HELP! Advice needed on teaching and managing

First, some background on our team: we’re a high school FRC team. Our team has around 60 people, with a few experienced student “leads” who guide newer members, and do most of the work with the robot - and a LOT of freshmen. As a school club, the team is supposed to be open to every student at our school, with no restrictions. We try to keep things student-built, with guidance from our mentors when necessary, and to give everyone who is interested and willing to put in effort a chance to contribute. This is where we have some problems, and I’m wondering how common they are and how other teams deal with it.

Our first problem is with teaching. One of our mentors wants the student leads to do all the teaching and train the incoming freshmen, but it’s just not possible for us to do that alone. We teach essential skills and prepare new members by holding workshops in first semester, but this really isn’t something that us students should be doing alone. With the team relying on students to pass on their knowledge, we end up at risk of having “dead years” after the current experts graduate, where the remaining people have to learn from scratch - which also means they won’t be able to teach others. Our mentors aren’t super supportive when it comes to teaching and one in particular blames the student leads for not teaching, when we’re spending a whole semester organizing workshops and shop projects, trying to engage freshmen who just show up, mess around, and don’t want to learn. To make matters worse, one of our mentors is considering quitting. The few people who have the skills to keep the team going are too busy working in the present out of necessity, and without mentor support, we’re stuck in this loop here and any advice on improving the situation would be much appreciated.

The other frustrating thing is that, come build season, there are many people - mostly freshmen - who come to our meetings hoping to work on the robot, but they lack the prerequisite knowledge and skills to work safely and contribute. This is especially a problem with programming/tech team, since at the beginning of build season, we just don’t have enough jobs for 30+ people. When we asked them to help out (like, say, testing the camera that we’ll use for vision targeting, doing a bit of research on a new sensor, etc), they shoot down suggestions with “that’s boring”, and some of them whined to the mentors about it. So, they end up sitting around gaming and messing around, but we’re not allowed to kick them out. They end up distracting the people who are actually being productive, and since they’re “at a robotics meeting”, us leads are responsible for them which means we have to devote time to making sure they aren’t getting into trouble.
Some possible solutions we’re considering are to have the team as a subgroup of a robotics club, where members have to apply in order to be allowed in during build season, and (specific to the tech team) require interested members to have taken a computer science class. It would be great to hear from other teams about if they’ve had similar issues, and how they deal with them.

I’m really sorry this was so long, and if this came across like a rant I apologize. These problems have been affecting our team ever since the beginning, and I am wondering how common similar situations are and what kind of solutions might work. Any help is appreciated.

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If students are complaining to adults about the work they are receiving, how are your mentors and coaches responding?

In terms of handling teaching, when Team 8 faced a similar situation a few years ago, our decision was to downsize. We limited how many new members joined the team each year so that student leads could actually manage teaching everyone a basic amount before the season began. A result of this was that most of the students who were accepted onto the team had a genuine desire to learn and do robotics. (Edit: we were also faced with only a few mentors, most of whom were not interested in doing training beyond a one-off session here and there. So we also couldn’t just throw more resources at the problem.)

It might be time for the student leads to have a frank discussion with your mentors about these concerns, as it seems the decision making power about team membership is with them. Is there an adult in particular who is more supportive than the rest who you could start with?

Also if you want to chat feel free to PM me.

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You could divide them into groups and have different Groups come each day. Might not be ideal but would get them all engaged

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This is common problem for many teams, so don’t feel alone.

  1. Acknowledge that you (as a person) are doing the best you can with what you have.

  2. Talk to your team.

    • What are our goals?
    • Can we achieve our goals for every student currently?
    • What are realistic ways we can improve on achieving our goals?
    • Do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses Opportunities, Threats) Analysis - even if you think you know it already, do the exercise as a group. What your teammates think may surprise you.
  3. Look into implementing policies and procedures to avoid some issues - i.e. “students must complete XYZ training in the fall” or “students who are unproductive as determined by X PERSON will be marked as not-present for robotics” (works if you have hours requirements)

  1. Freshmen don’t know why robotics is cool yet… they likely haven’t been to a competition so they have little incentive to go through the “boring” stuff. Taking rookies to an off-season before training can help spark that excitement before their first build season.
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Looks like that worked out well for Team 8, that’s definitely an idea we’ll consider.

Our situation with the mentors is a bit more shady. One of them, who is more involved with the club’s relations with the school, talks a lot of trying to include new members and tries to act the role of a mentor, but it’s very clear that he plays favorites and that’s one big hurdle for having a frank discussion. For example, he has some sort of issue with one of our most experienced seniors, and has given passive-aggressive comments when the student brings up suggestions. In contrast, he seems to have taken a liking to one of the freshmen I mentioned above who just showed up and messed around. He also kind of micromanages club affairs but we can’t do much about him because we need a teacher as the club advisor.

We’ve tried talking to him, but from what it seems like so far we haven’t made a lot of progress.

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Just curious if your team has a clearly defined org structure. Do you have different groups and subgroups with an actual org chart? Are the roles clearly defined? Is there a student lead and a mentor explicitly assigned to each group? Do you have assignments and expectations assigned to groups, with defined deliverables and timelines? Do you have an overview Steering Committee, made up of mentors and senior leaders, who check-in with each other to give progress updates, and who chart a path forward? Can you buy an additional kit of parts and have incoming students design and build their own bot (which won’t necessarily participate at competitions) but will give them low-risk exposure to the complexities and processes of FRC?

If you haven’t guessed, these are all things that we’ve adopted over the years because we too struggled with the situation you described.

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Thanks for the advice! We attend a local off-season competition in October every year, that we encourage all members to go to. Last year, we tried getting the rookies more “into” the event by having officers lead groups of freshmen in scouting, and introduce them to the game. Some freshmen did get pretty involved, but it was also rough to organize - the groups fell apart fast and I wish we could keep them engaged. Any advice to help make the most of an event like this?

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This is a fantastic idea. Thank you for sharing!

Scouting is not particularly exciting for most people - try to make them more actively involved in the event:

  • See if they can volunteer on the field doing reset, they get to see the robots up close and have something to keep them occupied so they’re not too bored. Don’t sign them up for safety glasses table though.

  • Let them do some of the boring pit work: replacing batteries, switching bumpers, tightening a bolt… have older students guide them (but keep hands off as much as possible for the simple tasks). It is very easy to steamroll newbies in the pit, so everyone has to be intentional with their actions.

  • Things like scavenger hunts can also be fun (“find a team who uses a ‘choo choo’”, “collect ten buttons”, “take a picture of/selfie with the best bumpers” etc) and let kids participate in pairs. Winning team gets to drive/human player/operator in a match or something.

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We’ve definitely had the same problem in the past. In fact, the year that I joined robotics (2017) was a year with an insanely high number of freshmen as well (we’re all juniors now though, lol).

One of the things that we did that really helped out was a freshman-senior buddy system. From your original post, it seems like you don’t have enough people in leadership for this to be feasible on a one-on-one basis, but it may help bridge the gap between more experienced members and freshmen.

This system allowed freshmen to get to know the seniors personally, and come to regard them as friends throughout offseason workshops as well as during build season. By establishing these relationships, freshmen started coming to robotics because they felt a sense of security, that a senior was in a sense “always watching out for them” and acting as a very relatable figure.

Creating this camraderie allowed freshmen to be “tricked” (that sounds malicious lol) into learning new things (like proper shop safety, technical lingo, etc.) because they were having fun with their “senior friends” the entire time they were actually learning valuable and useful information.

Our team is relatively small (15-20 students) at the current state, but we’ve had larger teams in the past, and have definitely run into the problem of reluctant freshmen.

On our team, the policy is that if you come to robotics, you are expected to contribute at least in some meaningful way. It doesn’t have to be much; it could be something like sweeping the shop floor, sorting nuts/bolts/washers, etc. if you are not contributing in any meaningful way, then you will be asked to either help out with an assigned task or leave. I know it sounds mean, but sometimes it has to come to that. We try to avoid this last resort, but sometimes it sadly has to be done.

As others have mentioned, I think that a possible solution is to try to reduce the size of your team. Even if your team becomes smaller, being able to sustain it is much better than having “dead years”.

An idea could be to put out a Google Form to prospective members asking why they wanted to join robotics/conducting short, 1-2 question interviews with prospective members to see who is serious about robotics and who is not. Possibly running an orientation of some sort to introduce prospective members to FIRST in general might be a good way to start. However, it is important that you inform all prospective members of what is expected of them; being transparent and open is key, so that members don’t join and then leave immediately because “it wasn’t what they expected”.

Hopefully that helped, if you have any other questions, I’m happy to answer them! :slight_smile:

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Basically, we have 3 groups: tech, mechanical, and business/outreach, each with a student lead. In each group there are also sub-teams, which have student leads who are supposed to be the experts in those areas (ex. Electronics, Software, Design, etc.) . Each sub-team also has mentors-we have a guy on software and a guy on mechanical, as well as some who float between the teams and help out in different areas.
In theory, the group and sub-team leads ALONG WITH MENTORS should be teaching the students. Our programming mentor helps explain things well and is active in teaching, but our mechanical team’s mentors…just constantly snark at the new kids. We also have assignment and deadlines assigned; Tech team uses Trello to keep track of them and we usually meet them; Design and Fabrication however always end up running behind schedule. They’re affected a lot more by the “lack of trained members” and “unhelpful mentors” problems since we don’t have many students knowledgeable in this area who aren’t seniors, and the design team tends to get the most flak from our micromanaging mentor. We definitely need to figure out a better solution,since what we have now isn’t sustainable at all. I think a Steering Committee would be a good idea, but until we resolve the communication and involvement issues we have with our mentors, it won’t be super effective for our team right now.

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The more we let kids do this, the more they run off and not scout during official season.
A- i need to go to the bathroom
B, C, D, E- Ok we will go with you. Even though we have a match.

This is NOT a good idea imo. Just because someone won a scavenger hunt doesnt mean they should be elevated to driver and operator. The driveteam should be consisted of the students who really are involved and can push themselves without others. They excel and motivate themselves to do better. You wouldn’t put a runner in a swimming pool and expect them to do well.

@rocketcycle could you elaborate a little more on what your team does for training? If we can’t help you convince your mentors to get more involved with it, maybe we can at least give some pointers on things you can try out to make training more effective and less of a burden on the veteran members.

In first semester, we hold shop tours, where we familiarize freshmen with the tools and the safe procedures for using them. We have some workshops where the student leads guide rookies through important ideas and concepts, in a classroom-like setting. Then, we divide into groups for “shop projects”-student-lead-organized small projects (examples: for mechanical team, designing and building a new battery cart, fixing our t-shirt shooter; for programming, setting up a rocket league drive, creating a “Safe Demo” mode for last year’s bot, etc) that give the new students a taste of what build season could be like.

do the mentors help at all when you are doing these projects?

could you talk to the school? if there is a toxic mentor and it seems like he is school affiliated. then it is possible he is like this to other non robotics students too.

I’d suggest dismissing the mentor and getting a new faculty adviser. I’d rather have a faculty adviser who does nothing than have one who is actively damaging the team.

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At an official FIRST Regional or District event I agree with you, but it sounded like this was advice for the Fall at an off-season event. I think this would be a fine idea at some off-seasons, you just need to gauge what kind of event it is and what you are trying to accomplish there. IRI? Probably not so great. But a local event that isn’t really competitive and you have little chance of winning? Knock yourself out. We’ve had years where we qualified for the Arizona State Championship off-season but had a mediocre robot and all our drivers graduated, so we just used it as “driver tryouts” for anyone who wanted to drive on a real field.

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