FAHA: To motivate or to dissolve?

**Rarely, a team experiences extreme difficulties in the area of motivating their students to participate in building a robot. Eventually, they are faced with a decision as to whether they should dissolve their team or find new ways to motivate their students. What advice could you offer this FIRST-A-HOLIC?
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I am the team lead as well as the corporate sponsor (my company) contact for a local team. I've been doing quite a bit of soul searching in the past two years while watching the quality and intensity disappear from the students.

This year we will lose the last of the kids that have shown any significant interest in doing any work. Most students who bother to show up sit around and do nothing. They will not go onto Chief Delphi to research. They will not experiment. They will not think for themselves. When you push them for solutions they become disruptive.

One could build a complete robot by 'mooching' off of teasers on this site by week 1- I have made it a requirement that everyone has CD accounts- so far, 3 do.

My company puts a significant amount of educational budget into this program. As a 'good corporate citizen' I believe what we're doing is good and just- but now I don't know what to do.

I have two options: 
1) At the conclusion of this year I am going to inform the team that I will not be putting in paperwork to renew the donation for the coming year and that they will have to come up with the money themselves.

2) I slash the budget of the team to just the 'event' money and anything else they have to pay for themselves/solicit donations.

I'm really out of knobs to turn. I feel those that are interested are better off sent to other schools' teams because, frankly, we're doing a disservice to those students interested in engineering.

So how do you shut down a team?

(As of 1/23/09 we don't have a chassis, we don't have a working cRio, we don't have a working ball mechanism, we have no functioning camera, we have NO programming at all completed, the programming team hasn't bothered to read the documentation yet, and maybe only 2 kids have read the rules completely)

**
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First of all,
Kudos to you for support FIRST, and for realizing how many kids the program CAN help.

Coming through FIRST as a high schooler, and now having been a mentor for 4 years I can understand completely what you are going through.

I have always found student motivation to be a function of each individual team.

When I arrived at my current team, student motivation was not nearly like it was on my high school team. Students would do almost exactly what you describe. Come to the meeting just to hang out, not want to build or do anything that involved getting up. It was an unmotivated, almost lazy, atmosphere.

After a while we decided as a group of mentors that we needed to take some action. The action was to try and motivate the students we had by attending more off-season events, doing team activities that did not correlate to robotics necessarily (trips, movies, sports, picnics).

This filtered a lot of kids away from the team…by building a team image, and entity, we did lose some of the kids that were with the team originally. However, we were able to find a few key students that were genuinely interested in the team.

We then had these students find their friends, and their friends friends, and had them bring them to meetings. We held special meeting days designed for bringing your friends and introducing them to the teams.

This change started occurring around 3 years ago…we had a max back then of 5 dedicated students…were now in the range of 25-30 dedicated students.

The process is by no means going to be instant, it takes a lot of hard work, and what seems to be needless effort. The truth being students should WANT to participate in a program that is so beneficial to them, however many of them do not see that value.

If your company can continue to handle the financial investment, I would absolutely recommend staying on board. The rebuilding road is a long and bumpy one, and is one that can also fail from time to time. It takes dedicated mentorship to keep the team afloat, and it takes dedicated students to make it thrive.

Hope it helps,
Brando

First things first. Get over the initial shock that not everyone is gonna love first because it’s not for everyone and the world will continue to spin. The next thing to realize is that you don’t have to keep them. When they signed onto the team it was like an unwritten contract that you would agree to mentor them but they would also agree to do their part. And if they don’t fufill their end of the bargain: all bets are off.
Running a FIRST team is like running a business and you need to ask yourself: if these were your employees would you want to retain them for the work they have done. Once you’ve answered no point them to the nearest door and tell them “Don’t let the door hit ya where the Lord hath split ya”
With the remaining students who wanted to work take into account what resources you have and what you can and what you cannot do and simply your gameplan. Make a robot that does one thing well. If that’s gathering balls or herding them or whatever do so.
But don’t let these kids win and tear down the team. That’s what they want. You cannot let them win.

It might be time to solicit a merger with a nearby team. Perhaps a team that has more dedicated students than yours, but less funding or in need of another mentor.

Neither of your two proposals would seem to do much to motivate the team. Rather it will give them less resources to do what little they are doing now.

You need to look at what you can do to increase the I in FIRST - you know, that little “inspiration” thing. That may involve some deep searching of your own soul and frank discussions with other adults. Sometimes we can’t see how our own behaviors contribute to the malaise of the team.

If you are sure none of this year’s students are much interested in next year’s team, it may be time to move on. Invite them to apply for whatever team you end up with.

Alternatively, you can recruit, recruit, recruit. You have to have at least a couple excited students to lead, but you can start with an almost all rookie-member team. Search within the school and look at FLL and VEX teams in the area for students who may be looking to move up.

Does the school administration and faculty support the team? You make no mention of them which gives me concern.

Best of luck to you. Whatever else, remember the old “lead a horse to water …”

First the robot.
Using the kit chassis and a little extra you can make a pretty nice robot that will compete quite well in about 1 week (seriously). My point here is there is still time.

On to the team.

Sounds like you may have achieved over critical mass on the “its cool to do as little as possible crowd”. If this is the issue, than consider this behavior a cancer that needs to be dealt with accordingly. 4 or 5 years ago we had to do this and haven’t seen a resurrgence since.

Another possible issue could be that your team just has a general lack of understanding. I just started working with a Rookie team that just really needed a spark. With a little work, they are fired up and starting to get things going. They now have a kit chassis going, and a solid design they are working towards. Spirit and involvement are up. (if you think this is the case, PM me and we can discuss some strategies).

Personally if it was me, I would have a heart to heart with the “team leaders”. These would be the most experienced and most dedicated team members. Explain to them the options you told us. Possibly engage a couple of the parents and/or faculty.

I believe sustaining a successful FIRST team requires the support of a school administration, the local community, and a high level of interest from students themselves.

You seem to be missing at least one of these. Because of this, you may very well be spot-on with your idea that your efforts and funds may better serve the world at a different location with a different group of students. I share your opinion that there are probably many students out there absolutely dying for a chance at something like FIRST. If the current ones are not, I’d say put the effort into the ones who are.

I hold the opinion that it is a privilege to participate in FIRST, and not every student deserves the opportunity. A lot of students on FIRST teams have absolutely no idea how good they have it. For many students, participating in FIRST won’t do a darn thing to help their lives, because they simply don’t care. For many others, it will change their lives. I try to focus my effort where I know it can make a difference.

Good luck!

I see this in the spotlights sometimes: “I heard a Lou Holtz quote as an answer to the question of “how do you motivate the unmotivated”. He said " You eliminate those who are not motivated.”" (Credit to Scott Ritchie for putting the quote on the forum)

Now, let’s take a look at this.

  1. You have a bunch of kids sitting around doing nothing. Give them something to do. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll think that that’s cool.

  2. If that fails, remind them of the requirement to have a CD account. Give them a short but reasonable amount of time to fulfill this. If they don’t do it within the given time, they’re out the door.

  3. For the future: make a work requirement to go with the team to competitions. If you don’t work x hours (and an adviser has to note that the students were actually working, even if it’s just on homework that needs doing, or that nothing needed doing), you can’t travel.

  4. For the company funding: Cut it to event money (i.e., 1 event) , starting next year. Make it clear: if you guys won’t work, the company doesn’t have to help you do nothing. Work on the CA, the animation, the robot, anything, but work productively. If they can’t take it, then the team will fold on its own. If they meet that challenge, and beat it, then consider raising the level of support from the company again after a couple of years.

  5. Right now, nothing has been done, or so I gather. Take the parts and put them in front of all the team members. Say something like, “We’ve spent 3 weeks building this. We have three weeks left. Are you going to do something about this?”

These guys don’t need pleading, begging, or something like that. You HAVE to act, firmly. I’ve noticed that if a bunch of people aren’t motivated, or aren’t doing something, punishing the worst ones will often get the result you want.

The following is a message from the original poster.


Since I'm the original poster I thought I could clarify where we are in the process, adding some more info so as to better provide ideas and solicit input.

Thank you all for the additional input. I thought I should clarify some things-
1) This is our 6th year as a team but only our 4th year at this location.  
2) The school has two teachers that support and spend time working with us- one teacher managed to get a robotics class offered. The principal fully support FIRST.
3) There are work requirements- if you're not here, you don't go there.
4) We have at most 12 students active- there are 30 signed up.
5) We do regularly take students into the shop to do things. (For instance) You know those encoders that came with this year's gearbox- the little plastic thingies didn't fit. So we had a mentor pop one in aluminum and had a student cut it out. Mentoring doesn't mean 'standing over you like a parent to make sure you're doing something"
6) We go to 1 event. That's all we've ever been able to afford. The team talks about going to others- and never does any fund raising to get there.
7) My mentors are godsends- all 8 of them. They're dedicated and the come in and they all understand and share my frustrations. I do need more and have had talks about this with our company president and vp's in charge of engineering.
8) There is no team leader. I had a long heart to heart with several students about 'stepping up' to assume the mantle of command and no one has demonstrated it. Perhaps I'll address this tomorrow morning and ask who is the team leader.

Were I to remove every student that isn't motivated I would have 5 students. 5 students does not make a team. As I read your responses and weigh with what I know... then I look at your team sizes... we really do not have the motivation.

Has anyone successfully merged into another team?

**
FIRST-a-holic Anonymous mailbox is a place to share your concern and frustration about your FIRST experience anonymously. It is the perfect place if you just want someone to listen, or ask for advice when you don’t know what to do. Submit your letters today at the FIRST-a-holic anonymous mailbox forum. If you wish to respond to this thread anonymously, please PM Bharat Nain or Beth Sweet with your response and thread title.**

In your first post, it sounds like you effectively want to shut down the team. In my opinion, this isn’t going to do anything useful for the students, although it will make your life slightly less frustrating. Overall, though, there will be no chance for the rewarding experiences FIRST can give to both students and mentors.

It can be really, really hard to be a mentor, or anyone who is very passionate about FIRST, when the people around you just don’t seem that into it. It sounds like you’ve tried as hard as you can to give the students all the resources to discover their potential and the great things FIRST has to offer… but that’s really all you can do. You can’t force them to realize what FIRST is about and learn the life lessons that are out there, they have to discover it for themselves.

As hard as it is to step back for a bit… maybe you should do this. Discuss what is going on with the students… and then let the students have it their way- if they realize week 4 that hey, there’s no robot and the mentors aren’t building it for us, maybe they’ll get the motivation to start brainstorming themselves. If they make it further in the season, such as to ship date, maybe they’ll want to get their act together with the 40 lbs of replacement parts, and a busy Thursday at regionals. I can’t predict exactly what will happen, but at some point they will probably come to the realization that they have to start working themselves, and that will make a bigger difference to them than an entire season of prodding them to be productive might.

I know this could be read as sounding harsh and pessimistic, but it’s really not meant to be. The mentors, who sound great, can still be around for support when the students are ready to start learning. FIRST is a program for students, so it shouldn’t be up to the mentors to build a robot. The students will learn about responsibility if you leave it up to them to keep everything going. If, at the end of the season, no one has expressed any interest in really doing anything, then maybe you do want to let everyone know that you’re not going to renew the sponsorship if no one is interested in being a part of this program anymore.

Hopefully this won’t happen, and you can keep us updated on the progress throughout the season. Good luck with everything!

I know in my heart that students benefit by being on a FIRST team. With that in mind, stopping a team is not an option. In a perfect world, everyone would want to work, would be self starting, interested in research, etc. We are not in a real world so we will need to teach them how work can be fun and rewarding, how they can see what needs to be done and do it, and how valuable research is. Have your students PM me with an electrical question and I will respond. Ask me anything and we will find out together.
All teams have good years and bad years, good students and not so good. We have to live with that. So where to go from here. It sounds like you need a plan. If the students don’t come up with on their own, step in. Ask “What do we need first?” The Boy Scouts say “A failure to plan is a plan to fail”. Sometimes you need to shake things up. Have each student make a statement on why they want to be on the team. What do they hope to get out of it, what do they want to do when they grow up. Anything to get them thinking of something. I know it sounds like I am putting a lot on your shoulders but you are the mentor who is interested in making this work. It might take a little more than you bargained for but I bet you can do it. Have you had strategy sessions, played the game with students as the robots, brainstormed on how to play the game and what other teams might do? How about a little team building, play ball, bowl, go for a walk together? Sometimes assigning responsibility works as well. From an outsider’s point of view, and from the little you have related, it doesn’t seem you are in big trouble just a little bump in the road. If you still don’t have a driving base then that is today’s goal. Get something driving and then everyone gets a chance to drive including the adults. Then get the driving pulling something by tomorrow. Then get ideas for a ball picker or whatever else your strategy has shown you should be doing.
As to fund raising, I would set a second event as a goal for fundraising. If you don’t fundraise you don’t travel to either event. There are students out there that are not yet in high school that are depending on what you do today. Good luck!

I’ve quoted some things that you may wish to work on. If you have 12 active students and 30 signed up, contact the 18 that aren’t active and see if they still want to be on the team. If not, then remove them from the roster.

For the 1 event, talking about others: if the team really wants to go to more than one event, talk to them about taking the initiative. They have to do the work if they want to go, whether it’s sending letters or doing a car wash.

Your mentor situation is actually pretty good. For 12 active students, you really don’t want more than about 4 more than you have. If you get more active students, go ahead and add more mentors.

Finally, the team leader. Definitely do this. I’d say see who the team leader is and officialize them, but if there isn’t one, that’s kind of hard.

Regarding that heart-to-heart, have it with all the students that you can talk to. But, ask them why they are on the team. If they’re there just for the free food (if you have that) or just to hang out, see what they’re interested in and get them working on that. If they’re there just to get another club for their transcript, let them know that if they don’t start doing something, the school will be asked not to put robotics on the transcript due to effective non-participation. That will motivate them to do one of two things: drop by themselves or get to work.

Five students make a very good team if it’s an FTC or Vex team – 10 max, 5 is optimal. I would take 5 committed, enthusiastic students over a dozen half-hearted ones any day.

FTC and Vex teams are very cost effective – about $1500 to start up an FTC team, and less than $1000 to start up a Vex team. If you have extra funds, you can buy extra kits so you have a kit for every 2-3 students. The task is very manageable with small numbers, but if the numbers grow, you can always have multiple teams – I know of schools that have 10 teams of 3-4 students each. But if the numbers fluctuate wildly, you can still have a program – one or two teams in low years, 5-10 teams in popular years.

A couple years ago, I had a Vex team of 5. I asked if they were interested in approaching a nearby FRC team of 6 that had struggled with members the previous year to see if we could join. Their answer was, “No, we’d rather do Vex, because we all get to put our hands on the robots every time. If we join the other team, they might only let us watch.” Since that time, the numbers in our club have doubled. Every time we add ~3 members, we buy another kit ($300-400) so that everyone gets a chance to build. The kits are reusable from year to year, so if we don’t add members, our equipment costs are mainly to replace broken parts. We spend very little in years that we don’t expand or go to the World Championship (about $300/year for administrative/tournament fees and replacement parts).

I’ve watched FRC teams from afar but never been on one, so I don’t know how much of a let-down it would be to move from FRC to a smaller program. But it seems that having an FTC or Vex team would keep robotics alive at the school, which benefits the students, while requiring less money and mentoring. Perhaps with the smaller numbers, a few (but not all) of your mentors could be reassigned to another location without any robotics program at all. I’m sure that another school would be very grateful.

I’m not long-winded like everyone else here (not necessarily a bad thing!) but here’s my 2-cents:

Five students is technically a team. Is it more than one person working together to get a set goal done? Yes. Is it the amount of students that you’d like? Probably not. But it is still a team.
I’m sure most of the people who’ve responded here have large teams because of the advice they’re giving you here. Obviously something worked with their team, so I would jump at the chance to take up their words of wisdom.

I think it was two years ago, at the Buckeye regional, they introduced a team that was so inspirational. You want to know how they got started years before? One really interested student got help from one teacher. That was the team for that season. He learned how to code in LabVIEW, he did most of the machining, he essentially was the team. I don’t remember which number it is, or how many member they have now, but he certainly didn’t give up.

Take the time to think about the positive side-effects of keeping this team around. Just one of those should far out-weigh any number of “advantages” you may find in removing the team.