Engaging a HUGE influx of new members

I know “how to engage new members” has been discussed in the past, but we’re in an unusual situation this year and I suspect many other teams may be in the same boat. We are having incredibly successful recruitment this year - new members significantly outnumber returners - and we’re struggling to figure out what to do with them.

We’re normally a team that hovers around 25 members, with maybe 15-20 present at any given meeting. This year we have 17 returners who were around before COVID, and 8 who have only experienced a virtual season (basically newbies in many regards). We started meeting in late August, and picked up 15 new members. Challenging, but exciting! We put them into five Fall Project groups (each group builds an FTC-sized robot, for a mini-tournament in December). The projects were going a little slowly since the new members had so much to learn, and the groups were on the larger size of what we prefer, but generally things were moving along well enough, and the new members seemed pretty engaged and excited.

Then last week the school held Club Rush, and we got 33 sign-ups! 44 people came to our meeting yesterday, and that was even with a handful of returners absent! Even if only half the sign-ups actually join the team, we don’t know what to do with them. Put them into the existing fall project teams and have 15+ people working on each FTC bot? Make an additional team (who will be a month behind everyone else), and either shuffle the existing teams around or have a full team of newbies? Come up with some different project for some of them to do? Any way you slice it, the fundamental problem is that we only have 17 returning members (maybe 13-14 per meeting) and 3 mentors (only one of whom can be at the after-school meetings). Basically we’re heavily outnumbered, and anyone who needs a bit of attention, guidance, or training has to be extremely patient.

I’ve looked through old threads, but most of them are asking about what kinds of activities are engaging and/or how to weed out people who are on their phones, just there to pad their resumes, etc. I don’t think either of those is our problem - all our new members seem genuinely enthusiastic, we’re just struggling to keep our heads above water with teaching and organizing them. I suppose if we fail to engage them they’ll quit the team and the problem will solve itself, but that would be a pretty disappointing resolution (same if we increase requirements, start charging fees, etc to “weed people out”). We’d love to have a team this size in the long run, but we’re struggling with the veteran:rookie ratio. I’ve seen a handful of people mention in other threads that they’re also having banner years for recruitment - any advice on how to manage it?

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A good problem to have. But, a problem nonetheless.

Do you have any increase in mentor ranks?

Are there entirely new areas that your team has not had the staff to take on in the past? We are a team of about the same size and while our current balance is not too skewed we will have maybe 7 or 8 people with build season experience and twenty plus who are new. It has given us a chance to try having a dedicated video team. And the luxury of two good spokespeople. And starting t shirt and graphics work now instead of rushing to get things delivered a week pre tournament.
We’ve also split build into CAD, prototyping and fabrication. So far we are not fully spun up on any of them but it is a start.
We would be sending dedicated a outreach/presentation teams out but the current circumstances make that difficult. Still ,a target.
See also a dedicated review of awards, make sure you get a shot at anything you might have earned.
Time to design/fab a new pit? A new cart? In our case both are needed.
Sounds like it is time to put the brakes on recruiting, not that you, or we, would ever turn away someone who shows up ready to work.

Consider giving small teams of students presentation topics to introduce various parts of FIRST. Try to make it a fun mix: event experience, scouting, season overview, etc. But also mix in time management, different aspects of what goes on in build season (and the importance of preparation ahead of time), etc. If assigning presentations seem onerous, consider assigning research in these areas to sets of individual and having someone more experienced lead a discussion. Have an outline of what you want to come up in these discussions ahead of time.

The idea is to expose students to the major pieces and how they fit together. Plus, it introduces online sources and resources in these areas. But mainly, it should help to build excitement, perhaps helping some students to figure out where they want to be involved (or that they may not), and kind of lay some kind of groundwork for deeper engagement. For sure include videos of matches, other parts of an event, button collections, etc. But, also emphasize work and teamwork, and that dedication will lead to getting more out of things, and possibly more opportunities to contribute. It may also help to start building a team.

Can you turn students away? As off-putting as it may be, being able to focus your attention to the number of students you can reasonably handle may lead to a better trained, more cohesive team.

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While an unpopular opinion, these were my thoughts as well while reading OP’s predicament. I would also say it would probably be very beneficial for you to refocus your efforts on recruiting students, and focus your time on recruiting skilled/valuable mentors instead. Even if only those 44-45 students show up each meeting (ie, not all 60 you have signed up), that’s still 15 students per mentor. On my team, and those I’ve worked with in the past, we keep that ratio at most to 10 students per mentor; And even that is pushing what I would feel comfortable with in a normal situation.

Suggestions above regarding diversifying the team are good suggestions too (look into a dedicated media and/or awards team, pit design, outreach team, chairman’s team etc.). Again, however, only having 3 mentors makes diversifying rather difficult. Typically I would expect each of those sub teams to have a dedicated mentor to run it. Maybe at most having 2 sub teams on different nights run by a single mentor. But then you need to take into consideration whether you are asking too much from your mentors…

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Exciting problem to have. I’d have the same attitude as you of wanting to figure out how to make the big team work. Any way you slice it though, it’s probably going to require at least in the short term increased time & effort by your small mentor group to adjust your team structure to the increased student demand.

Here is what I would do in your position:

  • If you haven’t already, engage the new parents, explain that they’re part of the team too and a critical component. Give them some example ‘go execute’ type of tasks that they can help the students with if they come for at least part of the day–to-day (things that wouldn’t require any institutional FIRST knowledge). This is good for both expanding your mentor base for the future, potential sponsorships from the companies they work for, etc.
  • Current mentor group needs to get together to figure out things for the new students to do, and who’s the lead on each thing so nobody feels confused and gets disengaged. Somebody with some level of experience needs to lead (ideally your 17 current students), but could also be a new mentor if no institutional knowledge is required. This could be expanding/adapting your current projects. Ideally I’d be having a new mentor paired to back up each of of your current-student leads as they figured out the leadership of their projects.
  • If possible, at least for the short term, adjust the meeting times to accommodate the 3 existing mentors and/or the best managers of your 17 existing students because until others gain more experience, they’ll be corralling the action during the meetings and providing support to your various team/project leads. It doesn’t need to stay this way forever, but in the short term these people need to be available to make the system work.
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Doing some of your training virtually can help manage the large groups. We have moved a lot of introductions of concepts and programming to discord sessions that are much easier to scale, and then use small group in person sessions to introduce hands on concepts.

Do you currently have any students which specialize in any specific machines or processes? The beauty of added humans can be specializing in specific tasks and doing them incredibly well. You can also have more student project managers which is super useful in ensuring tasks are completed.

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I second the fact this is a fun problem:

Keeping is brief since I don’t have much time: More people means you have to dedicate more time finding things for people to do. You have to become a leader. Important to note you have to be a leader, not a manager.

As a leader, your job is not to be in charge, but take care of people in your charge. You are no longer doing the work, but rather finding ways to best help other people do the work you once did. Simon Sinek talks a lot about this in his videos.

Goal Setting
It’s important to have clearly defined goals for the team. Goals provide a common purpose, resolve conflicts, and help new students understand the purpose of what you are trying to achieve. Make sure the goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based. Here is a really good talk by @Michael_Corsetto about the topic.

Work Flow
I’m a huge fan of Agile. If you want to know more about Agile Development, take a look at this book by Robert C. Martin.

We also use a kanban board to manage tasks. Here is the one we have for programming:

Notice how there are 5 columns, Backlog, Todo, Doing, Review, Done.

Developers (Programming, CAD, really anyone making new things) are in charge of the center 3, Todo, Doing, and Review. They have 3 goals.

  1. Move cards to the right (in an Honest fashion)
  2. Keep WIP items low (don’t let any column get too full)
  3. Get an experience member if something is blocking them

Experienced members are in charge of reviewing work once in the review column, and moving priority items from backlog to Todo. This way you always have someone checking work and there is always work to be done. This allows more autonomy of your developers.

Review
Huge fan of ending each day with a debrief session. Groups of 4-5 get together with one leader. Each person, including the leader, answers the following questions:

  1. What went well for you?
  2. What can you do better next time?
  3. What did I learn?

The first question allows us to celebrate everyone’s successes and encourage them to continue to happen. The second question asks us to reflect on what we can do better, but in a way that is both positive and sets us up to try to find the solution ourselves. The third is just a bonus one I like to add.

The leader’s job is to help moderate the questions to make sure they are most effective. The answer “I could have understood better” doesn’t state what that person could do to achieve that goal, so the leader should try to coax it out of them. If someone can’t think of something, they can be skipped, but still must eventually answer; We should always strive for perfection, but if we think we’ve reached it, something has gone terrible wrong.


Wow, that was the short version. I really am becoming a graduate student, aren’t I.

I’m sure there will be questions, please ask them if you have any. Feel free to challenge me on things you disagree with. I’m down to debate.

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^^ This. Most of the FRC mentors I have spoken to were recruited as parents of team members, or are alumni. And don’t take “But I don’t know anything about robots” for an answer - most FRC mentors didn’t when they started, and many still don’t. Every adult* has skills that are required by an FRC team, whether it’s robot-related, business/communications-related, or keeping-the-team-fed-and-transported-and-housed (most likely a combination).

* OK, maybe not every adult, but I haven’t spoken at length with a robotics parent and not found something they had to offer, if they’d been willing and able to give the time.

We’re having the exact same problem (a good problem to have lol). Just last night we had over 30 new interested students show up to our welcome meeting. Maybe it was because of the donuts, but they all seemed very enthusiastic as well. Luckily we haven’t begun any projects just yet so we haven’t run into the severity of your problem quite yet.

Since your situation is a kinda tricky one, I’ll do my best to try and brainstorm some ideas.
Perhaps you could start guiding people into subteams (mechanical, electrical, etc.) and create different projects within each subteam. That may sound complicated and like a lot of work, but keep it simple. One year mechanical build a whiffle ball rocket while electrical kids were being taught electrical things (you can probably tell I’m biased to mechanical lol). If you begin new projects in addition to the small robots, just be honest with the team. Tell them the situation you are in and be honest in saying not everyone will be working on the small robots. There are other ways to hook in late-joining members. Another thing you could do is have new members help out BOP with fundraising and social events. Organizing things like that is good practice and helps people feel involved with the team even if they aren’t directly involved with robots yet.
Also, look around for pre-season special events. There are a lot of fun, free unofficial FRC events where we are. I’m sure there might be some near you guys. Go to them and bring the new kids!

Hope this helps!

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Our team has struggled in the past with fall engagement and very last minute training efforts through projects that never get completed. Joining a robotics team to hear that you have to wait until January to build the robot isn’t very enthusiastic. Projects were very disconnected and harder to get new kids involved with other than watching veterans explain concepts and designs all night. We are also seeing a large influx of new members combined with fewer mentors and a team of returning students that mostly have not seen a full FRC season.

To address engagement and provide a meaningful training experience, we are building two Everybots this fall. We hope this gives every new student the opportunity to get hands on quickly by building up core shop skills & robot knowledge to be successful members. Its also a good experience for our returning students to manage and teach incoming students through this process so their skills are built up as well so manage whole robots coming together. As a veteran, we are finding the cost minimal as we have most supplies on hand and the build documentation is extremely helpful for the step by step build. Thanks 118!

We are adding a few twists to build up some CAD skills like redesigning and using our router for any gussets & flat parts and adding some extra sensors so its more of an Everybot on Steroids. Doing what we can to provide additional learning opportunities for new and returning students.

Our initial plan was to build one Everybot. However our signups were larger that we anticipated. Scaling this project up to two machines was fairly easy and the extra expenses to double up on a few items is minimal when our highest priority is engagement.

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We have lived through this problem, and the only way we found to solve it is to Plan Ahead and limit Team membership. It sounds harsh, but we have lived through the “come one come all!” and it Did Not Work. We used to roster 100+ kids every year (darn near 200 one year - never again). No attendance requirements. It was EXHAUSTING and yielded very few good, well-trained members.

We are NEVER doing that again.

So this year - we have 3 Coaches (for sure), 1 new Mentor, and 2 possible new mentors coming onboard. We limited the Team to 80 kids (Scouts BSA tries for a “10 scouts to 1 adult” ratio, so 80-to-3 is REALLLY pushing it).

Applications were required to join (and re-join for returning members), and we had to turn away almost 40 kids (it was awful, and painful, and I lost sleep). But there’s a limit to what we could handle (and fire code, and legal limits to how many kids in a machine shop).

We have attendance requirements - we make that VERY clear up front. Nothing worse than killing everyone to train new members who flake out. We will remove students for non-attendance.

Our Team is broken into Departments (Mech, Controls, Strategy, Business, Marketing) with Dept. Heads. Each department has a formal Fall training curriculum - Veterans teaching the new kids.

New members MUST choose 1 and only 1 department for their first year (otherwise it is chaos). After your first season, you can branch out.

Not everyone is in the workshop at the same time - some groups can handle more virtual, or move to another room on campus (strategy, business, marketing) while Mech and Controls (by far the largest departments) tend to take over the workshop. Machine tools, cad, pneumatics, programming, vision systems…

Other projects include a pre-bot in the works, modifications to last years robot for 2 off-season events, and an online training for much younger kids (outreach-ish).

are you an FTC team?
Do you have a workshop?
Can you teach more than how to build an FTC bot?

All of the previous advice - recruit more mentors especially - is good advice.
My additional advice:

  • set some requirements to remain on the team. Attendance, hours, whatever.
  • divide and conquer - you can’t teach everything to everyone. Force SOME specialization, break into groups, train from there.
  • Find online or “canned” training to take some of the load off

And Good luck!! There are much worse problems, but this one will be a challenge in the near term.

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Thanks everyone for your responses! There are some great ideas in here, and after thinking about this thread and talking to our captains this weekend I think we’ve got the beginnings of a plan:

  • We were already planning to be done with student recruiting by this point, Club Rush was our last event
  • We came up with a handful of “side projects” (separate from our five Fall Project robot teams) to engage some of the newest members.
  • We have 8 official student leaders (prez, VP, and 6 subteam captains), and we are going to put some of our more reliable non-captain returners in charge of the side projects so that we aren’t just stretching the captains even thinner
  • We typically allow new members to float & try different things in the fall, but I think this year we will require them to choose a subteam and stick with it at least through the end of the semester.
  • We do have team goals that the captains and mentors set over the summer (some overall team goals, some subteam specific). We have not had a meeting to share these goals with the rest of the team, and will do that in the next week or so
  • We do have outreach & attendance requirements, and will do a refresher with the new members next week to make sure those expectations are clear

A couple follow up questions:

  • Any advice on convincing parents to mentor? In the past 5 years we’ve only gotten one parent mentor on board. We did our parent meeting last week and so far no one is biting. We did emphasize that no robotics experience is needed and we would love to have non-technical mentors as well, and gave examples of the types of things they could help with. We used to have more than three mentors, but have lost several recently (moved away, life circumstances changed, etc) and I’m not sure how we’re going to replace them
  • Any advice on communicating the spring time commitment to new recruits? It’s easy to say “during build season we meet 24 hours per week” (and we do, often), but it usually seems to not really sink in until build season starts. If there are kids who aren’t up for it, I’d rather we all find out now than have a bunch of melt at the end of Week 1.
  • Any recommendations for simple project management apps/tools? Normally each subteam captain manages their own tasks with mentors frequently checking in to ask how it’s going, but now that we’re hoping to start a handful of side projects lead by non-captains I feel like holding it in our minds/Slack messages is not going to cut it anymore. Not looking for anything complicated, just somewhere I can put in tasks, assign owners and due dates, and the kids can log in at the beginning of the meeting to see what needs doing & check things off as they’re completed

Don’t just put a general request out there - recruit. Try to engage individually with as many parents as you can to learn their jobs and hobbies and other experiences, and ask. Asking five people individually usually yields more volunteers than asking a room full of fifty.

Start strong. I noticed that the more the team met during the fall, the earlier and smaller the attrition between recruiting and the end of the season. It’s a lot easier to go from 10 or 12 to 24 hours a week than from 6.

Not as far as what the tool should be (I usually roll my own GANNT charts in excel), but publishing the chart isn’t enough. You also need to generate punch lists for each session (or at least each week) with the currently active tasks, their due date, and something to indicate whether you’re on track, ahead (!) or behind, and by how much. I’ve never used kanban, but it’s a similar idea - keep most individuals focused on as few things as possible, not rambling over many.

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This is a constant struggle, and we’re always looking for new ideas to engage parents too! It’s a struggle since parents are also wary of the time commitment (and it’s a valid concern) while balancing work/other kids and activities/elder care/other responsibilities/etc etc etc. Have you been blunt about the team’s recent loss of mentors and that this is a dire need? It often takes several times hearing that message before someone jumps in. Repeat it often. We have a (mostly) weekly email that goes out to all team members/mentors/parents that gives a summary of what’s going on, plans for the week, and where help is needed. We had a request for bookkeeping help in there 4? 5? times before someone raised their hand.

We’ve usually asked parents to register as team mentors with FIRST and do all the YPP/background checks up front (our team also requires that of parents that will chaperone for carpools or overnight travel), which helps break down one barrier.

It’s also usually easier after parents experience a competition and see what the team is accomplishing (not just wins, but just putting a robot on the field and the camaraderie that happens at an event). At that point they’re excited and you can capture that enthusiasm. :slight_smile: If you can individually target parents with specific asks for ways they can help and support the team, even better.

Looking forward to seeing others’ suggestions too!

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You’re not alone in this struggle. The most success we have had - asking for someone to fill a small, VERY specific role. Then you invite them back for a round 2, and slowly suck them in (I believe this is called “bait and switch”?).

Example: We need a person to help us/guide us/show us how to:

  • Plan team travel (local regional, distance event, Champs)
  • Organize a team “wish list” for parent donations
  • Spend on evening teaching students how to… put together a business plan/write a grant/woodworking/ fill in the blank…

Throw a meet-n-greet (if people are allowed in your workshop) to “meet the team”, then while chit-chatting find out what the parents do… work from there.

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