This information is being shared across FIRST programs today.
For those of us at FIRST® Headquarters (HQ) and many of our affiliated organizations throughout the world, the most fun and rewarding part of our roles is having the opportunity to meet and speak with the kids who participate in our Programs, as well as the adult Coaches, Mentors and Volunteers who support them. I love hearing their stories of impact, growth and change. If you wonder whether we ever get tired of those stories, we don’t! Please keep them coming. That said, I do get one question more frequently than all the rest, so I decided to answer it here today – Where is FIRST going?
Let me begin by giving you a little background on where FIRST is today. Using the United States as an example, FIRST programs only exist in about 9 percent of all K-12 schools in this country. In addition to these school-based teams, we do have many community-based teams that help fill the gap. However, even with those, it’s safe to say that FIRST programs are only available or easily accessible to about 15-20 percent of all kids in this country. Of course, we do have teams in 86 countries, but the accessibility statistics in other countries are at best comparable or oftentimes worse than they are here in the United States.
We also know that the demographics of FIRST participants do not fully look like the communities we serve. With approximately 30 percent female participants in our Programs overall, we are underrepresented in young women, as well as people of color and kids from lower-income families. I am proud to say that FIRST demographics are quite a bit better than the tech workforce overall, but we still have a ways to go to mirror our communities.
Why is this important? If you believe, like I do, that FIRST programs are real game changers for kids, opening them to a world of opportunity and enabling them to become the critical innovators and problem solvers of tomorrow, then shouldn’t every kid have access to these Programs? From another perspective, given the increasingly complex challenges our world is facing, don’t we need each and every young person equipped and enabled with the tools and skills that will allow them to help make the world a better place? Hence, our vision for FIRST is to make these Programs available and accessible to every kid everywhere.
I should point out that our passion isn’t simply guided by our belief in the impact of FIRST Programs. We actually have more than 10 years of research data, working with Brandeis University and other leading institutions, that show FIRST programs have a very significant impact on all types of participants. Interestingly, the impact is greater for women and other segments of the population that are typically under-represented in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields because FIRST Programs open their eyes and minds to the opportunities these fields provide and the contributions they can make.
With all of this as the backdrop, we set out to define the strategic goals or objectives of our organization. At FIRST HQ, we often refer to these objectives as our five “Strategic Pillars” upon which we can build an even-more-impactful FIRST organization. The graphic below highlights the concept behind each of these pillars.
Expand Access and Participation, Broad and Deep: I describe this as our “uber” or over-arching objective. Our goal here is truly to make FIRST Programs accessible and available to every kid everywhere. “Broad” implies in every geographic region, and “Deep” means starting from a young age. As most of you hopefully know, FIRST has an excellent family of Programs designed to nurture young people’s interests and capabilities from age 6 through 18. We want to engage kids early, before social or cultural stereotypes force them to believe what is or isn’t cool or what they can or can’t be good at, and keep them engaged until age 18 when they have to make significant education and career choices. Hence, not only is it important that kids have access to specific FIRST Programs, but we want to ensure they have access to the entire Progression of FIRST Programs to help nurture and develop their interests from a very young age.
Increase Diversity: Of course, this speaks to my earlier comment that we need kids of all backgrounds, capabilities and social circumstances to contribute and participate in addressing the world’s toughest challenges and making the world a better place for future generations. To do this, we need input and participation from everyone, and we need to nurture every kid’s potential to be a leader and innovator. I am proud of the fact that within FIRST, we have a terrifically accepting and inclusive culture, based on our ethos of Gracious Professionalism® and Coopertition®. That said, I know we can do more to be accessible and welcoming and to encourage and enable kids from more diverse backgrounds to participate. At a global level, FIRST has developed a multi-pronged approach that includes training, awareness, partnerships and community outreach to increase the diversity of both the young people and the communities we serve. In doing so, we are developing online training and tools that will be launched in November to our entire community and that we hope will be helpful to each of you in expanding the diversity of youth on your team or in your local FIRST community.
Scale Efficiently: I am sure you all realize it is a big, hairy aggressive goal to make FIRST programs available and accessible to every kid everywhere. The only way we will be able to do that is through solutions that are designed to scale. Of course, it’s not sufficient to just scale or expand to reach more kids---we must do so in ways that maintain both the world-class quality and core values on which our organization is built. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that nothing will change. Just like every other organization, we need to look for and experiment with new solutions that address these needs. Sometimes we’ll get things right on the first try, and other times (just like all FIRST teams) we’ll have to iterate and learn from our experiences. That said, everything we do will be guided by our goal of impacting more kids in a high-quality way that sustains and promotes our core values.
Ensure Sustainability: It’s really hard to grow and impact more kids if our foundation is not sustainable. This comment applies equally well to our teams, partners, supporters and FIRST overall. With everything we do, we must think about the sustainability of our programs and solutions. Sustainability also has many dimensions, including financial resources, human resources and other capabilities. I encourage each of you to think about how this applies to your role within our community---who or how will your effort be continued if you are not there? Who will support your team if a long-time Sponsor goes away or if a Mentor retires and moves away?
This is also a great opportunity to give a shout out to the importance of FIRST Alumni. Chances are that no one understands the benefits of participating in FIRST Programs better than FIRST Alumni. Hopefully, our Alumni were impacted in meaningful and positive ways by Mentors who inspired them. Or, maybe they were able to attend college because of a FIRST Scholarship. Or, maybe a FIRST connection helped them get their dream internship or first job. Our goal is to enable such terrific experiences for our participants that they will understand the impact and will stay involved to “pay it forward.”
Achieve Broad Recognition: As I meet and talk to people all over the world about FIRST, I frequently get the following response: “I’ve never heard of this organization. Wow! This is the world’s best-kept secret!” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that phrase, we might not have to do any fundraising. More importantly, it’s really hard for kids, Teachers, Mentors and Sponsors to participate in something they’ve never heard of. We realize this challenge has several origins, including the fact that the word “first” is one of the most commonly used words in the English language. Hence, it’s important that we make it easy for people to understand that FIRST is an organization, and an amazing one at that. Again, we’re pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to overcome this challenge, one element of which is the cleaned-up branding we introduced last fall. It’s also helpful if our community doesn’t use too many acronyms when speaking to people outside our community. For example, when people who are new to FIRST hear us talking about things like “FRC” and “FLL”, they quickly get lost in the “alphabet soup.” However, it’s a bit easier and clearer to understand FIRST® Robotics Competition and FIRST® LEGO® League, and our new Program logos seek to articulate “FIRST” as a brand and not an adjective.
I know that all of the above will take a lot of work and effort, and we won’t get to our goal overnight. We’ve come a long way in 27 years since our founding, but we still have a long way to go. That said, I hope the above “Strategic Pillars” serve as useful guideposts to help us along that journey. This is not something that any of us can accomplish alone. Rather, it takes the passion and commitment of our entire community, as well as any new friends and supporters we recruit along the way. With these pillars in mind, I hope we can pave a path to an even stronger future for our organization and a better world. As always, I am extremely grateful to each of you for your participation and contributions—both the contributions you have already made and the ones you will hopefully make for many years to come.