[FTC]: How can I effectively mentor an FTC team?

This will be my 2nd year of mentoring our middle school’s FTC teams, but I think that I can do better. Any advice, in terms of dealing with middle schoolers , or otherwise is appreciated.

I have zero FTC experience but over a decade of VEX VRC, so I’ll give you my free 20 cents worth.

Middle school is the real start of roboteers pushing towards being the alpha (vs being the leader). You need to make sure everyone’s ideas are heard and though about. Also that everyone gets a chance to do everything they want to. Driving included.

Planning vs action is the key. A middle school roboteer can turn a stack of metal into a pile of too many small pieces faster than you can say “You’ve been at the band saw a long time”. You need to get them to plan out, design and draw before any material is cut out.

Physics and gravity become real. In their VIQ and FLL day, neither one was that important, but now it’s a key component. While “Moar Power” may be what they want, “More Designer time” is what they need.

They are still little kids, so losses are going to come hard, you need to be there with extra support when things don’t go right.

Parents still want to interact with their roboteer for this age (the roboteer hasn’t gotten to the point of "my parent don’t know how the real world works (*) ) so sign up as many parent as possible. Run special mentor training for them away from the roboteers. I run 5 sessions:basic building, drive base, grippers/grabbers, programming, and sensors. This gets them up to speed and they can help as they learn the nuances later on.

Patience and more patience. But this is your second year, you learned that last year. :rolleyes:

Good luck.

(* all of my kid have said to me at one point “You don’t know how the real world works.” And sometimes in the next 5 years they come back and say “Wow, the real world is hard, you do know what you are doing”. )

From what I’ve seen in my orange-program travels, I have six pieces of advice:

  1. Drivetrain.
  2. Drivetrain.
  3. Drivetrain.
  4. Notebook.
  5. Notebook.
  6. Notebook.

This coming season will be my third season as a mentor after having four years being on the team. Here on FTC 7244 Out of the Box Robotics we have a few different ways we make sure the season is successful. Here are just some things we stress on the team and really try and teach.

Relating to the robot:

-Keep things simple and focus on reliability. Because of the long season we teach that “good enough” can always be better.
-Precision is key when building, When on such a small scale small errors have huge impacts.
-Don’t have everyone drive at events. It is better to have one or two really strong drive teams then to have everyone just be ok. FTC is highly competitive and as the games have shown in the past driving is super important.
-Use the same design processes that are in FRC. Don’t just have them randomly brain storm ideas without knowing what exactly there is to accomplish.

Relating to awards:

-The notebook is everything, it is just as important as the robot.
-It should explain things and not just be what they did. For example if something doesn’t work, they need to know why. The same goes for if it does work.
-Practice judging early and often. Having them start early in the season will help their public speaking skills.
-Read the requirements of the notebook. You MUST have all of them.

Those are just some of the processes we try and get everyone to follow. It may be a bit much for some groups but we have found they get lot out of it and are loving the program.

I’ve been in FIRST as an engineering mentor since 1996 in either FRC or FTC. I do want the students to feel as if the design is theirs and they are the primary decision makers. However, I do have a design and methods for scoring worked out prior to primary design meetings and I do steer the design in ways that I think will help the team perform the best given our cost and time constraints. This is based on experience.

I think it is the responsibility of the mentor to steer the team to a positive outcome while giving the team as much leeway as possible in decision making. They are after all middle and high school students and have a limited set of past experiences on which to base expected outcomes. This is not to say that there are ideas that are brought up and not discussed and scrutinized. Any idea is considered and subject to the worth/cost test I’ll talk about later.

As for the process…

Initially, have the students READ and understand the ‘game play’ part of the manual. Next, have them READ the ‘game’ and ‘game specific’ rules. Test their knowledge if necessary. It’s really hard to design a machine too perform a task when you do not know or understand what the task and restrictions are…

Start the next phase by planning out the game strategy you are going to attempt to accomplish; be specific. Prioritize game functions based on their worth (points) and assumed cost (difficulty, $ - this will be mostly a guess based on experience). Determine the worth (in points) of your machine so that later you can see how closely your design was to your planned strategy.

Then plan out the design before building anything. I like to have the students make a mockup of what the robot is supposed to look like in foam board and cardboard tubes using the prioritized function list as a guide. Basically make a “space budget”. This is a little old school in the age of CAD but it really helps visualize the size of parts and their orientation to each other. Many packaging issues can be worked out without cutting any aluminum. Foam core board and cardboard are really cheap and everyone has a hot glue gun.

Determine the programming components that must be written and the objects controlled and the sensor data needed based on the model. A state machine model will help with this task.

Finally, work out how to recreate the foam mockup in metal. Many other size, packaging, weight and center of gravity issues will arise but some will have been solved in cardboard. You can sub let small portions of your “space budget” for prototyping each mechanism because you have an idea how much space each of the mechanisms were assigned in the mockup.

Give and take on the design but try to stay true to the plan.

Document everything (no one wants to do this…) and have fun.

Take it for what it’s worth but this is the method I’ve used for decades…

Mike