[FRC Blog] Helping Rookie Teams

Posted on the FRC Blog, 10/14/14: http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/frc/blog-Helping-Rookie-Teams

Helping Rookie Teams

**Blog Date: **Tuesday, October 14, 2014 - 12:55

While total FRC team registrations for the 2015 season have been coming along nicely, we are a little behind on our rookie teams compared to last year at this time, and we could use your help! Do you know of any rookie teams that need some help registering, or any potential teams that need some encouragement? How about reaching out to them to touch base? Sometimes just a positive word or two is all it takes, and you may end up being the key that opens a whole new world of possibilities to some very deserving students.

If they have any questions about FRC at all, they can email [email protected], or call our very friendly and helpful customer service folks at (800) 871-8326, extension 0, from 8:30AM – 5:00PM Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.



In the past, I recommended many schools to start FRC teams. Now I am much more cautious and ask many more questions.

**Questions for potential FRC rookies: **

  1. How long has the program being doing STEM activities (FTC, VEX…) ?
  2. Is the teacher willing to commit for multiple years ?
  3. Does the team have mentors in place ?
  4. Will the team be able to have sponsors for year 3 and beyond ?

Are there other questions that need to be asked before schools consider FRC ?

  • Are all members (student and adult) willing and able to meet 15-20 hours per week (or more) during build season?
  • What fabrication resources will the team have?
  • What facilities will the team have available for build space?

Are the students willing to dedicate significant amounts of time to the team?

Are the parents/guardians of said students willing to allow said students the time required?

How much parent/guardian involvement/interest do you have?

  • Would your team be able to continue after the departure of any one mentor?
  • Do you have a model for sustaining the “operational knowledge base” of the team (i.e. making sure important knowledge gets passed on and thus does not vanish with member turnover)?
  • Are your students motivated, or will they just be watching the mentors work?
  • Do you have a clear plan for team logistics and organization? Is that plan sustainable for multiple years?

I agree that people are not nearly as cautious as they should be when starting FRC teams. I think this is in part because FIRST themselves do not do a particularly good job of indicating just how difficult it is to get a sustainable team running. There’s a bit of conflict-of-interest there, I think, as FIRST clearly wants to see as much growth as possible, but there are drawbacks when large numbers of rookie teams fall through the cracks and disappear after their first year.

I also think there needs to be more emphasis on developing robust, distributed organizational structures that are resistant to turnover and mentor loss. I do not think the “one or two passionate mentor(s) holding a team together” model is a fundamentally sound one, and there needs to be some hard thought towards how to avoid it.

Maybe rookie registration is low this year because we’re running out of schools to bomb with a few thousand dollars and then leave alone until they either survive or crumble?

You know what’s hard? Starting a rookie FRC team.
You know what’s harder? Keeping an FRC team alive for 4 years.
You know what’s seemingly impossible? Trying to restart an FRC team somewhere where it failed but should not have, years after it folded.

I totally agree with these statements. There are many teams in MI that couldn’t survive. Resources is one big hurdle…student’s time commitment is another. The lure of scholarships is not so attractive, the big $$$ amount looks good, but only a handful of students from 300+ teams in MI get any scholarship.

We don’t only see the effects of this on team sustainability, too. A lot of the “box-with-wheels” problem that people complain about at competition, I believe, is precisely because we have a lot of teams starting up with absolutely no idea of what they’re getting into. It’s something I really wish FIRST would address.

Agreed. We started a rookie team in 2013 that won RAS and went to St. Louis to compete and they couldn’t survive for a second year.

My first team, 3677, survived two years due to financial issues. It is hard, especially in lower income areas to secure recurring funding. Folks that make big donations want to see big results. If all you have is a “box on wheels” they’re unlikely to continue financial support.

There is also the issue of teacher support if the team is housed in a school. If the teacher can’t put in the hours, the team can’t compete on the same level as veteran teams.

I didn’t want this to turn into a FRC horror story thread.
Please try to keep the questions positive and not scare teams away from STEM activities.

There are many STEM alternatives for teams to approach if FRC is not the right match.

Let’s keep the questions for potential teams positive and we will definitely get the highest quality rookies into FRC.


Rookies aside, FRC isn’t an easy program to sustain if you are tight on funds/mentor availability which is why we see so many veteran teams leave. Over the years New Hampshire has lost numerous FRC teams including some of our perennial top teams. Many of them are still involved in robotics but through other programs like Vex which makes it hard to restart the program because the school still offers robotics but through a much cheaper program that requires significantly less manpower by mentors/teachers. Some of them weren’t just “box on wheel”/rookie teams. In 2011 team 40 Checkmate moved from FRC to Vex along with team 241 the Astros. A year later 134 made the change as well.

Playing with big robots through FIRST is a commitment of funds and time by mentors & students. You either one or have a big drop in any one of them and you are forced to either fold or consider different options (FTC, VEX, Best, etc).

The point of this blog post is a really good one though. Our team has been working more and more with young teams either entering their rookie season or continuing into their veteran years to strengthen both their program and ours. We have a few roads to pursue starting teams in our area in the future but for now we focus more on relationships in our area. Sadly though I wish the Chairmans criteria wasn’t so centered on starting FIRST teams.

Not telling rookie teams what to expect in FRC hasn’t worked for the last decade.

On 422 we’re about 80% there to keeping the ship sailing by itself, and that’s after 15 years and an RCA. Not to toot our own horns, but we have managed to survive and begin to thrive in an environment where we shouldn’t be successful (inner city “Governor’s” magnet school of <750 focused in international studies, government, and social sciences), but the Math and Science High School in my hometown can barely field an FTC team after bowing out of FRC after 3 years. The Health and Applied Sciences School? Same thing. The Leadership development school? Lost its FRC team to a wrestling room. It really sucks.

There is a map I had over my desk (I took it down while I clean out my stuff before build season) with a lot of red dots for folded teams in Virginia. It’s really depressing to think about. We pitched in a little bit to help turn one of those dots back to green and restart a team at the Regional Governor’s School for Arts and Technology (yes, the Technology school did not have a robotics program for 11 years after FRC folded).

I know FRC can really thrive in my commonwealth if the right people at the state level do the right things and the strong teams get down in the trenches and develop some really strong rookies. We’re trying, but it’s not going to be done the way it was 10 years ago. It’s destructive.

Is it really a big deal that the rate at which teams are joining is decreasing? It has to decrease eventually, as it’s higher than the rate at which new high schools are being founded.

Considering the concerns expressed in the New England and Texas registration threads, I’d say a smaller set of rookie teams this year isn’t a bad thing. I like that FIRST is trying to expand the program, but I don’t know that there are enough potential high schools out their to join. We want to be able to sell FRC to school boards by citing statistics that prove that FRC teams won’t be single-year activities that die out and cost too much money.

IMO, this is probably the #1 most important question set. It might fall to #2, but only behind the mentor commitment level long-term.

And the reason for that is this: If one of the other aspects fails, and the parents are behind the team, they can and will do as much as they can (and/or assist the students to do as much as they can) to keep the team alive for another year. If the parents are not involved, the team will fold very easily if one of the other legs (mentor or funding) is yanked.

I am willing to bet that of the FRC teams that have folded over the years, the vast majority did not have their parents supporting them. Probably most of the rest had “minimal support” and a shallow mentor base.

Students are awesome, they love it once they get involved. Dedicated teachers and mentors are the core of a team and lack of them is a killer. Maybe teams with good mentor situations can do a lone-a-mentor-ish type of thing. We talked about that in Texas one year and I put my name in the pot but got no calls.

Perhaps FIRST could facilitate a more structured effort?

Eric is right. Committed parents will step into whatever role is necessary to sustain a team – I know several who have remained committed long after their kids graduated. Some become mentors, some become key volunteers, some sustain booster organizations. Generally, I think these key parents become committed because they get the FIRST vision.

I think the hardest thing about parents is the post graduation years and why some rookies continue for only one year after there initial year. Parents obviously want to watch their child succeed and if it takes a year of sucking it up they can do it, for them its worth it to see their “adults” graduate happy. But after they graduate, after they have sucked it up they leave. What else do they have to stay for. On my team, we had two business mentors leave at the same time. For the offseason, we did not know how to contact our sponsors, they even thought they were talking to one of the mentors.

I guess what I am trying to say is, its the parents who are the most influential in keeping a school’s FRC Team successfully running. They can get the school boards to allow and push the program through. They are the ones who are care free about the success of the team, only driven on the success of the kids because their kids were there.

Sheesh. I feel lucky my 3rd year team is doing well.