More Than Robots

By Huzaifah Zainon. Posted

*Team S.P.A.R.K.S. were delighted to win a Judges’ Award for Enthusiastic Newcomer in Duxford in 2020 *

Huzaifah Zainon discusses her school’s motivation for joining a global challenge for students aged 12–18; more than just a robotics competition, it equips pupils with soft skills such as motivation and resilience

The FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) is an annual global robotics competition that challenges teams of students aged 12–18 to design, build, and code robots. Each year, participants around the world build their teams in September and receive their mission via an epic launch video.

The first round of regional competitions take place in February, with the national finals scheduled for April. Pre-pandemic, one lucky team would win a place in a US-based competition in May. This year’s challenge is called Ultimate Goal, and asks teams to build a robot that will deposit game pieces in goals of varying heights. 


Why I signed up 

I run a robotics club at my school. I started with the Raspberry Pi and then moved to kit-based VEX robotics, before discovering FIRST UK at a Computing at School meeting. 

The first reason I signed up was the cost. For a small annual entry fee (at the time £100, but now £49) I was able to secure a bursary for the reusable kit. After three years, I have spent very little on the kit because I don’t believe in throwing money at a problem. I also like that the competition is organised by a single body, FIRST UK. This means there is a single deadline. With VEX competitions, I never got around to signing up for a competition as there were multiple possible dates, and it was easy to postpone signing up. As a team, you are never ready to compete!

The challenge also appealed to me because it is so much more than a robotics competition. Of course, students have to learn to think like engineers, asking themselves questions about how they can complete challenges such as picking up and dropping pieces into a specified scoring area. But they also have to think like a business, considering their pre-existing kit and the budget they have available to purchase additional hardware to solve the challenges. They also have to be creative — the likelihood is that their solution won’t work the first time and they will have to reconsider their approach. Resilience is a key skill here, too, as students have to be prepared to keep modifying their design.

Another benefit of this competition is that the FIRST Tech Challenge has been running in the US for many years. This means there are a huge number of ideas on the web posted by teams that have competed. The companies that produce the robotic kits, such as REV Robotics, also post a lot of helpful resources on their website. Having said that, it was still rather overwhelming in our first year of the competition, so we followed the instructions to build the kit robot. It has a limited capability, but it moved, and we were able to participate in a competition, which was a good experience.

The competition is sponsored by big names in technology, which made it feel really worthwhile to students. In our school, we are fortunate to have had a mentor from Qualcomm and to have been inspired by volunteers from technology company Arm during competitions. As we are a rural school, pupils might not appreciate that the Silicon Fen around Cambridge is just on their doorstep!  

Lastly, I like the ethos of FIRST: gracious professionalism, which links closely to our school’s own PRIDE values of positivity, resilience, integrity, drive, and empathy.


Why pupils signed up

A team can include up to 15 pupils with multiple skills. This allows a group of friends with different interests to join together. As part of the challenge, a pupil could be designing the team’s logo, or promoting the team to the local community. One student might also be a good record keeper, who keeps a log of all the activities, design changes, and decisions that the team makes throughout the year.

The challenge is an opportunity to represent the school in a competitive, team-based environment in the same way as a sporting team, but appeals to those who might not normally be included in team sports. It is an opportunity to be creative problem-solvers. It is also an opportunity to come up with a cool project name. The team is currently called S.P.A.R.K.S. (Software Programmers Acquiring Robotics Knowledge at Soham).

Logan, a pupil, said, “FTC is a unique competition; I have not only gained knowledge in robotics, but I have improved my teamwork, ‘gracious professionalism’, and problem-solving skills. I have gained lifelong friends, and memories I will never forget. The memories and experiences I’ve had have helped shape me as a person, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

If you’re interested in signing up, find out more here:


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