We tried to answer as many questions we could live. If you would like to hear those, we encourage you to check out the recording on our YouTube page. For the questions we couldn't get to as well as for those who wrote in advance questions please find answers below.
Preston: Alex and Isaiah, as new leaders for FIRST Chesapeake, you both bring your own visions for the future of the district, where do you each see the district in one year and in five years?
Alex: My goal for FIRST Chesapeake is to improve upon the foundation so that we can sustainably grow and maintain our current team base. We are holding steady in Maryland, but have work to do in Virginia so that will be our focus for next year. In reviewing the teams we lost this season, they were veteran teams who lost student interest, mentor support, or their space from their school. That signals to us that we need to improve our efforts in supporting mentors and working with schools to highlight the importance of FIRST and STEM programs.
Isaiah: The financial burden of starting a team can be insurmountable to schools and so I want to work on fiscal sustainability in supporting team retention and growth. We would like to see a modest 5% growth YOY, but this should be a net growth so we cannot ignore the retention issues we have seen since before the pandemic. In 5 years, I see us having raised that to 40% of our current number. My vision is to make FRC accessible to far more people, especially in rural communities and Hispanic communities.
Preston: Can you explain the current decision-making process for selecting which teams are added to events off of waitlists? Will FIRST Chesapeake make any changes to this decision-making process for future years?
Answer: Teams were moved off of waitlists because they were not likely to be added to the events they were waiting for. In order to more accurately show FIRST HQ team distribution, they were moved to an open event. This was a first-come, first-serve method – teams that were higher on the waitlist were placed in events that could accommodate them as space became available. Since we don’t have control over the FRC preferencing process we will not be able to make significant changes. We would be open to exploring options of waitlist advancement based on the distance to the event to make the decision, but we would want to decide that before preferencing began. This would be something that we would explore with FRC TAC before we implemented it.
Preston: Given the event viability issues faced this fall, what changes will FIRST Chesapeake make to prevent similar issues from occurring in future years? Will measures be taken to prevent district events from filling too unevenly?
Answer: Yes, with what we saw this year, we are likely to open the least number of plays per venue to ensure equal distribution. This will mean that we will probably have much longer waitlists, but we will not be forced to move people off the waitlist to show appropriate distribution. The goal is that once the teams distribute across the venues, we will be able to work with teams on the waitlist to get them a more preferable venue than in years prior.
Josh: Why did we focus on 7 events that can’t quite be filled all the way instead of 6 events that were filled properly?
Answer: FIRST Chesapeake chose to do 7 events to allow enough play for all teams to have 2 plays while trying to keep the travel for 2nd play under 4 hours. Last season we saw almost 30 teams need to travel between 3-5 hours for their second play and we wanted to mitigate that hardship for teams. Additionally, we are in a growth phase where 6 venues would not have allowed all teams to play twice – last season we had 7 teams that only played one event. We also considered national trends, and while Maryland exceeded those trends, Virginia and DC had fewer teams. Their ideal distribution of events would be 3 in VA (West, Central, East) and 3 in MD (North, Central, East), with one in the Metro DC area.
Joey: Historically, FIRST Chesapeake has announced the entire district schedule for the next season at the district championship. Will there be any review of this process given the 2024 season’s schedule issues?
Answer: We did announce the venues at the FRC Championship in 2023 – if we were able to keep the schedule that we announced we wouldn’t have had as many issues as we did. However, we lost an MD event due to shifting school policies (see below) and were not able to recover or relocate a new event before preferencing began. We appreciate Ashland for stepping up in the 11th hour to host so that we can guarantee 2 plays for all of our FRC teams. We understand that as an outside organization, we are always competing against traditional programs like wrestling and basketball for space and time.
We have opened up a call for venues to host (firstchesapeake.org/frc/host) – we will review the venues with FRC TAC and encourage any suggestions and comments to be sent to us and TAC.
Joey: What is the process of selecting event sites, and how does CHS plan to balance event distribution next year?
Answer: See previous answer.
Joey: Other districts, like our neighbors FIRST North Carolina and FIRST Mid-Atlantic, have created team grants as a result of successful fundraising. Is FIRST Chesapeake considering following those examples?
Answer: Team grants are typically based on sponsor interests. FIRST Chesapeake is exploring options to support travel and lodging with reimbursement grants and mentor time through stipends, with a priority on maintaining the current number of teams and ensuring sustainable growth.
One of Isaiah’s goals is to help struggling teams become stronger/healthier by guiding them through sponsorships and fundraising activities. Some teams are able to raise $50,000 or more a year. He plans to assist more of our teams in reaching that goal.
Preston: The district has lost teams every year that it has existed. What steps is FIRST Chesapeake taking to help create new teams and to ensure the sustainability of already existing teams?
Answer: The decline in the number of teams is a concern, and we are working to understand why teams have been dropping. FIRST Chesapeake is focusing on modest growth and personalized support for new teams. We are also looking to the district to cultivate and support teams, both new and existing. Our first goal is to stop the loss of teams – we want to focus on the causes for teams leaving, especially veteran teams. We have been reaching out to better understand the causes and reasons teams are not returning and that will guide our strategy moving forward.
147 Total FRC Teams since 2020
– 9 Last Played in 2020
– 9 Last Played in 2021
– 9 Last Played in 2022
– 6 Never Played
– 114 Last Played in 2023
– 35 Registered in 2024 (as of 10.26.23)
– Count 10 that Registered in 2023 but have not preferenced, all are veteran teams
– 106 Teams preferenced for 2024 (2 teams that didn’t play in 2023, but registered)
Preston: What is the process for individuals to become key volunteers? Is there a formalized nomination process through FIRST Chesapeake for dedicated volunteers to apply for roles such as LRI, FTA, Head Referee, Volunteer Coordinator, Judge Advisor, etc.?
Answer: Key volunteers are typically chosen by previous key volunteers from current volunteers. We are working on a more formalized shadowing and succession plan for those roles so that we can create a sustainable pipeline to train and recruit these roles before we are left without them.
Shelly has done the lion share of this reimagining of the volunteer program and with Isaiah onboard, they will work to continue to build and refine that pipeline. We encourage anyone even the slightest bit interested in being a key volunteer to reach out so we can partner you with an experienced KV this season.
As far as the nomination process, FIRST Chesapeake has to nominate the roles and they need a certain amount of experience and have to be approved by FIRST HQ. They report to FIRST HQ with FCH supporting their efforts.
Amalan: Northern events in 2023 had a difficult time finding key volunteers in roles such as referee and CSA with only one event per week. Are there concerns about being able to find enough volunteers to run Falls Church and Owings Mills simultaneously? What is being done to grow a more sustainable volunteer base?
Answer: Refs, FTAs, and CSAs are already focusing on staffing for each event. Given that Falls Church is below the DC line, we believe their volunteer pool will naturally split over the two events. We are fortunate to have the support of many organizations in that area, so we can confirm that staff from Google, Leidos, and the Department of Energy are already signing up to volunteer at the Falls Church Event.
Amalan: What processes were used to estimate how many teams were competing this year? Did the district have an estimated number of teams we would lose and gain, and how did that influence the event schedule? What is the district doing to improve the accuracy of these estimates from next year?
Answer: The district used numbers from the previous years and estimates from FIRST HQ to predict the number of teams. We were expecting 115 FRC teams, so we are down 8 teams from their estimates. We plan to conduct season exit surveys before summer to get a better understanding of team status and work with teams on the fence to ensure participation in the following season. (Thank you for the suggestion, Nate!)
Caroline: We appreciate your commitment in Slack to hearing the community’s concerns. What specific steps and framework will CHS take to solicit feedback from the FRC community, such as additional town halls or office hours like those for FTC? If this is something you are still finalizing, when will those details be shared? How does CHS plan to use this feedback once it has been received?
Answer: Communication will primarily be through emails, and FRC teams should ensure their lead mentor’s email is correct. Slack is also used as a tool for communication. FRC TAC (Team Advisory Committee) is a valuable source of information, and we encourage teams to write to TAC with concerns. Feedback will be used to improve the quality of the program, ensure sustainability, and recruit new teams.
Daniel: Can you explain the process behind selecting a new venue after Edgewater was unable to host? Did you contact any other teams in the area, or did you go straight to the TAC to ask for a venue, and if so, why?
Answer: FIRST Chesapeake reached out to other potential hosts including previous hosts, worked with our partners in Maryland such as our FSM and our FLL partners, and consulted with the TAC to gather input. We ideally wanted a venue in Maryland, which limited their options. We reached out to Glenelg HS and Walt Whitman HS, but neither could accommodate the event. We did not reach out to Hayfield as the venue is cost-prohibitive to host FRC events with their current pricing structure.
Shivam: We have heard multiple times recently about CHS collaborating with the TAC to make decisions about things. Can you explain what the TAC is, who is on the TAC, and what the guidelines are for members of the TAC? Also, how is the TAC selected, and how can someone join?
Answer: Great Question – TAC is the Team Advisory Committee – they were originally formed to collect and present proposals and ideas to FCH but has since moved to a more advisory role. We meet monthly. The list of members is here (https://www.firstchesapeake.org/about-first-chesapeake/team-advisory-committee/
TAC will open a call for applications in the Spring. The committee membership shall be selected as follows:
Shivam: What was the decision-making process in adding the Ashland event after the Edgewater venue fell through? Who was consulted on this, and when the event was added, did the district anticipate the subsequent issues filling all of our venues?
Answer: See previous answer.
Shivam: Last year’s end-of-season town hall cited a 46% drop in FRC volunteers. What is being done to help grow the size of the volunteer base? How many unique volunteers were added in 2023 vs 2022 vs 2021?
Here are the volunteer numbers since 2018 – there is an obvious drop during COIVD, but it looks like we are trending upward. The 46% is a drop from our max in 2019. The road to recovery is likely to be long, but the trend is positive despite starting from so few (32 low, 761 High)
Caroline: How does CHS select event hosts? How can teams express interest in hosting? What does that process look like, and what should teams expect during the selection process?
Answer: To go into detail about the process of event selection, we first began by examining the geographic distribution of our teams to find ideal locations. The search committee reached out to the host teams to engage them and chat more about the logistical needs and what hosting an event would entail. For veteran hosts, this is an easy conversation, and for rookie hosts, we often had multiple conversations with the host and stakeholders for the venue before moving forward with the event. The process of scheduling the venues is challenging as schools often have very little flexibility as to when they can accommodate an event of this size so we balance that with how we would like the calendar to look. An ideal distribution would be 1 event week 1; and then 2 for each of the remaining 3 weeks with one in MD and one in VA. We try to keep week 5 open for snow dates.
Caroline: What specific methods will CHS use to communicate with the community? If emails, to whom (lead mentors, a community list-serv, etc.)? If town halls or blog posts, on what regular schedule? If this is something you are still finalizing, when will those details be shared?
Answer: Communication will be primarily through emails. We encourage teams to ensure their lead mentor’s email is correct. Slack is also used for communication, and we see it as a conversational tool. Specific details about communication methods and schedules were not provided in this response.
Amalan: What steps is CHS taking to ensure that district leadership is approachable and available with any questions and concerns?
Answer: The first step we are taking is assembling a team that is dedicated to the support and stewardship of the programs in the district. By dividing the programs, we allow each to focus efforts on the individualized needs that are bespoke to the teams. We understand that this is the first step in a long journey and we will work diligently to rebuild and earn trust from our teams. Our team is committed to being responsive and available to the district through office hours, slack implementation, and traditional mediums. Should anyone feel uncomfortable reaching out to us, we encourage them to reach out to the TAC so that we can work together to improve and professionalize. We want everyone to feel that their voice can be heard and that they are invited to share.
Jason: We have heard there was a conflict with the week for the one venue in Maryland that dropped. We’re other weeks explored at that venue? Was there another factor in why this venue is no longer an option?
Here are the policy changes that impacted the event:
We are sincerely grateful to Ronny for leading the charge on addressing this policy with the AACPS Board.
Erin: Is it possible to set up a way for future venues’ school administrators to meet with CHS to ask questions if they are interested in hosting a new event? I think it would help to establish direct communication as early as possible.
Absolutely – we would welcome those conversations and we would love to have them as early as we can. We understand that a school system has many competing priorities and we are fortunate enough to know when we will need to host events.
Texas: We just want to make sure we don’t focus on the wrong things and assume this year is lost, and jump to ’25 without giving this season its due diligence. These students and mentors are about to put in a lot of time and money to compete. They deserve successful events that happen.
Answer: We couldn’t agree more. We are working one-on-one with teams impacted to help secure additional funding and support them. Isaiah has been leading the charge on this front – if you would like to reach out to him with thoughts, suggestions, or concerns, he is eager to talk. He is also starting office hours so teams can chat one-on-one multiple times a week.
Jason: On a more serious note, is there any field research happening for the DC region? I feel like there’s a ton of technical capability out there that just isn’t being attended to.
Answer: Focusing on recruiting DC volunteers and ultimately fueling new DC teams is a long-term strategic goal for FIRST Chesapeake. We would also like to be more engaged with policymakers and municipal leaders. We are excited to be able to host 3 FTC DC proper events this season and will be on the lookout for a feasible FRC event in DC proper.
Arianne: We could have a VAC? (Volunteer Advisory Committee) Since there is no longer a staff member in charge of just vols as far as I know.
Answer: We have started to talk with our head volunteers to establish a committee as such. We see this committee as meeting less frequently than our TACs but still an essential voice to strategic planning and the growth of volunteers across the board.
Unspecified Attendee: Also, all KVs should be treated similarly regarding getting hotel rooms, being included in morning meetings, and having a say in managing events. Lead queuers, scorekeepers, etc., are just as important.
Answer: Absolutely – we couldn’t agree more!
Unspecified Attendee: And what is the % that these teams need to start planning for their event to get canceled due to registration not being hit?
Answer: At this time, we hope that only the waitlist teams will be impacted (5% of teams) We have teams from NC and Mid-Atlantic that are interested in playing in Blacksburg that will bring that event to capacity. It is possible though that an additional 3% of teams will be moved should Portsmouth remain below capacity. We encourage teams that can travel to travel to support the accessibility of our programs across the district. At this time, we are planning to automatically award the teams who were moved off of the waitlist and any other teams impacted a portion of the travel incentive grant to help as best we can to mitigate the impact.