HOW IT STARTS...

The first and most important step in organizing OCCRA was to get a coalition of interested people to support the idea and volunteer to help develop it.  The key word here is “volunteer”: most were paid very little or nothing at all for the extra time and energy spent.  Once sufficient grassroots support was identified, a formal proposal was written and submitted to the director of the four Oakland County Technical Centers.  (See the proposal here) The Oakland Schools’ administration, including the superintendent, studied the proposal and agreed to support it.


A meeting was held on June 28th for all interested parties.  The minutes of that meeting can be found HERE.  The group reached consensus on the direction the association should follow.  The committee decided to use the Innovation FirstTM controllers currently used by the FIRST organization.  They agreed that the kits needed to be kept low in cost but rich enough in motors, speed controllers, etc. to allow for robust robots and exciting competitions.  To keep costs down, it was suggested that the kit include a minimal number of components but additional parts would be available to teams based on their design needs.  This was an important decision and needed to be made by the whole group since a key philosophical point was being made.  The kits could have been made a lot cheaper if only one sample of each item had been included and teams were able to order any additional items they needed.  This would have greatly reduced waste, too, since most teams ended up using only about half of what was in the kits.  The group eventually decided, however, that fairness to all teams dictated that the same parts needed to be supplied to all teams.  It was felt that the poorer teams would be at a huge disadvantage and that many important educational opportunities would be lost if the kit was severely limited.  This type of a decision needed to be reached in a meeting of the committee-of-the-whole since it involved a central philosophical issue.  Most technical details and procedural matters, however, could be better worked out in subcommittee.  There was a definite tendency at this and all subsequent whole-committee meetings to get bogged down in fine details that would have been better handled by a subcommittee.  The meeting chairperson needed to be continuously vigilant that the whole group’s time was not being wasted in this manner. 


A video was presented at the first OCCRA meeting to show newcomers what a robotics league experience would be like.  (Copies of such video footages are available to anybody who wants them.)   A sample robot from a similar robotics event was also demonstrated.  They then reviewed the kind of commitment to be expected from participants in the league: the kit of parts was expected to be approximately $2,500 (it eventually priced out at $2,400) with several hundred additional dollars for supplies, tools, etc.  The cost of the kit went down considerably the second year ($200) as the control system and many parts are reusable.  Corporate donations from companies like DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, Delphi, 3Dimensional Services, SMC Pneumatics, Denso International and Valeo drove the cost for schools down considerably.  Other commitments of resources were listed but could only be approximated since each school district was likely to handle them differently.  These commitments included things like: uniforms/tee-shirts, travel expenses, coaches’ salaries, insurance, and both hand and power tools. 


The lateness in starting OCCRA created numerous problems.  Six or seven school districts called to relay their interest but were unable to attend due to the lateness of the notification.  The OCCRA organizers knew that to start planning for such an endeavor in late June was not ideal, but decided it was best to put together a pilot season, anyhow.  This would give the association the chance to “work out some of the bugs” with reduced numbers participating.  It was decided that team memberships and committee memberships be kept open during the summer to allow all interested schools’ participation.  Furthermore, minutes of the committee meetings and all information shared in it was forwarded to all of the other county school districts.  Of the 28 member school districts in the Oakland County Intermediate School District, only ten participated.  The 18 schools from these districts were joined by two technical centers, an academy, and a private school.  With approximately 90 public and private secondary schools in Oakland County, it was probably for the best that more schools did not get involved the first year!  Any group planning to initiate their own fall league, however, is strongly urged to start planning for it early by early spring.  Once the schools dismiss for the summer it is very difficult to connect with educators unless prior arrangements have been made.


One of the first concerns raised by the group concerned the organization known as “FIRST”.  Committee members were very sensitive about any possible negative impact that the formation of OCCRA might have on FIRST.  Most of the committee members were already on teams that were involved in FIRST and recognized it for what it is: one of the truly great programs for high school students anywhere.  FIRST inspires students to pursue careers in science and technology by letting them team up with professionals to see the cutting edge of technology at work.  FIRST inspires students with spectacular events that include all the audio-visual stimulation of a rock concert.  With FIRST, students travel to far-flung venues and are celebrated as stars themselves.  Inspiration is the key element and education a side benefit with FIRST.   The proposal for OCCRA was crafted to supplement the FIRST experience, not replace it, yet there was a very real concern that some teams would opt out of FIRST because of the new league.  OCCRA would be much cheaper and would not require schools to find a corporate sponsor.  Very little travel arrangements would be needed for OCCRA, with no overnight arrangements ever required.  OCCRA was going to be a much easier initial jump for a novice robotics team.  It was definitely a possibility that teams would join OCCRA instead of FIRST, and that thought occupied quite a bit of the committee’s attention.  The group eventually came to the conclusion that the new league was likely to create a greater demand for involvement in FIRST, would help to promote the forming of corporate-school partnerships, would help reduce the initial shock that people feel when first overwhelmed by the enormity of the FIRST challenge, and was therefore actually likely to inspire the formation of more FIRST teams than it might steal away.  In many ways, OCCRA was designed to supplement, not substitute, for the FIRST experience.  All of the robot building was to be done by students, so the “hands-on” element missing in many FIRST programs would be assured.  After trying things for themselves, students would later get the chance to see how the professionals did things.  Students in OCCRA would finally get to perform in front of their own peers, as competitions would be held in local gyms, not at far-flung venues.  Education would be a key component in the OCCRA experience.  Curriculum would be written to teach the teachers.  A practical handbook with step-by-step directions for building a basic, working chassis would be made.  Workshops would be given along with the “How-To” manuals to guide students in the process.  With OCCRA occurring in the fall, it was felt that it would provide a great team-building activity for FIRST teams and would actually be a great lead-in for FIRST.  Since OCCRA was obviously going to occupy a very different niche than FIRST, the decision was made to press on with planning the league.

Another concern that was raised early dealt with staffing: would there be enough teachers/coaches willing to put in the time?  It was suggested that current FIRST teams could mentor novice schools, that paid positions along the lines of high school sports could be started, and the ISD might even be able to organize stipends the first year if revenue sources could be found.  Staffing turned out to be a real big issue.  The most frequent reason that schools gave for not getting involved was lack of staff.  This continues to be a problem for many schools.  Some schools were unable to find a staff member to coach the team but were fortunate enough to have a business partner with an engineer willing to help out.  While this worked for a few, most schools cannot expect that level of commitment from the private sector.  The more likely model would be to have one or two coaches from the staff with occasional outside support from a designer, machinist or engineer.  With some outside funding secured through the Oakland Schools Education Foundation ( the OSEF), which has happened for the 2002 OCCRA season, it is possible that some sort of an arrangement can be worked out where a school will get its entry fee waived if they compensate their coach instead.  The ideal solution would be to have leagues like OCCRA institutionalized the same as other high school sports.  Coaching for public high schools in Oakland County is a contractual item that is compensated according to the terms of each district’s master labor agreement.  There is no reason why coaching a robotics team should be treated any differently than a sports team: the required hours are comparable (sometimes much greater!), the travel is similar, and the season is approximately the same duration.

 

 

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