Help for Second Year Team

Long post. Just had a lot of things to address
Hello. I am the student captain of Team 4302, The Robophins. We are a small team operating from a high school in the Chicago Public School system. The problems with our team is many.

One of the first points is mentor-ship. This is our teams 5th year in FIRST (FTC Team 3216) and while participating in FTC we needed very little mentor-ship. Our current team sponsor is essentially a dedicated teacher, but a teacher that is very hands off in her approach. She prefers to let the students do all of the work on our own. I am sure anyone can see where this is going.

Last year, we obtained the rookie grant from JC Penney with the help of an outside mentor from Northwestern. This mentor was much more involved in team organization, something very necessary in FRC. For a time, it seemed like our team would become a full fledged FIRST team complete with all of its structure. However, our team was too small, and the members of the team have long been used to a lack of organization. In FTC, left to our own instruments our inventory was a mess, we had no records of anything, and I routinely spent 10-15 minutes searching every time I wanted to use a hex key. The switch to FRC started off with confidence. We sat down and went through all of the steps of other rookie teams. We tried to make committees – fundraising/PR, Electrical, Drive Train, etc, but towards the end they all molded together. The fundraising group never existed – the team members only wanted to build, we had never needed to fund-raise before because we had relied on a grant from our local parent association. The previous team members, including myself are all dedicated members of the team. We love what we do, we are just a mess in doing it.

This year, our outside mentor has said that the commute is too harsh and she will not be able to help this year. I have been trying very hard to attempt to create a FIRST team like it should be. I have taken the steps to create an organized team that acts like a team – not a group of robotics enthusiasts who occasionally stop by to eat pizza. However, my efforts have essentially failed. Every attempt at organization is resisted harshly by members of the team. I suspect that this is largely due to the lack of a strong authoritative adult leader on the team.

With heavy help of the Senior Mentor, we have managed to acquire the money for FRC this year. However, with this I feel strong guilt. Our team did not do the fundraising. We did not put in the effort befitting of a FIRST team. The grants were arranged FOR us. To be a real FIRST team this kind of dependence can not go on. Part of the reason why we failed to do this on our own is because we still participate in the FTC level competition, which takes much of the time of the dedicated members (this is largely because it is the competition team members are most comfortable with and have been doing for years).

As captain, I want to repair our broken team. I believe that the team deserves better. I have tried to be a leader, but I drastically lack experience. I was always timid, but in the recent years I have been rapidly growing stronger in qualities of a leader, but I am still learning how to lead. While I find this situation to be an extremely rewarding one that I can tell will improve my leadership skills, I fear that our team is not sustainable in the long run. The majority of our team members are seniors. The two junior members are very irresponsible, immature and specifically expressed lack of interest in a leadership position. Furthermore, as mentioned above, our fundraising is nonexistent.

I am extremely frustrated. Participating in FRC was the most amazing experience of my high school years, and perhaps all my years. I want my fellow students for years to come at my school to be able to experience what I experienced. Or rather, I want them to experience MORE than I have experienced. I absolutely loved it, and that was without the added joy of working with a team of Engineers. Just the overwhelmingly inspiring atmosphere is something I think any aspiring engineer should partake in. My school is a selective enrollment school with many of the most motivated students in the city. Prime candidates to be future FIRST addicts. I am lost on what to do and I fear this year will be the last for the team unless significant action is taken.

I think you need to stop thinking of your team as a “failed” team. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and interact with teams from all across FiIRST, and the only thing that I’ve noticed that is the same for all FIRST teams is that they are all different. Every team has its own goals, objectives, structures, practices, and culture. What works for one team might not work for yours. Instead of trying to take your team and fit it into the “Typical FRC Team” mold, develop what makes your team special.

The issues surrounding fundraising is a bit more complex. Simply put, FRC is expensive, especially if you want to build cool machines that do more than just move. Fundraising is something that an entire team has to work on. You said that this year you’re participating because of a couple grants. That is good! This means that you know that your program is eligible for these grants in the future (probably). So next year, instead of having other people apply for these grants for you, get the team together and fill out the application yourselves! It really only takes an hour or two (and only if you want to be REALLY REALLY thorough).

But at the end of the day, this is only good if the entire team wants to do it. One person can’t run an FRC team; there’s just too much going on. When dealing with your teammates, don’t tell them what to do; ask them what they want to do. You’re a leader, not a dictator. Leaders act based on the good of the collective; dictators impose their will on others, and that’s not a healthy or useful leadership style.

Long story short: it’s great that you want to leave a legacy for your fellow students. But it’s not your decision whether or not they fall in love with FRC. If, after this season, your teammates are content being an FTC team, and you’re still 110% enthused about FRC, then contact other FRC teams and see if you can join them. Heck, you’re in Chicago, there are plenty of teams around the city. I’m sure one team would accept a bright, enthusiastic, driven student on the their team!

I can’t help but notice a lot of similarities between your team and my own during our first year, and others I’ve had the chance to interact with. You have a group of passionate students, but they don’t all see your vision. They love FIRST and want to do well, but don’t seem to understand what it takes to move to the next level.

Not having an “adult in charge” is very difficult. You seem like you have a strong idea of what you’re doing and are probably far ahead of many student leaders of teams. However, without an adult there to drive accountability and handle a lot of the background logistics so that you can focus on leading your team, your attention will be divided.

Your teacher’s “hands-off approach” was probably well suited to FTC, but the stakes are different now. Decide if participating in both FTC and FRC is appropriate for the team at this stage - you may be spreading yourselves too thin. While students change year to year, she is the constant - if she is as committed to the success of robotics at your school as you are, she will need to modify her role a bit. Sit down with her (perhaps with some parents too) and try to identify how she can best help the team. This may mean taking a more active role in the team structure, keeping students accountable for what they need to do, and serving as a “safety net” before things get too out of hand. It takes time to set up a solid team structure, and I applaud you for your effort; see if she can help take it the rest of the way. The issue of your subteams “blurring together” and lacking definition is not unique to your team and something I’ve seen before. Help each leader be accountable for their area of responsibility by outlining clear job descriptions and using a system like Trello (or a simple whiteboard) to track the tasks their committee must complete.

Don’t feel guilty about the grants. You earned them - grants aren’t handed out. They were earned by your team. The fact that an adult helped write the applications for a young team is not a bad thing. It will take some time before your fundraising committee can be independent and entirely student run. Be thankful for the grants, keep in touch with your sponsors, let them know how much you appreciate their support. This will set a foundation for successful, long-term relationships with them.

Over the next 29 days, work on preparing your team for success. Organize the workshop, appoint a head of “operations” to keep inventory and keep everything organized. Purchase whatever parts and tools you know you will need. Outline clear job descriptions for each subteam leader. If possible, create a handbook that outlines team rules and procedures that all team members must agree to (see our example and many others here on CD).

Don’t give up. You have very high expectations of your peers, as you should. The rest of the students are certainly capable of what you ask of them, but they have to want the same thing as you. Try to communicate this message with the help of your teacher. Make the most of this season, and try to share your story with as many students at the school as possible so that you have a continuing group of students. This won’t be your team’s last year, it will be the first on the path to greatness.

This I feel has a very simple answer, don’t force them to be what they are not. If your older members don’t want to step up look at the younger ones to do it. Between the 2008 and 2009 seasons my team lost a major sponsor, buildspace, teacher, and 34 members due to graduation or lack of continued interest. The Juniors did not step up so sophomores, and freshmen did it. Never think that the oldest group has to be leads. This previous season all of our leadership and student field positions were filled by sophomores and juniors, except Writing Manager, and Co-driver who were the same senior.

Now your team is located in or near a major metropolitan area, I am sure that sponsorship is out there. But if you want direct help might I suggest contacting 2704 since they did win the Entrepreneurship Award for the last two years at the Midwest Regional and they are about an hour from you

This is very good advice. We have sophomores on our team who hold leadership positions and do an excellent job. Age and leadership ability do not always directly correlate.

This is very true. This is my 3rd year on our FRC team, however I am only a freshman(middle school students are welcomed to join our team, I joined in 7th grade). Currently I am mechanical captain and lead CADder of our team. This said, you definitely need at least one year of experience on the team. In 7th grade I worked solely on the mini bot. Only at competition did I realize what FRC is really about. This lead me to completely dedicate myself in 8th grade, in which I learned CAD over the summer, and stepped up to take the position of lead CADder of the team for the 2012 build season.


I am with Mark Chew Academy, and we advise teams on robotics. I am having a call with a robotics coach from St. Louis Public Schools, and you might benefit from the conversation, the telecom is on 8:30PM Central this Monday - December 10, if interested in participating, send me a PM and I will send you more info.

In the meantime I suggest have everyone on the team put some skin on the game, by having a season membership due from $1 to $500. I would suggest $1 for coach,$5 student leaders, $10 for students non-leaders in the team and $20 for mentors.

Feel free to check us out on Facebook and like us: “Mark Chew Academy”.


Has this been shown to work in your experience? I fail to see how chipping in a few dollars will be a major factor in changing team dynamics. This isn’t any different than typical club dues. Taking students to the next level and encouraging them to adopt the mindset that robotics is far more than “just another club” requires something other than nominal capital investment.

Sidenote: we do charge a $100 fee for all team members (those with difficult financial situations are able to get assistance). However I don’t consider this a major factor in a students’ motivation or commitment.


I want to extend this message to you because I want to make sure that you know you are not alone in this difficult decision.

My first season on my FRC team we had 8 members, 5 of which where seniors, whose mentality was pretty much “I do not care about the future of the team”. When they graduated, we had 3 students the next year, and the other two had very little interest in leading the team. On top of that we had lost all but one of our sponsorship due to the downturn in the economy as well as the loss of support from our school when our lead adviser had to step down due to family conflicts.

Having had the time and experience of a lifetime my freshman year, I knew I needed to step up to the plate to ensure the sustainability of our team.

That year I was the team president, treasurer, lead builder and pretty much every leadership role the team could possible have. Not because I was greedy but because they needed to get done, and I was the only one who wanted & needed the team to succeed.

There is only one thing that kept me going, and that was shear passion for FRC. It was not that I was an excellent leader, it was not that I had a lot of experience, I just wanted really bad for the team to succeed. I certainly made a lot of poor decisions, and our team was not perfect the next year, but we were able to build up the size to 8 people again, and gain funding due to a sustaining NASA Grant.

After that year, our teams focus was on sustainability and strength. We worked really hard to gain back the support of the school, gain funding and gain membership.

Now, only 3 seasons later, this team is 40 members strong, and excels in a lot of areas.

You obviously have a lot of passion for what you are doing, and that passion will lead you to success if you want it too. The barriers that you are seeing can easily be broken!

Through all of this I learned a few lessons that could help you

-Fundraising is a team effort all year round
-Get your school involved
-Establish a great team of people to work around
-Do not be afraid to ask for help, and thank them at every opportunity
-Hand written notes/letters to your key team supporters goes a long way
-Look to your freshman as the leaders of the team, and do everything you can to empower them to lead. As when you leave, they will be doing what you do.
-Community, community, community… get your name out there, do every demo you can.
-Focus on what your team CAN accomplish this season, then next season build upon it, do not let the stronger teams in FRC intimidate you. A few years of hard work and your team could be among them.
-Always have food at the meetings (seriously, its a great motivator)

Please send me a PM if I can be of any specific assistance to your team!


Team 3999(Shadetree Mechanics) was in the same position as you last year. We are not funded by the local school district and we get all of our funding from outside sources. Grants are not given easily and I would say to try for them as much as possible. I can also tell you from experience that they should not be your only source of funding. Activities take place all throughout the year on our team and we always try to be sure that we end the year with enough money to enter our regional in the following season. Local sponsors must be made aware of your team and what your goals and expectations are. We will compete in 2013 and still have enough left to pay for registration in 2014. Thats what fundraising does for you.


Great point, the key is not charging on a fee but give then an opportunity to contribute financially for the team so the team has “ownership”.

And I usually do not say it as a “fee” but have it be implemented differently depending the circumstances.

For a new team like in this case for Chicago, I would have everyone bring a “snack” in the value of $10 as their contribution and set a rotating schedule. And have the mentors provide a pizza party to the team at the end if everyone brought food at the working meetings.

The one thing that work for us is having the telecoms, as we work one to one with the mentors and coach and get the nuanced information for us to be able to provide good advise and be able to support the team on the long term, everything else is “dynamic”, we haven’t be able to give advise that works for every team, we provide advise on case by case…

We have two main paths for robotics: Clubs ( Build Demo Robots) and Teams (Build Competition Robots). We usually like to start with students on elementary schools as club and as clubs mature go to teams…

I’ve been on and around a lot of teams over nine seasons–teams that have hung banners and teams that won a thing–and I believe that a competitive, successful, sustainable team starts at the top and draws the buy-in from the rank and file.

When 2815 started in 2009, we had an all-star mentor team led by Stephen Kowski (previously of 312, 1369, and 1902) and Donn Griffith (previously of 343 and once FVC Director). If you could go pro in the most literal sense in FRC, these would be your guys. Both had robots on Einstein in their past, and more banners than I have wall space. It went for two great seasons–five judged awards, Palmetto silver in 2009, seeding 11th on Curie as rookies–then graduation and job pressures caused them to have to pull away from the team.

Who was left? Three teachers, about a dozen kids, and a schlub with a marketing degree (that would be me). But, we had the mindset that this team is going to contend for the title every single year. The robot wasn’t nearly as pretty that year, but it put us on a new level: two-time regional champion.

The year after that, we lost a teacher and some of our blue-chip kids as they spun off their own team. Plus, our entire drive team graduated. Even worse, we barely even got a slot at Peachtree and had to grind for the money. (Fortunately, our teacher is a beast at grants.) The robot looked marginally better and ran far better than its predecessor. It took the backup gods smiling upon us, but we still managed to be the first team to walk into Palmetto as the defending champion and do it again.

Now we’re on the precipice of the 2013 season, and we lost our main teacher and a second one, our lead student programmer, our driver (yes, again), and our lead college student is a senior with the classwork that goes with that. However, none of these people have left without instilling what I think is the essential element of our team: no matter what is broken, no matter who you’re playing, no matter where we are in the standings, you get that robot ready, go out there, and win anyway.

It sounds like at this point, you are the top. Get your core group together and get them fired up for the season. EWCPcasts, old match footage of The Blue Alliance, shine up the old robot, heck get on the tables and start Sandstorming on Kickoff morning. (It works for us.)

But if you get that four or five together, and they each bring a lackey/minion/friend/underclassman with them, you start the seed of something. That can lead in whatever direction your team chooses to pursue–regional titles, Chairman’s, technical awards, expanded mentorship, even just getting into a second regional or making eliminations. With your current position and resources, some of those goals will be more attainable than others in 2013. Keep building your base, start doing side events for fun or profit, and it’s all possible.

Thank you all very much for the advice. I must say the response time and quality of posts on this forum is excellent, very befitting of FIRST.

At some point I will probably take a few days mulling it over and organizing what would be best for our team (after the FTC state competition tomorrow our team will be in full FRC mode).

Another hardship of the team is travel time – We are a “magnet” high school which means that our students live across the city and often have a very long commute. Any suggestions on working this out?

Try to consolidate your build days - it will mean long nights, but it will be easier for everyone in the long run with less travel time.

Perhaps make it just two or three days after school during the week, then long days on Saturday. And, encourage kids to carpool when possible.

Good luck with everything, we are here to help! Let us know how it goes and if you need anything.

Thank you for this. This is just the example I needed (I had been planning on making something similar to this).

Another thing – We have repaired our robot from our previous year (which turned out be magnificent after replacing a chain). Next week we are exhibiting the robot at our school’s science fair. In previous years we have done something similar with our FTC robots and we have borrowed FRC robots from other teams to show and gain interest. However, what we found last year is that much of the interest is fleeting and we don’t manage to retain many that showed interest initially.

Suggestions on introducing interested members to the team?

Also: What are some other ways that you use previous year robots for awareness (we were thinking to pseudo-crash a sports-team pep rally by driving the robot through the middle of it >:), with permission of course.)

(I feel as if I am asking too many questions in too short a period of time, but there is so much to learn)

Just a few Ideas we have done or I have seen other teams do successfully…

Get out there in the school, and be part of the community.

The Pep rally is a great idea, but just be there for a short time. If you guys have a school flag or banner, simply zip tie it to your robot and drive around when people are cheering and other appropriate times.

Get into your schools talent shows and other school traditions.

Do a halftime demonstration at sports games, and maybe organize a raffle where the winner gets to have a “shootout” vs your robot from last year. If they beat the robot, they get their 50%, if not the team gets 100%. (make sure you follow all school and community procedures for this)

Our team has a mass amount of success from inspiring videos on the school announcements. (make them short and exciting)

Set up a safe area and let prospective members drive the robot.

Promote to your members about what they can get out of FRC and what you guys do. Promoting to prospective members is not the same as promoting to sponsors.

-Kyle McGurk

We have always kept our previous years’ robots running well into the next build season (now, with a large enough supply of parts, we’ll likely keep them running indefinitely). Aside from off-season competitions, they are great tools for recruitment and promotion.

Some of the things we’ve done recently off the top of my head:

  • Open House demonstrations (allow potential new students to drive the robot and learn about the team)
  • Club rush booth/demos on campus at all three schools that make up our team
  • Middle School demonstrations - we travel to half a dozen middle schools that feed into our three schools to do demonstrations and let the kids drive - they love it!
  • Non-profit organizations - demos/presentations nearby after-school tutoring centers that focus on providing technology access to underpriveleged youth
  • Storage Hunters TV show - yep, our 2012 bot and practice bot are going to be “discovered” on an upcoming episode of the show
  • Pep ralies - our pep rallies are held in the theater, so we have the robot on stage (we typically don’t drive it, but we show an exciting “pump-up” video)
  • Basketball games - since this is the first time we have a basketball-playing robot, we’ve arranged to do a halftime show during a bit game with our main rival school in January
  • Middle school workshop - we invite students from surrounding middle schools, boy scout troops, etc. This year over 100 kids showed up to participate in workshop sessions to learn about the team

A pretty large number of our outreach is geared at middle-school age kids because it’s a powerful recruitment tool for our three high schools.

We promote the team pretty heavily within our schools too - regular segments on the school TV network, we bring the robot to random events like Food Truck Feasts, fundraisers, etc.

This was probably a broader answer than you’re looking for, but I wanted to make a few points. When explaining the team to your school community, you have to get over the hurdle of “what is robotics? Is it like battlebots? why don’t you put a chainsaw on it?” It will take a while for the community to understand what you do, for us it took about a year. Now that everyone knows basically what the robotics team does, we focus on getting more detail out there - what roles are there on the team? Why should students join? We want to explain that you don’t need prior experience to join, that their are opportunities to learn and practice business and creative skills in addition to engineering.

My advice: bring the robot to every event you possibly can within your school community. Get some professional banners, pins to hand out, etc. Just focus on getting the word out there and make sure students who are interested have any easy way to sign up and start getting team emails, information, etc. We typically run these recruitment efforts during August-September and have our “fall kickoff” in late September or early October (naturally, team members from the previous year have been continually working year-round, but this is the cycle on which we typically induct new members). For us it is a bit late to have students joining now, but there’s no reason they can’t and we still have a few trickling in. You have a couple weeks before Christmas break, so make the most of it in terms of promotion.

If your school has an “8th grade day” or something similar where incoming freshmen go and see all the different clubs and activities they can participate in, you should definitely be there with your robot. My team always gets a big crowd of freshmen around their booth, and a couple of those students will usually show up to our 1st meeting each year. As far as retaining students, I would suggest using an FTC or VEX competition to engage new students and give them experience with a “build season” and the design process. Just make sure they are the ones doing the work so that they can learn.

As I hinted at above, we focus heavily on recruiting middle school students and incoming freshmen because we want them to be on the team for four years. They get so much more out of it, and the number of veteran members increases, our team gets stronger, and in turn, new members get a better experience learning from a larger number of veterans (we pair new students to veterans 1:1 in a Peer Mentoring system). It’s a virtuous cycle.

Interestingly, our 2nd largest group of new members after freshman is seniors.