FAHA: No Mentors

Mentor support on teams is an invaluable resource. Some teams strive for mentors but don’t have many. What advice can you offer this FIRST-A-HOLIC?


There have been a number of posts in the FAHA Mailbox on mentors or parents who have been too aggressive in helping teams to the point that the students' efforts are often marginalized. But, what advice do you have to give to teams who suffer problems on the opposite end of the spectrum: those who have little help from mentors, or no mentors at all?

For some background on my team's particular situation: we are one of those teams without mentors at all. We may occasionally get some parent help, but never related to engineering. For the vast majority of the time, our students work alone without adults around. For us, the downsides have been made clear: our room is often messy, and we struggle every day to get dinner and drive out to Home Depot/OSH to buy things with our own money. On the other hand, we have actually been maintaining ourselves fairly well. We are proud of the robot we have built this year, and think it will be competitive. We have strong relationships with a number of sponsors, and have, by ourselves, fundraised a comfortable budget. No one has been seriously hurt through working with metal, power tools, electronics, etc, and we have first aid ready in our room. The older members of the team have, year after year, organized numerous events to train younger members and pass down knowledge.

Our team has not always been like this: there was a time in our history when there were many parents helping out the team, but they have since graduated away with their students. My fear is that the younger members of our team, who have only ever experienced our team without mentors, will come to see that as tradition, or something to be proud of.

We have tried hard to fix the situation. We had written a letter to be distributed in our school's newsletter. We had a parent meeting before the season started, where we asked them all if any were interested in mentoring or helping us out. We collected all their contact information, and sent out more than one email asking for parents interested in being mentors, or if any of those parents knew someone else interested in being a mentor. We had asked many faculty members at our school, as well, and they had all rejected the offer (usually because they were too busy).

We are out of ideas. Does anyone out there have any suggestions for our team, or for the other teams out there who face similar problems?

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Here are some potential sources for mentors that we’ve exploited.

– Retirees: Advertise for mentors and present at community centers and other local retiree organizations. I’ve found mentors when we were out shoveling snow off of elderly people’s driveways, such as, retired machinists who worked out of their basement or garage.

– Regional Director’s are often aware of local corporations that encourage employee mentoring and have pools of potential mentors. Your Director can put you in touch with the right people to talk to.

– Sponsors, parents, family members, neighbors can get notices requesting mentors into their company newsletters, and get you contacts to do a presentation in the company cafeteria at lunchtime.

– Advertise for general expertise rather than emphasizing robotics. Engineers will be experts in many fields not necessarily touching on robotics, but directly applicable none-the-less.

– Recruit the non-engineers from your pool of parents to plan and execute your mentor searches. Locating mentors can be a full time job and always being open to track down leads is hard if you’re in the middle of build and competition season.

Holding on to mentors once you locate potential ones is also important:

  • Make them feel very welcome, have people waiting to guide them through your school to the robotic meeting room.
  • Be busy with them while they are at your meeting, don’t have them come and stand around with nothing to help with.
  • Let them know what the game is all about, educate them on the FIRST design limitations.
  • Have a good idea of their expertise and prepare lots questions that make them feel comfortably in their “zone.”
  • Follow up with a thank you letter and emails keeping them up-to-date on progress. Ask questions in their area of expertise.

NEMO has a paper on Recruiting and Retaining Mentors at: http://www.firstnemo.org/PDF/recruiting_and_retaining_mentors.pdf

We had a parent meeting before the season started, where we asked them all if any were interested in mentoring or helping us out. We collected all their contact information, and sent out more than one email asking for parents interested in being mentors, or if any of those parents knew someone else interested in being a mentor.

Try being a little more aggressive in urging parents to be active. It sounds like you were saying something like “If anyone wants to help, let us know.” Instead, how about saying it with some specific focus? “We need assistance with wiring/soldering/crimping/etc. and with guiding students in that area.” Put the emphasis on the team wanting help instead of merely being willing to accept help.

Contact local colleges. That is where nearly every team I know of gets many of their mentors. Engineering majors there will probably be glad to help out.

However, this quote makes it sound as though you are, as teams in this situation go, doing very well

The older members of the team have, year after year, organized numerous events to train younger members and pass down knowledge.

One of the spotlighted quotes on chiefdelphi is “your second year in FIRST is your first year as a mentor.” It sounds like these members are following this very well. Alumni of FIRST can often be the best mentors. If all else fails, request departing seniors who plan on remaining close to your school to come back and mentor for another year or two. I know of teams who have won regionals, chairman’s award, etc, with only students and former students on the team.

Best of luck with your team!

Your FIRST Senior Mentor (if you have one in your area) should be able to help recruit mentors for your team.

If there are other FIRST teams in your area with several mentors, contact those teams to find out from where their mentors came. Engineers sometimes have extensive networks and these mentors might just know somebody who would want to help your team.

I think David and Kathie both have excellent recommendations! I know that if a team contacted our mentors for help, we would do several things. We would first share our resources to take care of some immediate engineering needs. Then we would help the team identify some other engineering or technical resources for finding mentors and give them the support to recruit the mentors.

Good luck!

If there is a team nearby, talk to them, and see if you can’t “borrow” a few mentors to get the ball rolling

For some background on my team’s particular situation: we are one of those teams without mentors at all. We may occasionally get some parent help, but never related to engineering. For the vast majority of the time, our students work alone without adults around. For us, the downsides have been made clear: our room is often messy, and we struggle every day to get dinner and drive out to Home Depot/OSH to buy things with our own money. On the other hand, we have actually been maintaining ourselves fairly well. We are proud of the robot we have built this year, and think it will be competitive. We have strong relationships with a number of sponsors, and have, by ourselves, fundraised a comfortable budget. No one has been seriously hurt through working with metal, power tools, electronics, etc, and we have first aid ready in our room. The older members of the team have, year after year, organized numerous events to train younger members and pass down knowledge.

We have tried hard to fix the situation. We had written a letter to be distributed in our school’s newsletter. We had a parent meeting before the season started, where we asked them all if any were interested in mentoring or helping us out. We collected all their contact information, and sent out more than one email asking for parents interested in being mentors, or if any of those parents knew someone else interested in being a mentor. We had asked many faculty members at our school, as well, and they had all rejected the offer (usually because they were too busy).

We absolutely could never survive without the parent involvement we have on our team. They have helped us with both engineering and non-engineering mentorship roles, and their contributions have been invaluable. The only downside is that they (usually) tend to “graduate” from the team when their children graduate, and so are not available as long-term participants. If you focus on parents as mentoring resources, you may face the same issue. You may get help from a parent for an average of two years. But during that time, you will have to be constantly recruiting to get new parent/mentors involved to take the place of those currently on the team that will be leaving as their children/students graduate.

Instead (or in addition) you might want to go after some corporate/professional mentors that might be able to make a longer-term commitment. You mentioned that you have strong relationships with a number of sponsors. Start there. Make sure they are fully informed about your successes from each season, and honestly show your appreciation for their support and assistance. Then use that discussion as an opportunity to ask if they want to get even more involved with your team - by having some of their employees participate as mentors. Frequently, the best results occur when you find one young, energetic engineer at the company who has some time to spare (but may not know it yet :slight_smile: ), and can pitch in. Invite them to one of your meetings. Make it an opportunity to both show off what you have done with their sponsorship, and also let them know about what more you would be able to do with some longer-term mentorship support. Even better, invite a few representatives from your sponsors to one of your competition events. Give them a guided tour around the pits so they can see what you have already done as a team. But at the same time, subtly point out some of the other teams with direct mentoring help, and mention how that is one area where your team still needs some assistance.

-dave

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It might help to create job descriptions for the areas needing mentorship to help people who have no robotics experience identify with your team’s needs. For example, one non-engineering position might be: “Event Manager: organize team fund-raising activities; plan and oversee travel and shipping logistics [etc.]”. For technical mentor positions, you might minimize the use of the word “robotics” (which could scare off some talented technical people) and instead talk about more general skills such as “motion control”, “operator interfaces” and “embedded controllers”.

You might start mentor recruiting with this task - recruit a parent to be your “HR” mentor who would be in charge of putting these job descriptions together and getting them out to the rest of the parents and your sponsors. Don’t forget to follow up with phone calls - many professionals inboxes get swamped with requests and email is becoming less and less effective for cold contacts.

As a “thirteen year parent” I think you should try to rerecruit some of the parents that have helped in the past. Often times, good people just need to be asked. If you invite them for a alumni night and get them to start talking about the good times, you might find more than one of them willing to help and they may just bring a few others in with them. If they helped once they may have talked up the program with friends, relatives and coworkers who might be interested but have no high school age children. Look also to the FLL parents and mentors in your area. If you can get them when their children are young, they might be will to stay around. You should find every chance to show off the robot in public and try to publicly recruit professionals who might see the robot. Finally, if I can help from afar, I am as close as a PM or email and on occassion a phone call. I have lot’s of ideas and at least some of them are good.

The Regional Director is a very good person to check with. I moved halfway across the country last year, and the Regional Director here was able to connect me with a “local” (only a 45 minute drive) team that was in need of assistance. For people that are looking to get involved with a team and don’t know who to contact, the Regional Director is the contact listed on the FIRST web site, so they very well may have a list of people looking for teams.

I agree 100%, many engineering majors have access to facilities and resources that professional engineers wish they had. While college students may not have as much experience as older engineers it is not uncommon to find college students with 4-7 years of FIRST experience.

Even if a school has a team already there are usually enough mentors to go around, often teams get too many college mentors (1493 had 27 college students working with them in some capacity).

One other benefit to college students is that even if you only can get a software engineer I’d be willing to bet that there is at least one MechE and one EE that he/she talks to on a regular basis, you’d be surprised how many solutions to engineering problems come up in discussion in a dining hall.