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Unread 02-24-2014, 01:20 AM
Martian86 Martian86 is offline
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Problems with overbearing mentors

Before I say anything further, I'd like to point out that I am very grateful that our team has mentors that are willing to spend so much time with the team. That being said...

This year our team had a serious problem with some of the mentors taking over operations from students, being somewhat condescending/patronizing toward us, and not reading the manual. The mentors in question have been with the team the same amount of time as the senior members of the team, give or take a year or two. We (the students) are capable of most of the design, build, wiring, controls, programming, etc, aspects of the robot; at the very least, we're just as capable as the mentors since many of the parts are specialized for FRC, especially the control system. I'll go over a few of the highlights of the problem for this season.

1. In general, our mentors take it as a personal offense if we do not use their designs, and they push for their own designs on the robot even after we've proven that they either don't work at all or don't work as well as another design.

2. At one point during the build season, I had a thirty minute argument with a mentor over height restrictions. I read the manual and he did not. I showed/read him G22 and G23 several times, as did other members of the team, but it still took half an hour to convince him of what was printed in the manual.

3. At another point, two mentors were arguing over something in the design (specifics aren't important) and leaving students out of the discussion completely. I ended up telling them, in the most respectful way I could, that they needed to explain to the students what they were discussing and then take a break from the robot for a couple of hours. I'll admit this must have been entertaining to watch, a 17 year old girl telling two grown men to go on a time out, but it should not have been necessary.

4. Finally, the last weekend before Stop Build Day: We had mentors speaking to us as if we did not know what we were doing, changing things on the robot without telling us, and insisting that we needed a catching mechanism when senior members of the team had already decided that it would be impractical for our team to try to do everything. We would try to explain why we did things a certain way, how something worked, or what we had already tried (while troubleshooting), and mentors would interrupt and talk over us. I had multiple team members tell me that they were ready to go home early and just let the mentors fix the robot themselves.

Has anyone else ever had similar problems with mentors? Any advice for dealing with this in the future that I can use at competition and/or pass on to next year's captain?

Once again, I really do appreciate all the time and energy the mentors put into the team. I just wish they would direct more of this time and energy toward collaboration instead of domination.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 01:42 AM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

I did not have an issues with this when I was a student on a team so unfortunately I cannot give any first hand advice. I would recommend that you utilize some of the NEMO resources available at http://www.firstnemo.org/resources.htm , more specifically the A Mentor Is document would be a great thing to show them.

There are also other threads out there on CD that discuss this issue in detail. With that being said I applauded you for everything you have done so far, your actions seem very mature and acceptable thus far. Perhaps contacting your schools administration is the next step.

FWIW your team number is visible on all of your posts, an unfortunate CD policy. Meaning all of your team members and mentors can see it, something you may not want to happen. If you would like to discuss your issue in more detail please feel free to PM me.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 01:57 AM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

It sounds like you've handled a very difficult situation with remarkable grace and maturity. If it means anything to you, I'm really sorry that you had to go through this, especially during a period as stressful as build season.

That said, I'd recommend you talk to your head mentor. It sounds like the mentor in question is newer to the team, and I'm sure that your head mentor would be more than able to talk to him about the role of a mentor. I'd also add that although talking to him personally is commendable, it may not be the most effective course of action. For some people, being told off by a student that they are supposed to be leading, especially in front of other mentors, may be extremely embarrassing. Perhaps a talk from a fellow mentor would be a more effective approach.

Good luck.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 06:22 AM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

Quote:
Originally Posted by Martian86 View Post

1. In general, our mentors take it as a personal offense if we do not use their designs, and they push for their own designs on the robot even after we've proven that they either don't work at all or don't work as well as another design.
This is ego vs. engineering. I've seen it often, both within FRC and in the "real" world and have been guilty of it myself. I don't know of an easy solution. Some people will need to see a design fail miserably before considering an alternative. Occasionally, even that is not enough.

I can tell you for certain that this phenomenon is not limited to team 1159.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 06:38 AM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

Quote:
Originally Posted by Martian86 View Post
Before I say anything further, I'd like to point out that I am very grateful that our team has mentors that are willing to spend so much time with the team. That being said...

This year our team had a serious problem with some of the mentors taking over operations from students, being somewhat condescending/patronizing toward us, and not reading the manual. The mentors in question have been with the team the same amount of time as the senior members of the team, give or take a year or two. We (the students) are capable of most of the design, build, wiring, controls, programming, etc, aspects of the robot; at the very least, we're just as capable as the mentors since many of the parts are specialized for FRC, especially the control system. I'll go over a few of the highlights of the problem for this season.

1. In general, our mentors take it as a personal offense if we do not use their designs, and they push for their own designs on the robot even after we've proven that they either don't work at all or don't work as well as another design.

2. At one point during the build season, I had a thirty minute argument with a mentor over height restrictions. I read the manual and he did not. I showed/read him G22 and G23 several times, as did other members of the team, but it still took half an hour to convince him of what was printed in the manual.

3. At another point, two mentors were arguing over something in the design (specifics aren't important) and leaving students out of the discussion completely. I ended up telling them, in the most respectful way I could, that they needed to explain to the students what they were discussing and then take a break from the robot for a couple of hours. I'll admit this must have been entertaining to watch, a 17 year old girl telling two grown men to go on a time out, but it should not have been necessary.

4. Finally, the last weekend before Stop Build Day: We had mentors speaking to us as if we did not know what we were doing, changing things on the robot without telling us, and insisting that we needed a catching mechanism when senior members of the team had already decided that it would be impractical for our team to try to do everything. We would try to explain why we did things a certain way, how something worked, or what we had already tried (while troubleshooting), and mentors would interrupt and talk over us. I had multiple team members tell me that they were ready to go home early and just let the mentors fix the robot themselves.

Has anyone else ever had similar problems with mentors? Any advice for dealing with this in the future that I can use at competition and/or pass on to next year's captain?

Once again, I really do appreciate all the time and energy the mentors put into the team. I just wish they would direct more of this time and energy toward collaboration instead of domination.
Sweet jimmy crickets , I wish we had that problem . Could you spare some of those mentors ? Let me explain my strange response. My son and I build robots for a hobby and I own a machine shop where we build robotic telescopes . There was a flyer begging for mentors that caught my eye from the university that
I once studied robotic design at. We ended up mentoring a team of FRC students that were many miles away in a very dangerous part of town.
These students rarely showed up and when they did it was a eye opening
experience for my son who has lived a privileged life in a upper class area . He could see we were in the middle of a gang infested school . We mentored the
team for two years . It was a fruitless effort on our part except for the new
found respect that my son has for what he use to take for granted . He witnessed the theft of team tools by adult mentors , money slated for the robot team embezzled by the vice principal of the school. I had to take away my box cutter
knife that one lady that threatened another team member over a discussion over who was the father of her baby vs the new pregnancy of another team mate.
Me and my son built the last two years robot for the team under adverse condition it became a struggle and that is why we started a new team at my sons High school .
I guess what i am trying to say is be thankful for what you have .
It sounds like you handled the situation well but remember the mentors are trying to help you put your best foot forward. Be patient with them , and
remember you have a great advantage its your team and the team votes
whether or not to go with a design or not.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 07:46 AM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

FRC's build schedule tends to create a pressure cooker of sorts.

If it wasn't for the fact that so many teams actually manage to produce robots I would say straight out that it's too short a deadline.

However the fact that it gets done does come with a price.
Sometimes I wonder if that's a fair price.

When it comes to mentors take a step back as a student.
Try to understand the stress acting on them.
When it comes to students take a step back and remember where you came from in your life and what you can do to make that place better for them.

In fact if it's getting volatile take a break and don't just go and fume - talk about it - student to student - adult to adult - adults to apprentice (because to me FIRST students are apprentices we don't have time in 6 weeks to just talk about how to do this).

You might be surprised at just how much pressure is building that you don't think about: money, time, energy, illness, family issues, car troubles, politics and unrealistic expectations (of all sorts) all can make doing this very unpleasant.

There are ways to address this problem but all of them involve analyzing the situation and working as a team. If that is not a possible solution then there's a problem with your team work that needs some work.

I've heard in the past that this 6 week build cycle is supposed to prepare people for the 'real world'. I should hope people realize that if the 'real world' did all their work during this same 6 weeks so they can have their spring breaks, summer vacations, a brief spell of work before the holidays and start all over: then FIRST is in trouble. Imagine trying to do everything you value for a year during the same first 3 months. Now imagine you work long hours during the other 9 months when everyone else is recovering from those 3 months. Think about the consequences. Increasingly that's what I see happening. Bad economy - new year - everyone tries to: 'make up for lost time'. My message here is that good project management is understanding all the forces acting on your goal and working with them to try to achieve a realistic outcome in a realistic healthy manner. 100 hour weeks are not realistic and not healthy but I know I've been doing them lately as are I am sure others working these extreme hours.

Last edited by techhelpbb : 02-24-2014 at 08:00 AM.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 08:09 AM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

Quote:
Originally Posted by Martian86 View Post
Before I say anything further, I'd like to point out that I am very grateful that our team has mentors that are willing to spend so much time with the team. That being said...

This year our team had a serious problem with some of the mentors taking over operations from students, being somewhat condescending/patronizing toward us, and not reading the manual. The mentors in question have been with the team the same amount of time as the senior members of the team, give or take a year or two. We (the students) are capable of most of the design, build, wiring, controls, programming, etc, aspects of the robot; at the very least, we're just as capable as the mentors since many of the parts are specialized for FRC, especially the control system. I'll go over a few of the highlights of the problem for this season.

1. In general, our mentors take it as a personal offense if we do not use their designs, and they push for their own designs on the robot even after we've proven that they either don't work at all or don't work as well as another design.

2. At one point during the build season, I had a thirty minute argument with a mentor over height restrictions. I read the manual and he did not. I showed/read him G22 and G23 several times, as did other members of the team, but it still took half an hour to convince him of what was printed in the manual.

3. At another point, two mentors were arguing over something in the design (specifics aren't important) and leaving students out of the discussion completely. I ended up telling them, in the most respectful way I could, that they needed to explain to the students what they were discussing and then take a break from the robot for a couple of hours. I'll admit this must have been entertaining to watch, a 17 year old girl telling two grown men to go on a time out, but it should not have been necessary.

4. Finally, the last weekend before Stop Build Day: We had mentors speaking to us as if we did not know what we were doing, changing things on the robot without telling us, and insisting that we needed a catching mechanism when senior members of the team had already decided that it would be impractical for our team to try to do everything. We would try to explain why we did things a certain way, how something worked, or what we had already tried (while troubleshooting), and mentors would interrupt and talk over us. I had multiple team members tell me that they were ready to go home early and just let the mentors fix the robot themselves.

Has anyone else ever had similar problems with mentors? Any advice for dealing with this in the future that I can use at competition and/or pass on to next year's captain?

Once again, I really do appreciate all the time and energy the mentors put into the team. I just wish they would direct more of this time and energy toward collaboration instead of domination.
Mentoring is not an easy thing.

From a long term mentors perspective, I'll try and give some insight to each bullet.

#1 -- This is ego, and all engineers have it to some degree. Engineers are taught that they must be able to defend their design. Critical thinking and challenges to a design are a standard part of engineering, but at some point the engineer must be able to see that other designs are viable. I've found that prototyping multiple designs and 'letting the best one win' tends to work well, but this approach must be agreed upon before the season.

#2 -- The rules are the rules. If you don't meet a rule, you don't play until you do meet that rule. The rules need to be viewed as a government contract where every rule needs to be adhered to. How you fulfill the requirements of the rule is up to you, but each rule must be followed. This must be made clear before build season.

#3 -- If the argument is over the design, I have no issue with this. If the argument becomes personal then there is a problem. Understanding the difference is most important. Leaving the students out of the discussion may, or may not, be a good thing depending on what aspect of the design they were "loudly discussing". Once a compromise has been found, then the students should be brought into the discussion and shown what the 'issue' was.

#4 -- This is a tough one. FIRST is about inspiration, not the robot. Sometimes difficult decisions must be made. Is it more inspiring to let them struggle on the last weekend, hoping to get a device to work, or is it more inspiring to jump in and "fix it" so that it's working at the competition. Sometimes the pressure of trying to get something to work means you don't have the time to fully explain what you are doing at that time.

I'm not at all saying that everything your mentors do is right ... It's probably far from it (Lord knows I've made a few mistakes along the way ), but they are trying to help. Now that the build season is over and the pressure is less, I'd suggest a meeting to review of all the things that happened during the build season, good and bad (sometimes this is called a "post mortem"). If you have this meeting then make in explicit that there will be no 'personal' bashing and that everyone (including the mentors) leaves their egos at the door.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 09:39 AM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

It sounds like you need to have a calm team-wide meeting to discuss how you would like your team run. Establishing a clear process for design decision making is one of the more important facets of running a smooth build season. Another good policy is immediately disowning any idea as soon as its presented. It's not "Joe's Idea" it's "the doober mechanism." This helps divorce ego from the design decision process.

Another thing for your team to consider: not all adults make good FRC mentors. I have seen barely-competent mentors be so insistent and obnoxious that they drive truly great mentors away, much to the detriment of the team. I wouldn't suggest doing anything rash, but if there are one or two people that appear to be at the root of many conflicts they may need a "shape up or ship out" sort of talking-to, probably from an adult team leader.

It might also be worthwhile reminding everyone on your team that both giving and receiving criticism and correction graciously and professionally is one of the greatest and most difficult talents that a technical professional can develop.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 09:52 AM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

Martian,
There are a few things I have learned while hanging out here. The first is every team is different. They vary in the way they run things, the way the mentors participate, who builds the robot and who provides inspiration. The second is there are always two sides to every event.
I know there are a lot of teams out there where the sponsor engineers and professionals, work on the team and are held to team success as part of their job. That sometime causes friction on the team. It certainly can't help in design decisions and team management. Communication may help so that students and mentors alike know the motivation behind the actions.
I can tell you that I want to win as much as any student on the team. Sorry, it is the goal we are trying to achieve with all this work. I also know, my role is to provide inspiration, guidance, help, support. Sometimes those are in conflict, I am only human, it is a struggle. So I ask my students to help me with that. I tell them their most useful tool is an elbow. If I am doing something they want to do, use it! We believe that working along side our students is the best. We teach, show by example and then step back when they are capable of the task at hand. If you think our robot is mentor built or designed, you would be wrong. Ask our students what they have done on the robot and they will gladly tell you, show you and even help you achieve similar results.
Chief Delphi is a great tool for both adult and student team mates. They can come and see how other teams handle difficult situations and they can ask questions and receive answers to assist them. I will gladly answer questions via PM if they would like. We all want your students to have a great time while in this program.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 11:04 AM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

Quote:
Originally Posted by Al Skierkiewicz View Post
Martian,
There are a few things I have learned while hanging out here. The first is every team is different. They vary in the way they run things, the way the mentors participate, who builds the robot and who provides inspiration. The second is there are always two sides to every event.
I know there are a lot of teams out there where the sponsor engineers and professionals, work on the team and are held to team success as part of their job. That sometime causes friction on the team. It certainly can't help in design decisions and team management. Communication may help so that students and mentors alike know the motivation behind the actions.
I can tell you that I want to win as much as any student on the team. Sorry, it is the goal we are trying to achieve with all this work. I also know, my role is to provide inspiration, guidance, help, support. Sometimes those are in conflict, I am only human, it is a struggle. So I ask my students to help me with that. I tell them their most useful tool is an elbow. If I am doing something they want to do, use it! We believe that working along side our students is the best. We teach, show by example and then step back when they are capable of the task at hand. If you think our robot is mentor built or designed, you would be wrong. Ask our students what they have done on the robot and they will gladly tell you, show you and even help you achieve similar results.
Chief Delphi is a great tool for both adult and student team mates. They can come and see how other teams handle difficult situations and they can ask questions and receive answers to assist them. I will gladly answer questions via PM if they would like. We all want your students to have a great time while in this program.
Al, I couldn't agree more. I totally love the "elbow" strategy you suggest to your students. I hope you won't mind if I borrow that comment and use it myself.

For me there is nothing so satisfying as having one of my students get to the solution of an issue (or a bug as we like to call it) before I do. [In fact it happened only yesterday and I couldn't have been happier.] That shows that not only has the student learned how to program but that they are learning how to approach problems and work through the logic to find the solution. That is a big part of what this program is about. I feel that a student who can control the process reflects better on me than me being the one who is controlling the process directly. It is not about me being right, it is about solving the problem.

Of course it is also important to teach the students to consider the opinions of others with experience. That is about respect. My personal philosophy is that respect is earned... and, of course, that you will not get respect if you do not give respect. This is a 2-way street and applies to both students and adults. I also feel strongly that no one is perfect (most definitely including me) and therefore we all make mistakes. The key is to recognize them when they happen (if for example you jump to a conclusion or are a bit too snippy with a retort), apologize to the person who was affected, and work to change that behavior. I continue trying to do that every day... always a work in progress.

One final note: Remember that you can adopt this philosophy but you cannot force someone else to. And you cannot control their behavior, you can only work on your own. So do that and hope that it will rub off on those around you. I know that I personally have come to the desire to be that person by looking at the examples (both good and bad) that I see around me.

This doesn't solve your situation but it is a good life lesson... and that is at least part of what FIRST is about.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 11:04 AM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

I hope the dynamic between your mentors and the students gets better. They are doing things that, at least on our team, are unacceptable. I would recommend your mentors read the FIRST documents about mentorship.

http://www.usfirst.org/uploadedFiles...ng%20Guide.pdf

And I counsel caution about a student attempting to confront the adults. Being on the team the same number of years does not even the playing field. Adult mentors and students are not peers, that leads to a different set of problems. Is there a teacher/sponsor on your team? Or is there a head mentor? Perhaps take your concerns to them and ask them to talk to the younger mentors causing you concern?

Does your team have any formal organization? Do the mentors know the roles played by the student officers, the teachers and the mentors? There is some good news in your posting - the mentors care, just maybe a little too much. It should be possible to make everyone aware of their proper role and reset the environment. Apathy or the absence of mentors would be a much worse problem!

Good Luck!
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Unread 02-24-2014, 12:06 PM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

FRC is about giving students the best experience possible. It's clear that one or more problems with team dynamics has diluted the quality of your experience. Other's have suggested ways to address the problems in the team, so I'm going to take a slightly different tack.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Martian86 View Post
We (the students) are capable of most of the design, build, wiring, controls, programming, etc, aspects of the robot; at the very least, we're just as capable as the mentors since many of the parts are specialized for FRC, especially the control system.
If this is actually the case then I'd recommend finding additional mentors or encouraging your mentors to explore the FRC resources in greater depth. For example the source code for much of WPILib is available for perusal and an experienced software engineer can get a much better understanding of the overall control system by reading that source code.
However it is probable that your technical mentors actually are more capable and substantially more experienced than the students at designing and troubleshooting technical systems. As humans we have inherent cognitive biases like the Dunning-Kruger effect that can mask real ability to other team members.
So as other posters have already pointed out it looks as if the problems are more social and/or cultural than technical.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Martian86 View Post
3. At another point, two mentors were arguing over something in the design (specifics aren't important) and leaving students out of the discussion completely. I ended up telling them, in the most respectful way I could, that they needed to explain to the students what they were discussing and then take a break from the robot for a couple of hours. I'll admit this must have been entertaining to watch, a 17 year old girl telling two grown men to go on a time out, but it should not have been necessary.
This point reminded me of a cultural difference I've noticed in FRC around the role of constructive conflict. This can be between students and mentors or between engineering and faculty mentors.

In a High School context most problems are artificially designed, bounded, relatively easy and have known solutions. Furthermore social order is a critical priority, it's necessary to maintain a power gradient between faculty & students, group consensus is prized and conflict is almost always treated as something to be avoided.
However in the real world of STEM, problems are usually hand, unbounded and have no packaged solution. Ideas and possible solutions have to be discussed and good solutions often arise from combining ideas. It's usually necessary to talk through the potential weaknesses of a proposal to identify improvements. In other words well managed conflict is absolutely critical for success.
It may seem unusual and possibly shocking to see "two grown men" "arguing over something in the design" but you might be seeing a very important part of the creative process in action.

For anyone interested in this topic I'd recommend the research from Charlan Nemeth of Berkeley on the importance of conflict in creativity.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 12:21 PM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

Laura,
Feel free to use whatever if it helps. Learn something new every day is very important.
I agree with your respect viewpoint but I take it a little further. Everyone gets/should receive a certain amount of respect when you first meet. It is up to them, however, to add to that measure or to subtract from it. If you show me and others the same respect, add to someone's knowledge, help them become successful, you continue to add to that respect. There is no high limit, you can continue to gain my respect indefinitely. However, do something to take away from that respect, treat someone badly, without respect, or do something malicious or ungracious and you take away from your respect pool. There is a limit here as you can only lose so much before there is nothing left. I think I can count on one hand the number of people who achieved this in my memory.
There are a few individuals that this process does not apply fully. Certain people deserve our respect regardless of your opinion of the job they are doing. One of those is the President of the US (or the leader of your home country). While you may not like his/her policies or have some other personal issue, you should not lose respect for the office. Whether I agree with his politics or not, he/she is my president and that means he/she deserves my respect. In the US, that person is sworn to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States". That is a pretty big job and often entails sending citizens into the fray. For that, the office has my highest respect. Do not read this as a political statement about the current President, this is a general statement about the office.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 12:34 PM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

Al, I could not agree more... wait I said that last time didn't I. So I guess I underestimated the amount I could agree. That was so well said. +1 to my respect for you. Learning more again. Thanks.
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Unread 02-24-2014, 12:45 PM
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Re: Problems with overbearing mentors

I would strongly recommend something my team did a number of years ago - the "No Mentor" line. Let me explain...

As a team, we had come a long way, and it was the first time we had a significant number of students on the team who had been there for 2-3 years. The captains approached us and told us how much they appreciated everything we had taught them over the past few years. They went on to tell us that they felt it was important they take the next step at competition this year - they knew everything there was to know about the robot, and were confident they could keep it running without us. So, they were implementing a new rule called the "No Mentor" line, with the line being the tape outline of our pit. They didn't want mentors in the pit during the competition so they could prove to themselves and everyone else that they had what it took to do this themselves. They still wanted us at the competition, and they were clear that the line could be broken IF they specifically invited us across to help with a problem. We were to be their safety net - something there if they needed, but hopefully something never actually used.

Due to that decision they made, myself and another mentor started volunteering at the regionals as inspectors, but I digress.

Try a similar approach to show everyone that you guys have what it takes. The key really is all in how you present it - you aren't implementing the "no mentor" line because the mentors have gotten overbearing. You're implementing it because they've done such a good job teaching you everything you need to know that you want to prove your capabilities to yourselves, to them, and to the rest of FIRST.

Hopefully that gets you through the rest of this season... looking forward though, you need to come up with a document to govern your team. That doc should clearly define the roles for mentors and students. Make it clear in the document that the team captain (or captains) is in charge, and pick a strong captain for next year that will work with the mentors to better define the roles each should have in the design and build process.

I know with my team we (mentors) try to provide as many options as we can so the students can make an informed decision. It's difficult not to attempt to steer them towards my preferred option, but I mostly get around that by playing devil's advocate - Basically, I try to take the opposite position for any design decision up until that decision has been made. This year, that was mostly revolving around our method for pulling down the catapult - I think we had 8 options listed on the board, and it was a very difficult choice for the team to make. but given the process we went through, I'm confident that the students involved know exactly how each method would work, they understand the pro's and con's of each, and can clearly articulate why they made the decision they did. And really, that's the whole point of the exercise
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