You are seeing this message because your web browser does not support basic web standards. Find out more about why this message is appearing and what you can do to make your experience on this site better.

The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

Terms of Use ▼

Program Description

Overview NYC FIRST! (New York City For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) aims to engage low-income and minority middle school and high school youth in science, technology, and engineering, especially in schools where resources and curricula around these subjects are limited. This program is the New York City branch of the national organization FIRST, whose mission is to design accessible, innovative programs that help young people build self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills while motivating them to pursue math, science, and technology careers. FIRST engages teams of youth, working with adult coaches and mentors, in researching, designing, and building robots and participating in games of skill and strategy meant to transfer the enthusiasm youth feel for athletics to the fields of math, science, and engineering.
Start Date 1998
Scope local
Type after school
Location urban
Setting public school
Participants middle school and high school students
Number of Sites/Grantees 4 high schools in 1998 and 26 high schools and 82 middle schools in 2003
Number Served not available
Components Each year, the national FIRST organization holds competitions for teams of high school and middle school students in designing, building, and operating robots. Most teams begin organizing in the fall. They spend the first few months choosing a theme, raising money, and doing public relations and community service activities. In some cases, team members experiment with new designs, practice using robots from previous years, and prepare new team members for their roles.

Competition rules and game parameters, which change every year, are announced in January. When teams register, they each receive a kit of technical components sufficient to build only parts of the robot. Teams need to use additional purchased or donated materials to complete the robots. Beginning in 2003, each team began receiving an additional microrobotics kit that introduces youth to the basic concepts of robotics. Teams are given 6 weeks to design and build their robots.

Teams enter regional competitions around the country and can qualify to attend the championship event in a number of ways, including winning a regional event or award. Awards recognize team efforts and accomplishments in such areas as entrepreneurship, team spirit, and website design. Several awards are associated with college scholarships, and all NYC FIRST! participants are eligible to apply for organization-sponsored scholarships to attend colleges around the country, regardless of their team's standings in the competitions.

Each NYC FIRST! team is facilitated by one or more school staff members, ranging from classroom teachers to assistant principals, who serve as coaches. Outside adults, including engineers, parents, and community members, participate as mentors. Mentors' roles are primarily to assist in designing and building the robots. Teams work outside of class time, mostly after school, but also during lunch and free periods.

In addition to the robotics activities, teams develop websites, design costumes, do community service, prepare applications for awards, and document their activities and community impact. Older, more experienced teams often mentor teams of younger and less experienced participants. Some teams create cheers, dramatizations, mascots, and other expressions of team spirit. There are also administrative jobs—each team has a captain or two cocaptains and youth who are responsible for reviewing the complex specifications for the robots and rules for the competition and tracking team updates issued by the game organizers.

Program costs include registration for one or more competition events ($5,000 for the first event entered and $4,000 for each additional event), through which each team receives a kit of technical components, valued at $15,000, a variety of programming software packages, shipping, and a $450 credit for catalog purchases of additional parts. Teams also pay for any additional parts and equipment for the robot; travel and accommodation expenses; and other items such as team T-shirts or uniforms, stickers, buttons, or sponsor signs. Teams also provide food for youth working into the evening hours and on weekends.
Funding Level $15,000–$30,000 per site per year
Funding Sources Each team secures its own funding, typically from corporate sponsors and fundraising efforts.


Overview In the fall of 2002, NYC FIRST! engaged the Educational Development Center's (EDC) Center for Children and Technology to conduct a preliminary evaluation of the initiative.
Evaluators Laura Jeffers, EDC Center for Children and Technology
Evaluations Profiled Evaluation of NYC FIRST!
Evaluations Planned not available
Report Availability Jeffers, L. (2003). Evaluation of NYC FIRST!. New York: Education Development Center, Inc.


Evaluation Laura Jeffers
Senior Research Associate
Center for Children and Technology
Education Development Center, Inc.
96 Morton St., 7th Floor
New York, NY 10014
Tel: 212-807-4200
Fax: 212-633-8804
Program US First
200 Bedford St.
Manchester, NH 03101
Tel: 603-666-3906
Fax: 603-666-3907
Profile Updated November 29, 2005

Evaluation: Evaluation of NYC FIRST!

Evaluation Description

Evaluation Purpose :To investigate the following aspects of NYC FIRST!: (a) impact on youth's attitudes and skills; (b) influence on school curricula and teachers' pedagogy; (c) role in developing working relationships between teams, schools, and sponsors; (d) effect on corporate partnerships and relationships outside the community; and (e) schools' implementation approaches.
Evaluation Design Non-Experimental: Data were collected from programs at five high schools. The schools were selected to represent the following: geographic diversity, student populations from both academic and vocational programs, and variety in length of participation in NYC FIRST!. Two of the schools were located in the Bronx, two in Brooklyn, and one in Staten Island. Three had exclusively academic programs, while two combined vocational training with academics. The programs had been in operation between 2 and 4 years. In addition, the schools varied in levels of access to resources such as equipment, work space, and engineering and mechanical expertise. The sample represented a range of school enrollment sizes (677–3,058), eligibility for free lunch (41%–82% of youth), average yearly expenditure per student ($7,331–$12,592 annually), and percent of seniors graduating (31%–61%). All but one of the schools had a higher percentage of minority youth than the average for New York City public schools, and all but one had more male youth than female youth, the difference being most marked at schools offering vocational programs.
Data Collection Methods Document Review: To gather background information about the program and its implementation, FIRST's website and individual teams' websites were reviewed, as were a variety of program documents, including progress reports and team updates.

Interviews/Focus Groups: Over a 6-month period, evaluators interviewed a variety of stakeholders, including the five principals, five lead coaches, six lead mentors and/or school personnel involved in the program, all codirectors, and four corporate and technical sponsors. Individual student interviews were conducted informally at the teams' working sessions with 16 participating youth. Formal group interviews were conducted after the New York City regional competition, in which all the teams in the sample participated. These group interviews were conducted with 66 youth. Interviews asked about the impact of the program on youth, pedagogy and curricula in the program, developing relationships in the program, corporate partnerships and relationships, and program implementation issues.

Observation: Observations were conducted for four of the teams during the design and building phase and of all the teams at the regional competition in New York City.
Data Collection Timeframe Data were collected in 2002 and 2003.

Formative/Process Findings

Activity Implementation In all observed teams, evaluators noted that learning was practical, self-motivated, and hands-on. Youth rarely seemed to focus on learning for its own sake but instead were motivated by the desire to complete the task at hand. What youth learned depended on what jobs they performed on the team, which was largely determined by their own interests.

Interviews and observations revealed that coaches and mentors encouraged youth to take the lead on teams and often believed in letting youth learn by going through the process themselves and making their own mistakes. As a result, youth saw themselves as being in charge of the work and felt that it was their shared responsibility to make critical decisions and carry them out.
Costs/Revenues Fundraising strategies that teams employed included recruiting new sponsors (often local businesses); holding car washes or “bagging days” at local supermarkets (where youth bag groceries and shoppers are asked to make a contribution to the team); and selling a variety of products within the school community, including cookies, pencils, buttons, and coupon books.

Each team had marketing and fundraising committees. These committees developed public relations plans and fundraising strategies, which often included writing letters and making presentations to corporate executives and local business owners and mounting fundraising campaigns in the school and the community.

Money became an increasingly significant challenge for the program. In particular, in the current financial environment, funders across all sectors have fewer dollars to give away. Also, as the program expands, financial sponsors may have to choose between continuing to fund teams with which they have longstanding relationships and extending their support to newer and less well-established teams.
Program Context/Infrastructure NYC FIRST! teams varied widely with regard to operating structures and available resources. Some had high-powered professional mentors, while others were limited to school-based personnel. Some had access to machine shops and other facilities, while other teams relied on much more limited resources to build their robots.

Corporate sponsors reported valuing NYC FIRST! partnerships on a number of counts, particularly in the ability of the corporate sponsors to make a significant contribution to the communities in which they operated and providing their employees with opportunities to share their skills and expertise with young people by serving as mentors.
Program–School Linkages Coaches identified their schools' relative lack of resources compared with other participating schools outside of New York City as a challenge. They reported that other schools had their robots built for them by local manufacturers and benefited from schools and parents who had the financial resources to enable teams to purchase more sophisticated materials.

Coaches reported that school administrators could pose challenges for coaches, if they did not take an active role in coordinating and finding resources for teams. This coordination role was important in providing some degree of infrastructure for the program within the school.
Recruitment/Participation According to coaches and youth, everyone with interest was welcome to join. In some cases, programs required a minimum academic standing. Teams made an effort to recruit youth from lower grades to provide time to develop skills and prepare them to move into leadership roles as older youth graduated.

Recruitment methods included presentations and demonstrations and recruitment via friends, teachers, guidance counselors, and team coaches. In some cases, teachers and coaches made special efforts to recruit youth who excelled in math or science or those who were struggling in the hopes that they would become more engaged in school.

Some coaches expressed a concern about recruiting girls, which they addressed by approaching girls individually and encouraging them to find out more about the team.

Youth reported joining NYC FIRST! for a variety of reasons, including an interest in pursuing robotics, mechanics, graphic design, or computer programming; persuasion by friends and teachers; the prospect of meeting new people; and the draw of college scholarships.

Teams tended to begin with approximately 50 youth in the fall, some of whom typically dropped out, usually during the first few weeks. Participants described those who dropped out as those who felt that the work required too much time or who had conflicting commitments. Eventually, in most cases, a core group of perhaps 10 to 15 youth continued working on various NYC FIRST! tasks through the spring competitions, though evaluators observed larger core groups in two of the five schools.

All the youth interviewees reported planning to return to NYC FIRST! the following school year.

Though youth reported the voluntary nature of participation as a strength, they cited irregular attendance as one of their frustrations with the program.
Staffing/Training Coaches reported deriving a great deal of pride and satisfaction from their participation in NYC FIRST!. They reported that they valued opportunities to help youth gain self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment and that because of these benefits to the youth, the experience was worthwhile despite long hours, scarce resources, and the pressures of deadlines and competitions. Mentors also noted a high degree of satisfaction for many of the same reasons as the coaches.

A number of youth mentioned their awareness of the coaches' dedication and how much of this work was done on coaches' personal time. They reported that this reinforced their sense of the coaches' personal investment in them and contributed to their own commitment to the team.

While all of the coaches were responsible for overseeing the entire team process, some worked closely with youth on specific tasks and others maintained a more administrative role. The degree to which coaches were involved in the hands-on robotics work appeared to be influenced by their expertise and interest in that area and the availability of other adults to model and supervise the process.

Coaches came from a variety of roles and backgrounds. Some were teachers, some were administrators, and some ran special programs within the school.

While coaches generally took the lead in planning and demonstrating the processes of designing and building robots to youth, observations revealed a concerted effort among coaches to encourage youth to work things out for themselves.

Both coaches and youth reported that the teams required a great deal of time and effort from the coaches, with coaches often having to work 7 days a week while building the robots—after school and into the evening during the week and for as much as 12 hours a day on weekends. Some coaches received per-session pay for some (but not all) of this time. Coaches often provided food for teams when working late, and one coach drove youth home if the team meetings ended after dark.

Some interview respondents noted that the intensity of the coaching role could have drawbacks in cases with turnover in the coach role or when the coach did not have enough technical expertise and day-to-day experience with the teams.

Mentors were usually employees of sponsoring companies, university faculty, school alumni, or local college youth. In several cases, FIRST alumni returned to act as mentors.

Mentors put varying amounts of time into the program, ranging from one or two afternoons per week to every day after school and on weekends.

Some mentors reported that the lack of formal training in developing and managing teams was a program challenge.

Summative/Outcome Findings

Academic Many adults believed that youth's high level of engagement in NYC FIRST! raised their engagement in school overall, especially since several of the schools required participants to maintain good academic standing.

Many youth reported no specific relationship between their work on the team and their academic studies; however, several did report such connections, especially with regard to math-related skills and physics concepts.
Community Development Coaches and youth noted that the program promoted community service. Teams visited children's wards of local hospitals, bringing along minirobots to engage patients, and worked at local food pantries during the Thanksgiving holiday. Youth on one team spoke about using these activities as an opportunity to educate others about the value and accessibility of math and science.
Systemic According to staff and youth, schools in the study benefited from public attention drawn by participation in NYC FIRST!, having been featured in television and print news stories that may have helped alter the images of these schools and raised public awareness about both the program and participating schools, which ultimately helped schools to garner resources.

Adults reported that the program had an influence on school curricula in both direct and indirect ways. For example, some schools were in the process of building small schools, or “schools within a school,” based on lessons learned from the program. For example, one school was planning a small school around technology, with robotics as one of the areas of study. Other efforts include classes focused on robotics, pre-engineering courses designed to prepare youth to enter college-level engineering studies, and the resuscitation of organizations like the Junior National Society of Black Engineers. However, none of the coaches, many of whom were classroom teachers, mentioned that the program had a direct influence on their pedagogy.
Workforce Development Coaches and corporate sponsors reported that NYC FIRST! graduates went to work for local companies working in math, science, and engineering fields, such as Con Edison and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). One coach reported that the head of the MTA publicly thanked NYC FIRST! for sending him six of his best workers.

Corporate sponsors reported that the program offered youth a good introduction to the real world of technology and engineering, and they valued the possibility of cultivating potential future employees of diverse backgrounds.
Youth Development Youth reported that there were always opportunities to learn something new in NYC FIRST! and that when youth wanted to learn new things, the rest of the team, both adults and youth, would see that they did.

Youth, coaches, mentors, and sponsors all reported a high degree of engagement evident in youth' commitment to their teams and sense of responsibility toward their teammates. Factors contributing to this engagement were opportunities to share strengths with the team and learn new skills; willingness of more skilled youth, coaches, and mentors to teach less skilled youth; pride in developing expertise in a particular area; and a strong sense of responsibility between teammates.

Youth, coaches, and administrators reported that NYC FIRST! participants developed knowledge and skills in a range of specific content areas, including engineering and design, computer programming, graphic design, mathematics, and webpage development.

Interviewees reported that participants developed and came to value a range of critical thinking and interpersonal skills, especially teamwork skills.

Youth and adults often reported that participation helped youth develop a sense of self-confidence and self-worth.

Certain roles, such as captain and cocaptain roles, were cited as offering participants the development of leadership skills, and some adults pointed to youth who had grown and developed leadership skills in these roles.


© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project