Factory Built Bots VS. Student Built Bots -Something Has To Change!

This is my 19th year as a FRC Mentor and I love it today just as much as I did way back when. I have been to the National Championship 9 times during this period of time BUT all 9 of the National Championship appearances were due to winning the Chairman’s Award or the Inspiration Award, NEVER because of our robots performance on the field.

My team will never make it to the National Championship qualification is based solely on Wins and Losses.

WHY? Because our team decided that the students will design and build our bot, not the mentors or machinists who work for our team sponsors.

I’m sure you all have seen the robots that I’m talking about. I call them Factory Direct bots. They are gorgeous machines designed and assembled by someone above the high school level.

Truthfully, it’s not fair to compete against these engineered marvels and expect to have a chance at the National Championship.

I would really like to see FIRST comment on this one. It is keeping a vast majority of the kids from living the complete FIRST experience.

I mean, our robot was on the winning alliance at SBPLI #2 this year, and I can tell you that it was student built. Maybe it’s the region you’re in, but our bot and our alliances robots were definitely student built. Not saying they looked bad, but you see that they were built by students.

Saying something like that will get you killed 'round these parts

There have been many threads like this one and has been a topic of discussion for way longer than I have been in the program. Between the fact that FIRST has NOT commented on this and what’s in their mission statement, it seems to me that their view on this is pretty clear.

Last year, due to various reasons, we had one of our lowest quality and worst looking robots ever. At MAR Championship I was sitting in our pit with a couple students and some guy came up to me and said “finally another robot that looks like it was made by the students”. That was a huge blow to me and the kids in the pit, since that seemed like an insult and the opposite of what we were trying to do.

In your opinion, what is ‘the complete FIRST experience’?

Well, short of a time machine (probably mentor built) my team will never make Nationals either.

I know where you are coming from, but there are a few things in your post that I disagree with. FIRST is a program that is meant to teach and inspire students. While your team may have decided that having only students build their robots is the best way to teach them, there are certainly other ways to tackle the program that may be a more effective. Mentor involvement is a spectrum, from completely student run to completely mentor run, and I’m fairly certain that most teams fall somewhere in the middle.

Also, what would you like FIRST to do about it? Make a rule saying “mentors can’t touch the robot” or disallow teams to compete because their robot looks too nice? Many teams with those gorgeous robots have very intelligent and dedicated students who are determined to make the best robot possible. Sure, FIRST is not a level playing field as some teams have more resources than others, but don’t discredit successful teams simply because they are successful. You are making assumptions on who is “mentor built” and that is not fair to the hardworking students on that team.

Lastly, I have to admit when I first joined FRC I believed that, as primarily student run team, there was no feasible way for my team to compete with the powerhouses. That viewpoint quickly changed at the world championship that year, and I realized that those powerhouses are not unbeatable. It is self-defeating and not helpful to resign yourself to failure before matches have even been played. Also, as someone from your region, I feel a little insulted that you are insinuating that all the teams who advance to the world championship are “mentor built”. There are so many wonderful teams in MAR, saying that all of the teams that advance to the world championship don’t have student built bots is just flat out wrong.

I have a question for the OP (and a followup for others as I’m too lazy to go hunting videos right now).

OP: You’ve been around 19 years. That means that for sure you were around when Dave Lavery used to give a speech at Kickoff, usually one about how mentors were important and vital. Do you recall those? Not asking for verbatim, it’s been awhile, but in general.

Others, or OP: Looking for videos of said speeches. I can’t say this’ll be an easy assignment.

I also have some encouragement: You’ll get there eventually. There’s a team out this way who picked up their first on-field qualifier last year–this is a team that’s been around as long as you have been! (And… it was a wildcard; they still haven’t picked up a win, or an RCA for that matter. Had you been in regionals, you’d have quite possibly had one this year yourself.) I notice that your robot performance has picked up in the last 5 years or so; you’ve got a chance yet.

I also wanna add to this. Our team has never won a regional in the 17 years that we’ve been around. And last time we were competeing at champs was about 14 years ago. Not until this year where we not only won the regional, but also won Chairmans and woodie flowers. This is from a progression from 5 years of major team redesign (including major major changes). We went from a no blue banner team to 3 in one regional team. It happens. It just takes time.

Honestly building good robots isn’t hard to do, what does your team do May-December that usually answers why you’re not winning matches and events. Teams release CAD every year reverse engineer it and find ways to be better, also if you’re winning RCA and EI put some of those resources and time into building off season.

I can tell you for a fact that both years 2960 made it to worlds while i was a student, the robot was COMPLETELY student designed and built. Our mentors were there to bounce ideas off of (mostly shutting down our terrible ones) and to assist when student limitations occurred, but that was mainly help with taking ideas and putting them into CAD, when programming needed assistance with something new to them (2017 visiontracking) or helping teach underclassmen basic FRC skills.

As a team we had a completely student drive team, kept mentors out of the pits unless their help was asked for, and definitely ran into our own share of issues because of it. I loved it though and wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I see where you’re coming from and it can be frusturating seeing some of these teams that you know for a fact weren’t designed by students (I definitely know some due to insider information on other teams), and I’m not saying I’m not a part of the issue (when you work with a rookie team you have to teach them a bit on the go), but having a successful team completely student led is a very difficult task to accomplish.

I honestly think the hardest part about a student driven team is that they haven’t learned how to be realistic yet. They will have ideas that look great on paper as a mechanism, but when put into the perspective of a field tend to falter. If this is something that you are looking towards doing/already doing but are having limited success just letting kids run free then there will have to be some method to the student leadership and this is what I would recommend.

  1. Phase in 2ish year shifts. Freshman/Sophomore years will be all about soaking everything in and doing auxiliary work. Cutting metal, scouting, simple CAD, learning code and helping with a basic auto or two, drive practice so they’re ready for when they become upperclassmen. Juniors/Seniors with their experience will be able to lead more of the design, complex CAD parts and assembly, programming, scout captain, and drive team. They’ll be mini-mentors so to speak.

  2. Help define roles to some degree, more hierarchical and less job-defining though. By this I mean make sure you have lets say a Programming Captain, Build Captain, and Design/CAD Leaders, and that everyone know that they can go to them for help or questions. But at the same time make it clear that FIRST is a learning experience, and especially underclassmen should jump around a bit between departments and learn everything they can about the robot.

  3. Let the kids figure it out. Unless you need to intervene, let them go for it, if they need you they’ll ask for you. I’m not saying don’t stay involved, but your role should 100% be support and ideas, let the kids have the final say when it comes to the robot unless it’s EXTREMELY stupid. Then you should probably stop them (tbt linear shooter in 2016 because no one stopped us).

  4. Keep everyone in the loop. Make sure every student knows the robot well enough to talk to a judge, or a the very least they know who to grab for it. Maybe the end of a week or day recap meeting, or just a design overview at important stages, but the hardest thing for students to do is include everyone at every stage.

  5. Even if you’re not working on the bot as a mentor, make sure that you are giving them every opportunity to. Our coach worked tirelessly to make sure we were as well funded as we needed to be, that he or another mentor could be there so that we could work 5 days a week (M W 3-6, T Th 3-8, S 9-2), and that our facilities were up to date with the supplies and tools we needed.

I’m not saying that this is going to give you an Einstein bot, but the sense of pride each kid has after seeing your bot succeed at that level (#FirstTeamToBeat254In2017) is one of a kind.

The excuse that a student designed bot will never make champs isn’t true. It takes a hell of a lot of work on both ends but it is doable, I’ve experienced it as a student firsthand.

This thread again? Really?


In Oakland County, MI there is a wonderful thing called OCCRA that is essentially a fall mini robotics tournament, old school 2v2 style. Jim Zhondag helps set it up and it allows for a TON of teams to get recruitment started early and get newcomers up to date on the basics before the season starts.

For teams that don’t have access to something like that, alternatives are letting underclassmen reprogram and recad last years robot (or parts of it) and testing on an actual robot. Off season is also a great time for sponsor recruitment, if last years bot is still working you can bring that around to show off.

Personally I wouldn’t say take resources away from EI/Chairman’s efforts, but find a way in which you can add to them that will also benefit build.

It’s always gonna come back, you can’t stop what other teams do tho. Just gotta do the best you can with your own and then offer what you can to others.

So… wrote something, read Jason’s post below, and ended up agreeing with him.


Posted something then thought… “Nah. It’s a troll post.” You can’t win Chairman’s with an attitude like that.


@Everyone, we all know that student lead teams can do great things, the data is clearly there and there’s no point in being agitated and fighting OP. Help him by telling him how its done, be GP and spread your success instead of continuing on this beaten horse.

While I don’t hold it against teams that are make “Student Built” robots, I do think many such teams are missing a big part of what FIRST is supposed to be. To quote Dean “The problem we have in this country is not an education problem it’s a culture problem”](https://youtu.be/pl7QkZarRFc). Maybe this is just my perspective, but I feel like teams that keep Mentors completely “hands off” have set their focus more on “education” than on “inspiration”.

My impression has always been that the idea behind having engineering mentors on teams was to have students work collaboratively with them, watch first hand how they apply their skills, and make a cool robot in the process. And sure, you learn things along the way, but the learning is mostly incidental in the process. The key is, by building a robot that’s successful (or at least, plays effectively) you inspire students to WANT to continue learning.

Speaking from personal experience, when I joined my first FRC team in the fall of 2005, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to stick around, however, the team invited me to join them at an off-season competition, not just to watch, but to participate. I ended up being on the drive team at that event and we pulled off a 1st-place finish (the teams first ever). Even though I had not done an hour of work to build that particular robot (having joined in the fall), that experience motivated me to stay in FRC and learn about all the different parts of the robot by working WITH mentors who could show me the correct way to do given task, explain or demonstrate why a particular method is used, and then allow me take over the task once I was comfortable with it.

Obviously different teams take different approaches to this idea; while I personally don’t believe the mythical “100% mentor-built” robot is a real thing, teams do divide up work between students and mentors differently. Some teams may have limited machining capabilities at their build site, but might have a sponsor that offers to fabricate parts for them; should such a team turn down said sponsor, just because the students won’t be cutting the actual parts? What if the students get to see the parts made but just aren’t allowed to do the work themselves (safety, regulations, etc.)? What if the students get to assemble the finished parts when they’re done?
By the same token, some teams might have enough talented students that they’re able to pass knowledge down to the underclassmen without as much mentor involvement, there’s certainly nothing necessarily wrong with this approach either, since the upperclassmen have effectively become the mentors in this scenario, however this is not always possible for every team.

So sure, maybe a fully “Student Built” team gets more hands-on exposure to the robot, and maybe they learn more about the process, but if they get that robot out onto the field and something breaks or doesn’t work, or they designed something too slow or ineffective for a particular game challenge, are those students more or less inspired than the students who, maybe didn’t work on the robot quite as much, but have a much more refined robot that can play the game effectively? The correct solution, like many things, probably falls somewhere in the middle.

That’s all I’ll say for now, hopefully this post was at least coherent (I really shouldn’t be posting long responses on CD at 3am >_> ).

P.S. Interestingly, this subject appears to tie into the discussion regarding COTS robot components, which, one could say, effectively “out-sources” the “mentor-built” elements of the robot. Just a thought

I dunno, I feel like learning in FIRST is a goal, not something that happens out of incidence. I remember wanting to learn everything I could about the robot and getting involved. The cool stuff is cool no doubt but a lot of the draw to it is the experiences you gain even if they’re not directly related to the robot.

For example we have this one kid on our team. He joined because the district has no Business extracurricular, and our head coach told him that he could head up our business department and work on our sponsor relations. He is 100% on the team to learn and gain that experience, and the cool stuff in incidental. Same with another student who wants to learn video editing. Others with programming and building. I think limiting the educational experiences to just be incidental limits FIRST as a whole.

I’m not arguing that mentors should never be a part of build or design, they are an integral part of it. What we are all saying is that their role should be to help students get to where they want to be and that they should help teach them how to be self sufficient in each role. Mentors are great resources and they should be used as such. But their involvement should be educational and helpful. A student who is assisted in building a mechanism will feel much more accomplished and have a much better understanding than a student who assisted building a mechanism.


Slightly off topic, but it’s something that bugs me. Please try and keep in mind that it’s no longer a national championship, but rather a world championship (regardless of which one you got to).

Back on topic, I hear where you’re coming from. When I first started FRC as a student, I remember seeing these amazing machines and being told by others that they were all “mentor built”. Coming from a team that emphasizes student involvement, this was really discouraging and also easy to believe. It really painted a bad picture of certain teams in my head.

However as my time in FRC went on, I kept meeting new people and working with new teams, getting to see/hear how they function. These past couple of years have been a real eye opener for me. I’ve learned that these teams myself and others deem as mentor built, for the most part, just isn’t so. These machines that we see on the field that make our jaws drop, come from both the students and mentors of those teams who spend countless hours (both in and out of build season) honing their skills and techniques. These are teams who instead of us dubbing “mentor built,” are teams that we should be admiring and looking up to. Teams we should be looking towards for inspiration. Instead of pointing at xxxx and telling your students that team xxxx is the reason you’ll never go to the world championship, tell your students how looking to these teams for ideas and inspiration can help you get to worlds. Encourage them to ask questions and make friends with these teams.

The one thing I wish that was different during my time as a student, would be the number of people who informed me that certain teams were “mentor built.” This is something that I am trying to do differently with the students I mentor, and something I hope others try and change too.

It’s getting pretty late here… Hopefully I got my point across in a manner that was somewhat fluid ¯_(ツ)_/¯

If you believe students are incapable of building top-tier, beautiful robots you are holding your students back. Team 1325: Inverse Paradox is a great example. 2056’s first pick and ONT district champ winners as a student built robot. Their mentors teach but do not do.

However, many student led teams are not structured to remain competitive. As a student on my former team, there was minimal mentor involvement. Without professional mentors to learn leadership, communication, and construction skills from it was a struggle to become competitive as a student group. Unfortunately while we learned a lot ourselves, we did not pass our knowledge onto the next group of students. The team is now struggling to field a working robot.

I was also fortunate to spend time with a mentor led team. Working alongside professionals in a competitive atmosphere was a great source of motivation. While some mentors are disinterested in students, this tends not to be the case. Many of the teams you are disparaging hold education sessions year round. Working alongside experienced mentors gives a better education than the system you propose.