good fit.

The Howdy Bots workshop and competition pit are loud, smelly, cramped spaces. For students with sensory sensitivities, they can be challenging places. During our most active seasons, we are working long hours and emotions can run high, but as a team, we work hard to communicate in a healthy manner with each other. Mature students are those who can handle the ups and downs of FRC life (sometimes there are major frustrations!), and engaged student are those who can stay focused through our demanding schedule. Most of all, we are looking for students who are willing to try and to grow. We’ll teach you everything else.

Some FRC teams specialize in neurodiversity. One such noteworthy team is FRC 2682 Boneyard Robotics.  A top goal of theirs is “increasing exposure of technology and engineering to kids with Autism in their community,” and their team was recognized as a Finalist for FRC’s highest honor, the Chairman’s Award, at the 2019 World Championship in Houston.

FRC can be one of the greatest experiences of a young person’s life. Depending on the size and structure, some teams will be better equipped than others to incorporate neurodiversity within their team and may have access to school counselors and special needs resources. Other teams, like the Howdy Bots, may be small, all-volunteer, community-based organizations with no mentors trained in addressing special needs. Open communication with the mentors of any team is a must. It is a good idea to speak to a team’s head mentor about their team’s culture and experience with neurodiversity. To find a team near you, visit FIRST or The Blue Alliance. Also, check out FIRST’s programs for younger students: FIRST LEGO League, Jr., FIRST LEGO League, and FIRST Tech Challenge.

Questions? Let us know!

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Jennifer Marchman lives in Austin, TX with her husband and three children. She is the Team Administrator and Grant Coordinator for FRC 6377 Howdy Bots. Prior to this, she was a homeschool mom from 2007-2018. When she’s not wrangling teenagers, she likes to sit out on the back porch with the family dog.

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