Advice about team environment and finding mentors

Hi CD community. Over the past few years, our team has been growing in size, working on a wider range of projects, and improving performance wise. While this is really great, a number of problems have surfaced and the team is not in a great position right now.

It’s worth noting that we are a very student driven team. We’ve only got a few floating mentors, and while our lead coach is a really nice guy, his guidance tends to be infrequent and generally confusing. The leadership ends up having to figure a lot out as we go, and this isn’t ideal. Back when the team wasn’t as large or didn’t perform as well, this was fine because things couldn’t really go downhill much further. But with an expanding team, more pressure has been put on the leadership to keep everything going.

Inevitably there have been slip ups and bad decisions (notably over committing to too many projects as a team), and this has caused a lot of members to lose trust in the leadership’s ability. A significant number of members spend more time complaining and worrying about team politics, and people are less focused on learning and having fun, whether it be working on the robot, sponsorship grant applications or animations.

Another issue comes with regard to team sustainability. The current juniors and seniors include a lot of very committed members who have helped bring the team’s performance to a point where we are making eliminations frequently. However, we’ve found it hard to train up the underclassmen to the same level, and this is a lot of work for students to do. Again, this wasn’t an issue when the team didn’t do as well. But it’s tough, especially when the only “constant factor” for year to year is really our lead coach; high schoolers are in and out in four years.

To me, both of these issues show that the team just needs some proper guidance to keep it going in the right direction, because in the end we are all just high schoolers. The one difference I and a few other members noticed was our lack of mentors. Admittedly, our lead coach has tried to bring in parents to mentor, but they are in and out in 4 years or less with their students and usually don’t get involved in the administration/leadership part of the team. We’ve noticed that other teams in the area have a core group of committed community mentors who have been with the team or involved in FRC for upwards of 3-4 years. I am guessing that this additional “constant factor” that we are lacking has helped promote steady growth and sustainability across the years on those teams.

So our question is, how do we find this sort of long term community mentorship and alter our team’s model to become sustainable?

Sidenote: Posting this anonymously so I don’t have to worry about dealing with someone taking issue with anything I’ve said. I do hope this has not offended anyone too deeply.

If you’re comfortable with it, send me a PM with your team’s specifics and the situation you’re in now alongside what your goals are (where would you like to be). I work with a couple of Norcal teams and have been in similar situations as the one you’re describing, so I would be happy to help guide the team in the right direction if y’all’re interested.

Two Words: Retired Engineers.

Guys (mostly) with usefull skill sets and (invariably) looking for things to do in retirement. Pitch the message that this sure beats playing golf and building birdhouses.


Yes, recruiting more full time mentors will help, but it’s not a complete solution. To find those mentors, look to near by engineering companies. Talk with your local RD or Senior Mentor, they may be able to help. Ask nearby, successful teams to help you find new mentors - their mentors may know people that can step in, but haven’t asked them yet because there was no need within their own team.

But recruiting mentors that will stick around for many years won’t be a magical solution that fixes all the problems this year. What it sounds like your team needs is a “5-year plan”. Sketch out where you want your team to be 5 years from now and what you want it to look like. Then work backwards to figure out how to get there. Don’t make the goal too ambitious, make it achievable. Then focus on identifying what you need to do now to make it happen. Focus less on projects you want to do and more on the process you want set up for the team. This is something I try to challenge all of my captains to think about - getting the team on track to be someplace better long after they’re gone.

For example, if you’re really worried about training younger students, then figure out what that training should look like in the off-season. How do you go about it? How do you get them ready for the build season? How do you get them engaged and energized? Tackling the complicated, technically advanced projects that your older members want isn’t the way to do it. You have to start smaller, get them doing stuff that is actually achievable at their level. This off-season, my team worked on rebuilding a robot that had some critical parts cannibalized from it. Nothing crazy, nothing that needed complicated design. Just putting some wheels back on, getting the electrical system functioning, reworking stuff that had broken. When that was done, we came up with a “game piece” and had them start prototyping some stuff to interact with it. Again, nothing too complicated - just a wheeled shooter and a conveyor belt. These projects were focused on items that could be achieved by rookies with guidance from older students. Mentors were definitely involved, but the goal is to get that older/younger bonding going so juniors/seniors are working on training their own replacements.

Thanks for the support everyone.

The long term plan is a great idea in addition to looking to improve our mentor situation. If team leadership is able to produce something of decent quality and we have reviewers to help us refine it, that might get some traction. I’ve looked around and noticed other teams have a handbook that describes how the team is set up and how things are supposed to work. Does anyone have any positive experience with something of the like?

As far as finding mentors go, I think another issue is our team just has no experience with being able to take advice and learn from an adult who knows more than them. This student driven mentality has almost created a situation where students don’t know how to accept mentorship and help (this is trend seen when people insist on doing something their way, even if there is a better way suggested by someone else), and this might turn away mentors trying to help out down the road.

I’d be happy to help you out as well. Feel free to send a PM.

This is advice from a teacher who has been involved with FIRST now for our 18th season and one of the founders of our program.
IMO, every team (if school based) should be lead by a teacher.
Ultimately, the lead teacher should be the strongest advocate and overall leader for all aspects of an FRC program, because they are ultimately responsible for what happens with students from a learning and safety perspective.
While our full time mentors are essential to our program successes and teaching students skillsets our school cannot provide, I dont expect them to be fully responsible for team objectives, program management, and ensuring that each team member gets a differentiated learning experience optimal for them.
This approach has allowed our mentors to stay with our program for years because they dont worry about school politics and logistics as much as possible. Instead, the goal is to have a “turn-key” program that allows them to share their expertise without all the noise and distractions that can discourage volunteers to work in a school setting.
While I post a lot of positive things about our program in social media and other local news outlets, I never air out the bad stuff and challenges we face. My greatest asset to the team has been raising funds and maneuvering past all the DOE obstacles in creating a fun, smooth working environment with adequate resources as much as possible.
As part of a rural school, I am now on my 9th principal in 23 years! Sometimes I feel like I’m on Goliath at 6 Flags than a public school.

I suggest finding that lead teacher who is passionate about Robotics/STEM. Without it, its a tough road to maintain a workable FRC environment that involves so much funding, time, and partnerships to make it work. You need all of those things figured out before even thinking about game challenges and what kind of robot to build.

My 2 cents.

-Glenn Lee
Lead teacher and coordinator, Waialua Robotics Program

If you PM me an email address, I’d be happy to share some of my team’s documentation along these lines.

I definitely support this. I’ve been with my team since it started, and I know many outside the team think I’m the lead mentor (or whatever other title you want to give)… But I always try to set them straight - we have two faculty advisors on the team (title from the school), and they are the ones responsible for the team. They manage money, permission forms, travel, and all the other logistics of running the team. I just show up, work with the kids as best I can, and order parts as needed (something technical mentors have always done, given that non-technical mentors can find ordering the right stuff challenging). That school connection, and having someone dedicated to logistics and organization really makes it nicer for the rest of the mentors!

This!! You have to find a school advocate/teacher/coach that is passionate about this program.

This is definitely true, and our lead coach is a teacher. He is most definitely passionate about FRC, but I think he’s just not great at managing the team, especially with how big it has gotten. Is having two faculty coaches a viable option (assuming funding from the school permits)? This might be a good additional step to look into.

I would say that that answer is yes, with a couple of caveats.

  1. Two faculty coaches can work, but they don’t necessarily have to be from the same school–check your school/district rules on that. This has a side benefit of more exposure either sideways (another high school) or to a feeder program (middle school–think FLL/FTC/VEX).
  2. The faculty coaches should be on the same page with respect to administration interface and overall vision for the team, but should probably focus on different aspects of day-to-day team operation. Example, one focuses on shop operations (work done on the robot) and one focuses on logistics (making sure that X is in place Y when needed for reason Z–applies to students, mentors, robot parts, robots…), with either able to reasonably cover for the other.

First of all, my team is fortunate to be able to follow your advice. Our lead mentor (or coach) is a teacher, and we have strong support in school because of that. But not all teams are so fortunate. Having a deep base of mentors is important so the teacher (or one person) is not forced to do everything. In my limited experience I have seen several teams fail because the teacher gets burned out and no other teacher want to take on the work.

It also works if the two faculty are set up so one is in charge and the other helps. Either way, the point is your adult leadership needs to have clearly defined roles and needs to know how to work together. That will then flow down to the students. So long as the roles are defined and there’s a clear leadership hierarchy, having more adults helping with the team is always better!

As the lead teacher of our program, I am also a mentor as well. During several years early on, I was both the lead teacher and build mentor on our team. Getting burnt out was an understatement, but luckily for me I had an understanding wife (still do) and no kids yet at the time.
Our program is so much more successful because the focus shifted on getting specialty volunteer mentors and we have the right mix and depth in the areas that we need.
However, if and when I decide to either leave or retire, the school would be hard pressed to find another person. This isnt because I think I’m the best or that no one else could possibly do it, but because the school would not be willing to allocate any more resources than 1 person to lead our program in such a small school with limited resources.
I think like anything we do in life, the reality is that no matter how much we try to systemize any program, the success is highly dependent on who the leaders are. We have all seen great FRC programs that lose some of their successes because they lose key people or key volunteers…but yet, we will still try and diversify any key area of a program.

Like everything else about the team, a robust mentor corps won’t come together overnight and fully formed. You’ll end up going through many mentors, some of whom will stick and some won’t, so don’t let setbacks discourage you.

(1) It has to be fun for the mentors. Student led is all well and good, but it can’t mean that the adults get stuck with every tedious job, are expected to accommodate every student whim, or get stuck with the fallout when students don’t follow through. It helps if the mentors like each other’s company and have some opportunity for socializing away from the kids. This is not an environment students can create, so you’ll need to get buy-in from your lead mentors.

(2) Parents are not necessarily short termers. Don’t forget that some parents have younger kids, and some parents of middle school students might be interested in getting involved so that their kids have a team available later. And if things are going well enough, they might just get hooked and stick around.

(3) Project-based involvement works for mentors as well as students. Ask a parent or local engineer to lead a workshop, or teach a CAD class, lead a grant writing session, etc. It’s easier to commit to something concrete, and adults like a sense of accomplishment too. Someone who keeps coming back for project after project is a candidate for a more organizational role.

(4) Contact your local engineering society chapters - SWE, ASME, IEEE etc., and local university alumni organizations. Many have service committees.

Good luck.