FRC as a class - topic redux

Similar to the OP of this thread from 2019, our school has decided to introduce a robotics class during the school day. We also have a new coach who will teach the class. I’m interested in advice, including insights from people who run HS robotics classes, & including the folks who said in 2019 they were initiating school robotics classes. (I’m sure COVID messed things up, but how’s it been going? What are the lessons learned?) @coach7318, @rsegrest, @AJohnson342, @Low3arth0rbit, @sanddrag, @sthump, @CRobinson, @SurfGear, @MrKniess

Clear goals of the class:

1. Robotics education using an FRC context, including educating non-team members who take the class. I mention this because I think it affects scope and approach.
2. Pre-build season training time that will help students be more productive during build season. Historically, students have had little pre-build season time (~an hour every other week plus a couple extra meetings as January nears). We’d like to get closer to the model of preparatory learning during pre-build and application of what was learned during build.
3. More time during build season. With the new coach, it’s not clear yet what our weekly schedule will be during build season, but historically the team has had a below-average amount of build time (~9 to 12 hours per week, with weeks off for finals and mid-winter break).

Challenges I anticipate:

  • At our college prep-focused school, many students will only be able to “afford” to take the class once (or twice at most). They will need to spend class timeslots on other classes. To effectively achieve the third goal above, ideally the whole team could take the class every year (or at least 2nd semester once an upper classman), but that seems impossible.
  • As was raised in the 2019 thread, non-team members may (I assume) be able to sign up for the class and may even be a sizeable contingent within the class. So, especially during build season when team members will want to be making progress on the robot, how does that work?
  • Multiple levels or “classes within the class”. Some students will be taking Robotics 1, some Robotics 2 (they already took 1), etc. I suspect there will be only 1 class period, but there will be a need for the teacher to address sub-groups of students who are at different places in their learning journey.

I’m trying to do whatever I can to help the teacher figure out how to set up the class. I’ve found a decent amount of content that can help build a curriculum, but it seems as or more important to figure out the structure/approach relative to those goals/challenges. Any and all advice is welcome. I’ll share it with the coach/teacher. Thanks!

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Back on 696, in 2015 and prior, we spent A LOT of hours after school. With the goal of reducing the number of after school hours, we started doing FRC as a class during the school day back in 2016 and it has continued since. It allowed robotics to start at 1:30 PM every day, or at 12 Noon on minimum days. In reality, it did not reduce the after school hours one bit. If anything, the hours increased as our capabilities and ambitions increased with the earlier start. There also came a point at which the school did not want us staying late, which we still had plenty of need to.

One positive attribute was that since it was a regular class during the school day, it opened up access to more funding for the program. Another positive attribute is that it occupied one of the 5 regular class slots I taught, so I only needed to teach 4 classes in addition to FRC.

In retrospect though, having done it for several years, I probably wouldn’t do it as a regular class again. The seasonal nature of FRC does not lend itself well to a school class schedule. There’s also the burden of attendance and grades. After regionals are over, it’s tough to maintain engagement. Kids are burned out by that point. Honestly, after a full season, I was ready for a break too.

Furthermore, it takes up a class in the students’ schedule, where they might otherwise take an AP class or something which quite frankly, most universities care about more (unfortunately). We missed out on getting a number of great students on the team because they didn’t want to give up the class slot in their schedule.

With it being a regular class during the school day, our regular selective application system kind of faded from existence, as the school was obligated to enroll whoever wanted to join. We got a number of students that attended only for the during-school portion (1:30-3:00) and our after school participation declined drastically. It made it difficult to keep continuity of the project with some students leaving hours before others.

Additionally, our mentors often could not attend until later in the day, or could not attend every day. This put the burden of everything on the teacher (me) for the first several hours of the day.

The team has won two regionals and gone to champs twice since it became a class during the school day, whereas they only did once in the 15 years prior. But, I don’t attribute that at all to it being a class.

So, my advice for teachers out there looking to make FRC a class during the regular school day is, “Be careful what you wish for.” It can be done, and it can be made successful, but it really changes the dynamic of everything. The ideal situation in my mind would be for the FRC lead teacher to have FRC as one of the classes in their normal teaching load schedule, but to have an additional prep period during the school day, and the freedom to schedule and scale the FRC hours whenever/however they want during the day/week/year so long as it meets an equivalent number of total hours to a year long class (about 140 hours in my case). And the students would add it as an additional class on their schedule, not supplanting anything else. That’s really the right way to do this. Unfortunately, doing this costs the school more (an extra class) compared to having it during the normal school day, because those students still have to have a full schedule during the school day. Usually, schools are allocated only so many class sections that they have to divide up between student needs and interests and balance class sizes.

Anyhow, that’s all in my past now, and I’ve since moved on from 696 and from teaching.

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In 2021, our coach/teacher retired. The school attempted to bring in a new teacher that centered the robotics class around Project Lead The Way curriculum. The resulting class became far more rigorous and far less fun. Almost every student in that class jumped ship and we went from a 20+ person team to a 5 person team. On top of that, they changed the timing of the class so that it wasn’t the last class of the day and thus didn’t allow students in the class to naturally stay after school and participate in FRC practice once the mentors came around 4:30pm. And likewise as @sanddrag mentioned, our school also schedule the class at the same time as certain AP’s and forced students to choose. And rightly so, student choose AP classes instead. As a result, we lost any potential members that were on the fence about robotics.

As lead mentor, I worked with 5 incredibly talented and dedicated kids, which I am thankful for. But with such small numbers, sustainability has been a challenge. What I have seen is done correctly, a robotics class serves as a really good recruiting tool for the FRC team. It’s supposed to be an elective. A fairly low key, easy class like Art or Photography class. The class should be designed to inspire, not be your normal science or math class. But really challenge kids to treat the class like real life and drive their own content. Sometimes grading, accountability metrics get in the way and make it a lot less fun and thus a lot less inspiring.

In the end, what I also found was a robotics class done incorrectly serves as a pretty good repellent to the robotics team.

We are on a new teacher this year. I’ve got my fingers crossed. But it’s really hard to hold on by the tips of your fingers with your fingers crossed.

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The other thing to consider is that when you don’t have to do do FRC every day, you’ll want to do FRC every day. When you have to do FRC every day, you will get to a point where you no longer want to do FRC every day.

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Thanks for the responses so far.

Some gleanings & ideas:

  • Make it clear robotics class is optional, to avoid losing students. A student can do robotics for 4 years, including being a leader or captain, without ever taking the class. Of course, being a team leader or captain DOES require significant time investment otherwise, but the class isn’t mandatory.
  • Focus the fall semester on learning that will accrue to Build. “Robotics Engineering” could be a good name for the transcripts. Include units on FRC-specific knowledge, robot design & CAD, engineering essentials, and manufacturing (including training/certification on all the precision tools) seems like plenty. Having more people know all this from the class means the people who don’t take the class will have many others from which to learn.
  • Focus the 2nd semester on Build. “Robotics Applications” maybe. Schedule it the last period of the day if at all possible and to enable some mentors to attend. If cannot limit to robotics team, then come up with an alternative for non-team members (e.g. custom fairy-weight battle bots).

Please keep the advice/insights coming… I believe the community’s experience in this area can be a great help to us & anyone trying to initiate a HS robotics class that helps rather than negatively impacts the team.

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I’m partial to a model which is not FRC-centric but FRC-inclusive. This can be a general engineering class or something more specific like robotics engineering.

Decoupling the team from the class is good for a lot of reasons. Some of these reasons have already been mentioned and. Adding two more:

  1. Some people might be interested in engineering or robotics but not ready to join a team/do it competitively (think: taking an athletics class where they play basketball vs. joining the basketball team)
  2. Presumably, taking robotics means students are electing to take that over another elective course. Hard core FRC kids already have very little time much of the year to explore other interests. Some people are happy doing robots 24/7. Others may want to dabble in different activities – and some might not know what they’re interested in until they have another chance to try.

Decoupling from FRC also allows you to do things that are harder to directly connect to FRC, but are good things to teach/learn. Of course, you can do this regardless, but you’ll enjoy the benefit of not having to answer to “what does this have to do with building a competitive FRC robot?”


As a totally separate point, I would devote some time to things which are not directly engineering but super important for the discipline. Mainly: process and communication.

You could teach an entire class on how to streamline processes. This skill is very career transferable across disciplines. Teaching some serious project management skills will go a long way.

Similarly, communication is extremely transferable. Communication makes or breaks an FRC team – and teams of any kind. Creating some dedicated lessons to effective communication can greatly enhance your team, and the students who join the class more broadly.


One thought to deal with some students wanting to work on the FRC robot and others not during the class period is to split the class between part of the time spent on lessons and part of the time spent on “projects.” For FRC students, the project time during season can be working on the bot. For others, give them some parameters for independent projects based on skills they learned in the class.

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Disclaimer: I have not taught high school or formal FRC/robotics classes. These are simply ideas on how I would approach this based on more than 10 years of mentoring.

My thoughts vary based on the class scheduling possibilities at the school. For my team’s school, they have two types of classes. “Block” classes extend for just one semester (1/2 of the school year) and are roughly 90 minutes per day. “Singleton” classes extend for the entire school year and are roughly 45 minutes per day.

If your school has a “block” class option, one approach to a single robotics class that could be repeated for up to 4 years is simply that it is robotics work time during build season. It would only be offered in the spring. There would not be an attempt to have a formal learning curriculum, since the topics that would challenge a 4th year participant would be far different from the topics that would be appropriate for a 1st year participant. Students contribute according to their ability and work in student groups supported by the teacher just like after-school robotics work. Grades might be based on journaling and a final essay. Repeating the class for 4 years should be compatible with even high-achieving student schedules. The school I work with has a nationally-ranked band. The band students take a band class for each of their 4 years in high school. Many of these students also take six or more AP classes and have their sights on highly selective colleges.

A far different approach that I think would be much more beneficial for the robotics program would be a set of “block” classes in the fall. These would be formal learning classes that are not repeated, but are sequential with some prerequisites. There would be no robotics class in the spring. Build season would be after-school only. However, the skill level of the students should be much higher than if there were no fall robotics classes. Much more should be accomplished in the same amount of after-school hours and the product should be much better. Here are some thoughts off the top of my head on these fall classes.

  • Robotics Fabrication - Materials of construction, shop safety, interpreting drawings, hand tool use, power tool use (non-CNC), fasteners, assembly, wiring, piping/tubing (prereq: none)

  • CAD - ideally not a robotics class, but something that is already offered, maybe as part of Project Lead The Way. If something like this is not available or possible, CAD might have to be introduced as part of the Robotics Fabrication class and the Robotics Elecromechanical Systems class. (prereq: none)

  • Robotics Electromechanical Systems - Basic physics and electrical principles such as force, torque, pressure, voltage/current/resistance, etc. Components such as motors, motor controllers, cylinders, solenoid valves, etc. Systems such as gearboxes and linkages. Introduction to CAM, CNC tools and 3D printing. (prereq: Robotics Fabrication, CAD if available)

  • Java programming - ideally not a robotics class, but something that is already offered. This could be AP Computer Science A or some other introductory Java class or both. If something like this is available, the Robotics Programming class could be at a much higher level. If something like this is not available, Robotics Programming would have to start with Java basics and not go as far into robotics applications. (prereq: none)

  • Robotics Programming - Use of Java and WPILib to accomplish robotics-specific tasks. Introduction to version control, GIt, and GitHub. Introduction to sensors and computer vision. Implement and test programming on pre-built robots or robot subsystems (e.g. elevator, arm, shooter, etc.) (prereq: Java Programming)

  • Robotics Design and Integration - Capstone class extending skills from prerequisite classes to design and build robot subsystems and integrate them into a working robot. CAD for robotics design. Design objectives change from year to year. (prereq: Robotics Electromechanical Systems and/or Robotics Programming) Students are encouraged to choose both build and programming prerequisites, but it is recognized that for some, only one or the other path will make more sense.

If the school offers only “singleton” class periods, one option might be to have the same set of classes as described above as fall blocks, but each of the classes would have to be scaled back to approximately half the content. During the fall, the classes would teach this abbreviated content. During the spring, each of the classes would shift to utilizing the skills of the class members to building the competition robot during the class periods. For example, Robotics Fabrication students could work on manual fabrication tasks. Robotics Systems students could work on things like gearbox design, Robotics Programming students could work on programming. Robotics Design students could work on subsystem design or CNC fabrication. The entire team would collaborate during after-school hours, and students could continue their contributions as their skills and knowledge allow.

One “singleton” class that would be repeated is the worst of all these options, but unfortunately sounds like a constraint that the OP may be boxed into. Trying to teach various levels of students in one class during the fall when there is not a unified robot build task is a recipe for chaos. One possible approach for the fall is a library of video training that students progress though at their own pace from year-to-year. Students at similar learning levels (e.g. all students in their 1st year of taking the class) can work together in groups to aid a largely self-teach process. The class teacher would be available to assist all levels. In the spring, the singleton class could shift to the normal chaos of after-school build, just during school hours and maybe with only the teacher as mentor. If this repeated singleton approach was my only option, I would never attempt it. Chances of failure and poisoning the robotics experience seems much higher than chances of success. On the flip side, the fall block approach with a teacher capable of handling the described set of four classes would seem to have a much higher chance for success and driving a tangible step increase in robotics team capability.

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In a perfect world…

Summary

One potential benefit I was hoping to get from the pandemic and the modified school year we had, was an awakening. An awakening to the truth that sitting in 6 classes a day, for 55 min at a time, 5 days a week is a terrible way to learn things we actually want to learn. My school district used a modified block, shortened day schedule for the 2020-2021 school year. We met from 8:30am to 12:30 pm every day. Monday we had 6 ~30min periods, Tu-Th we had 3 ~90min periods. Somehow, we ended up cramming almost all of our “content” into about 70% of the class meeting time. This left a HUGE after lunch swath of time that COULD have been preserved as dedicated a project-based learning block, where students were required to explore their interests for school credit (in some way, shape or form…). Alas, we went right back to the traditional schedule for 2021-2022. :frowning_face:

…On to the actual experience:
Last school year I attempted to use a course called Physics & Engineering as a robotics feeder. My intent was to lean heavily on the engineering side of things, and essentially prep the students to join robotics if they wanted to. Think of it as daily 1 hour training sessions for FRC! Turns out the kids that signed up didn’t know any physics, and I had to spend most of my time teaching that (which is my subject). My intended outcome was as failure, as we spent much less time on engineering projects than I wanted, kids had to find time after school to come in and work on projects because 55min isn’t enough, and only 1 kid out of 20 joined robotics. For these reasons, and the fact that this was a third course in my schedule (on top of regular physics and AP Physics), I decided to cancel the course as it was.

This coming school year I transitioning the Phys/Engr course into a 7th period class (our school has a traditional 6 period day, 55 minute periods) that will only be populated with current robotics team students. It will be scheduled as a “hybrid” class, meaning that we are only required to meet during the on-paper scheduled time (~3:30-4:30) once per week. The remaining 4 hours can be fulfilled either at home doing independent work, or during evening robotics meeting times.

Benefits:

  1. It is outside the normal school day, so it does not “steal” a period from students
  2. Hours can be fulfilled during the times that other mentors are available to attend
  3. Most students in sports/band will still be able to attend practices prior to our meetings
  4. Students in robotics get a class called robotics on their transcripts.
  5. Frees up a teaching period for me (only teaching 4 other periods)

Drawbacks:

  1. One day a week students won’t have a break until after 4pm
  2. May be hard to add students after the school year starts
  3. ??? You tell me!
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A completely different method that my previous team went with was just providing school credit for participating in the robotics team. It would count as a 9th period (typically only 8) and provide extra general credits. There was no planned teaching or even times to meet outside of the team meetings. It didn’t do a lot really but it allowed slightly more flexibility in the students schedules as they didn’t have to take certain classes for general credits and could take more fun classes.

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We have had a robotics class for 8 years now and I’ve been able to refine the structure a lot over the years. I have the first semester centered around rookies picking their concentration i.e. programming, fabrication, CAD, Media, ect… and veterans teaching and honing their skills.

Since the robotics experience is so different depending on the student and what their concentration is, I have developed a portfolio and discussion grading system. The final for each semester is a portfolio each student must submit.

Portfolio Examples

annotated-Robotics Portfolio-Lula & Stout.pptx.pdf (1.7 MB)

annotated-Porfolio of awsomness.pptx.pdf (4.5 MB)

annotated-Gavin and Kayden’s Portfolio.pptx.pdf (2.8 MB)

The second semester is guided around the Build and Comp season. I use discussions posts for students to explain and communicate what they are accomplishing during their time in the robotics class and after school. This is a great way for me to show admin some deliverables if I ever need to defend the need for a robotics class in my schedule.

Discussion Post Assignment

Time line & Assignment List

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A related alternative to a formal class for several students is “independent study” for a robotics related topic. This could include, for example, writing a video game, beta testing a WPILib release, developing a Finite State Machine (FSM) for a robot component, etc.

I think as robotics-related lessons became available in classrooms the after-school program becomes less attractive as just more schoolwork.

I worry about the long-term viability of FRC as FRC and school become similar and barely distinguishable. The coach/teacher says FRC is still relevant today because the team synthesizes a competitive robot and community program from many different aspects and our focused high school classes don’t do that much. Separate classes for CAD, machining, physics, marketing, programming don’t build a robot although our Intro To Computer Science does make some small, somewhat competitive VEX robots for a few weeks (partly in class and extra effort after school).

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This is what our school does as well. You can only sign up for the class if you were on the robotics team the previous year, the grade is mostly based on meeting attendance + short weekly summaries/reflections on what you’re learning on the team. It’s meant to be an easy way to get school credit for being on the robotics team, similar to how kids on the sports teams can get PE credit. And ours counts as a CTE class, which makes students who take it eligible for a local high school internship placement program.

Years ago we had a real PTLW robotics class that was not officially tied to the team. Kids seemed to really like it. The PLTW teacher was also a mentor for the team and would use the class to recruit for the team, but there was no formal connection between the two & you didn’t have to do one to do the other.

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" * Focus the fall semester on learning that will accrue to Build. “Robotics Engineering” could be a good name for the transcripts. Include units on FRC-specific knowledge, robot design & CAD, engineering essentials, and manufacturing (including training/certification on all the precision tools) seems like plenty. Having more people know all this from the class means the people who don’t take the class will have many others from which to learn."

“Robotics Engineering” = Mechatronics is what our local college has named the coursework.
Also, you are missing the administrative side of robotics. Developing business plans, learning budgeting and project management. How does the supply chain work from sourcing materials to the internal business of purchase order requests to the resulting purchase order and invoicing. Soft skills will make or break a team, fall is a time to work on those as well, this includes presentation, negotiation, strategy, and team work skills. I have a lot more and will put it in a more cohesive post soon.

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Allow me to begin by saying that the during school robotics program never got it’s feet.
There is so much overlap with Project Lead the Way (in admins’ eyes) that I couldn’t find justification for running a parallel program.

We are an afterschool program that runs year long.

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We’ve been doing a summer school class every other year. The first year it was entirely community based. In 2021 it was an official summer school class for middle school students. Way less rigorous than what is being described above, but it has worked out well for us.

Students signed up for an interest focus - software, mechanical or media/pr. We have an official teacher on board but most of the classes were taught by mentors, recent alumni and current HS students.

It gave a couple dozen kids an early taste. We usually invite four or five to join the HS team as 8th graders.

Because of the odd MS/HS gulf this has allowed us to go from about 5% girls to near 40%. And essentially all of our current and prospective team leadership comes from the “Robot School” ranks or in a few cases as friends they directly invite.

As I say, well worth our while…we effectively do no HS recruiting now. Don’t need to.

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I taught a robotics class that was FRC focused in 2014-15 and would not do it again. The biggest problem was that we had a combination of FRC team students and kids who were put in by guidance counselors who had neither the background nor the interest. We ended up with a bifurcated class in which I ran two tracks of curricula and it was maddening.

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Our PLTW program is actually getting out of robotics and moving to the pre-engineering side.

As a student, I would not want the robotics team to be connected to a class. I wouldn’t want to use up one of my elective slots on it. Also it wouldn’t feel good if lots of the build time happened when I couldn’t be there, like I wasn’t able to be as involved or dedicated of a team member if I was not able to be there for the class.

I was, however, on a FTC team that was based out of a school class that worked really well. At the school there was a block that only happened twice a week that was dedicated to electives. To be on the team you had to take the class, and if you were in the class you were on the team. Usually during the build season the 4 hours a week were not enough, so people would stay after school if they could. As a student I was happy with this setup for the team. In the off-season we did fundraising projects.

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