Innovation Challenge: Identifying and Defining Your Problem 2021 Season

This season FIRST introduced two additional challenges to help provide teams ample opportunity to participate in FIRST during the pandemic. The Innovation Challenge and the Game Design Challenge both present teams with challenges that can be tackled with the engineering design process (see our blog post Brainstorming Process for more information).

As a Robot in 3 Days team, we work to provide guidance and helpful resources for FIRST teams, because of this we will not be completing the Innovation Challenge but rather providing tips on ways you could tackle different aspects of it. In this post, we'll focus solely on the first part of the Innovation Challenge; identifying and defining your problem.

First Impressions

This challenge is awesome! In all seriousness, as alumni of the FIRST program, it is always cool to see the new challenges released and this year was extra exciting due to the announcement of three new challenges instead of one. While it would have been cool to have more flexibility in the topic teams were allowed to pitch, there is still a lot of really cool directions teams can take this topic.

Tackling the Challenge

The FIRST Innovation Challenge is unique because this challenge requires teams to define their own problem and identify the solution. All of the previous FIRST FRC challenges had accompanying game manuals and animations for teams to look at when trying to design their solution. This challenge appears a fairly involved and expansive one and looking at it, especially as a younger or rookie team, it may be intimidating to find a place to start, but let us break the first step down for you.

While it may not be familiar to FRC teams, the FIRST Innovation Challenge is similar to the Innovation Project which has been a traditional component of the FLL season for years. There are years of past projects and resources to look through if your team needs a little bit of inspiration, or even if your team just wants to see how others approached a similar style challenge.

It is easy to jump straight to trying to solve a problem, but we want to encourage teams to slow down and spend time to identify and define the problem that they want to tackle. We believe that the most critical step in the Innovation Challenge is the criteria for identifying and defining the problem.

Identifying and Defining your Problem

While teams should identify problems or opportunities from their personal experience, teams also need to ensure that the problem that they are choosing to tackle is a common concern, not just something unique to their personal experience.

Research is a core component of identifying and defining your problem. This challenge is a great opportunity for students to try their hand at more human-centered research. A suggestion from us would be, once you've found a problem you're interested in, to start your research with secondary sources, either online or at your local library. After you have basic research and background knowledge of the issue, begin incorporating primary sources by conducting interviews, observations, or even making a survey.

When conducting interviews, refrain from asking leading questions or trying to pitch your solutions. You want to conduct an interview to learn more about the problem that people are facing so ask open-ended questions that give the interviewees a chance to tell their story.

In the research phase, you should see if there are any existing solutions to the problem. If there are any solutions, try to find more information about why these solutions are not completely effective. Remember you can choose to improve on an existing invention, so if you find a problem that has an incomplete solution feel free to build upon it.

As you learn more through your research, do not be afraid to refine and revise the problem that you are trying to solve. Through your research, you may learn that the problem you initially chose has a viable solution. Don't be discouraged, you focus on a different area of the same problem or choose another issue.

Questions to ask yourself when conducting your research:

  • Who is experiencing the problem?

  • What do people wish they had access to? What doesn't work?

  • Is there anything currently out addressing the same problem?

    • If so, is it effective or what gaps exist?

Identifying and defining a problem is not a new idea. Problem identification is a staple part of “entrepreneurship”, or the exploration and development of new ideas. We encourage students to look into entrepreneurship education resources available to them, such as the videos provided by Y Combinator and others, which provide a wealth of excellent information from world-class experts on this area.

While it can sometimes seem tedious, thoroughly identifying and defining your problem will help you design a better solution.

Anna, the author, learned about entrepreneurship through NC State's nationally ranked entrepreneurship program. NC State Entrepreneurship offers classes, events, extracurricular activities, and residential programs to teach these concepts.


Anna Lawrence

Recruiting & Team Management