How do we get people from leaving when/around when build season starts?

I’m not sure how much of a problem this is for other teams, but we seem to lose lots of members pretty much as soon as build season starts. We have a ton of people show up at first but by build season we end up with very few people. Does anyone else have the same problem, or know how to make people want to stay?

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Why are they leaving, or do you know that?

If you can’t answer that, try to contact those people and find out the answer. That will tell you what you’ll need to do to entice them to stay.

I think you’re on the right tack with “make them want to stay”–you can’t force people to stay, but knowing what will get them to stay means making it worth their while to stay.

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Lots of possibilities here…

I’ll suggest that you may have two problems. Making it so people want to stay is one. However, bringing people in who are very unlikely to stay is almost certainly another.

For most successful teams, FRC is very time-intensive. It’s much more like a varsity sport in time commitment as compared to a school club. The biggest reason I see people leave early into build is that they were not prepared to put in the needed time. Reasons for that are numerous, but making sure that the time commitment is very well understood during recruitment time is a big start.

I’d recommend trying to uncover the people who are not in it for the right reasons early in the fall, well before build season starts. Do you have an application process? An application that takes at least a bit of effort will uncover some who are unlikely to stay. How about an interview process? More time-consuming for teachers and mentors, but likely to reduce the early dropout rate. Fall workshops are a good way to not only build necessary skills, but also to help people understand if FRC is really for them or not. A fall workshop that requires attendance and participation for maybe three days in one week and some of a Saturday will start to simulate build season a bit and help some come to an earlier realization of their commitment to FRC.

As far as the other factor of people leaving, is there something about FRC that is rewarding for them? Does the team bond well? Is it fun, at least some of the time? It can be hard to give new team members something meaningful to do because of relative lack of skill. However, finding a way to make that happen with strong student leadership and mentor involvement is pretty important in avoiding early washout. This tough task becomes substantially easier, though, if you’re starting build season with students who are already predisposed to stay and you aren’t diluting very limited mentoring resources.

Watch out for negative environmental factors. Give room to make mistakes. Ensure that mistakes are learning opportunities and not ridicule opportunities. Watch out for ostracizing or exclusion. Actively address situations like that.

Add positive environmental factors. Have the team do some external activities together. Shared experiences like an escape room can be fun. Working together on an external project like an FLL competition can add some positive bonding as well.

All this having been said, I can’t argue with the good advice from @EricH in trying to ask those who left why they left. Just recognize that some will not want to give feedback or will be unwilling to reveal their true reasons.

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Keep in mind how the workload is distributed throughout build season - often, people don’t show up because they think they can’t contribute or they’re unsure of what they need to do. If it turns out that this is the case, you may want to look at improving trainings in the preseason and keeping people in the loop.

In the end, though, you’ll almost certainly lose at least some people who just can’t meet the time commitment. That’s natural, but be on the lookout for other reasons why people would leave and try to minimize those.

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As Eric said, only you can know why the people on your team were leaving, and you need to know that to be able to fix the problem. That being said, we had a similar problem when I was captain of my highschool team, so maybe you have some of the same problems.

On my highschool team, we didn’t have any substantial team membership requirements, so students could more-or-less come when they felt. Since there was no requirement to show up to any specific meeting, some students would just slowly stop showing up as the year went on. Our pre-season activities consisted of meeting once a week or every other week after school to go over the basics of strategy and robot design. It was a very chill environment run by the students (me) similar to a lot of clubs at the school. Once build season started though we kicked into gear and started meeting 4-5 times a week, mostly at nights or on weekends when more mentors were available. Despite verbally telling the new students about the time commitment, it still came as a shock to a lot of students. Some weren’t really interested in the team; some had other commitments and couldn’t commit that much time; and some couldn’t get back to school at nights (even though we did have carpools).

We did have a small regestration fee, but it wasn’t due until the end of build season so that wasn’t a reason to stay with the team. One year we also had a teacher offer extra credit to students who joined the robotics team or other science related clubs. It was nice in theory but it meant a lot of kids showed up at first then dropped out once they saw what was involved.

The team I’m mentoring now does things to avoid having these problems. Students need to commit to being a team member before the season starts, and membership comes with a number of requirements. There are meetings with both the students and the parents to make sure they understand what they’re agreeing to before they commit. There is a fairly substantial registration fee (that can be offset by fundraising) as well as required pre-season volunteering in order to be a team member. We also have a full pre-season that includes a week of mock-build season to prepare new students for the time insensitivity (as well as teach strategy and robot building). We have a crazy meeting schedule (45+ hours/week) so it’s important that students really understand what they’re getting into so they don’t have to back out.

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I thought this was just how things are. You mean, it’s a problem? and we can fix it? Wow.

(we generally have roughly 10-15 returning members and 10-20 new members at the weekly one hour meeting in the fall, and perhaps 5 of the new ones, and all the returning, show up to at least half the meetings during build season).

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In my experience with 3946, the greater the disparity between hours before build season and during build season, the worse this problem is. We found that increasing the hours for October through mid-December to at least half the build season base hours significantly improved in-season retention (from about 30% attrition to about 10% attrition). It also front loaded more training so we did not have to have as many “extra” sessions during build season.

Do teams promise too much in their recruitment in the fall? “You’ll get to design and build a cool robot, program it to do specific tasks, work with outreach efforts …”

And then if the recruits don’t get to do one of those things that interests them the most, they might leave. “Sorry, you wanted to be on drivetrain? We have enough people on that team. Can we interest you in fundraising?”

This is something we try to manage by laying out ahead of time how many students (in general) can be on each specific subteam. This includes limiting the number returning students (seniors especially) that can be on each individual subteam.

As for telling a student that there are no more “build”, or “drivetrain” spots left, and then assigning them to a completely non build related role? That’s just not something we would even imagine doing. Does this seriously happen on other teams? That sounds like a very swift and effective way of ensuring students want nothing to do with the team moving forward. Sure, maybe they can’t work on the “arm” team, and you need to suggest they work on the intake or drivetrain instead. That’s a reasonable thing to ask someone to do in my eyes. But the former is the equivalent of (IMO) telling a philosophy student that, “sorry the philosophy program here is fully booked, but we can offer you a spot in mechanical engineering instead!”

Your students need to be engaged and interested in what they are doing if you want any chances of keeping them on the team.

Probably not. My post was more hyperbole. Just like when someone says the only thing that freshmen are good for is filing.

But I think there may be some truth in it on some teams, based on what I’ve seen and heard. Not to the extent of completely changing the focus of what the team member wants to work on. But not having as much capacity for work as the recruit thought would be there. The recruit didn’t realize that it would be a position secondary to existing team members, with not as much ability to input suggestions. I’ve heard that a lot - that newbies aren’t taken as seriously as they should be.

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One thing 5026 has done with some success is that we’d have a lot of meetings during the fall. In theory, this time would enable effective training and get students involved with the team & understanding the expected time commitment in the fall, and then just making the meetings a few hours longer or adding a meeting a week wouldn’t come as such a shock to the students. This leads to relatively few students dropping out during build season, but rather those students leaving in the fall.

We had some improvement this year after making a few changes. Hard to say what made the difference - probably a mix of all four - but whatever it was we had about three times as many new members stick around through the season this year compared to last year:

  • More hours, and a better project in the fall: We met three times a week throughout the fall instead of once or twice (as we had in the past). We also split the kids into 5 teams to build bots for an old FTC game, rather than having an off-season heavy on workshops and fixing last year’s robot. This kept kids engaged throughout the fall with a project that somewhat resembled build season, and was a good vehicle for teaching them relevant skills so they wouldn’t be at loose ends during the build
  • Hours requirement: We told the kids they needed to hit a certain percentage of attendance to be “on the team”, and a higher bar to be eligible for the travel team. We ended up relaxing the requirements a little toward the end because not enough kids hit the travel team requirement, and will probably re-evaluate what the percentages should be for next year. But having a concrete reminder that “if you want to be on the team you need to show up” did seem to cut down on the “everything’s optional and I don’t have to show up unless I feel like it” attitude that we’ve seen in the past
  • Schedule modification: Last year we got the feedback that it was hard for a lot of younger (i.e. not driving yet) members to get to evening meetings, so we combined one of our evening meetings with an after-school meeting and went 3-10pm on Fridays (and took Thursdays off to compensate). We were a little worried they would burn out with such a long meeting after a day of school, but turnout was great and the kids seemed pretty productive and happy (and it was a good opportunity for team bonding dinners).
  • Discussion about how we market ourselves during recruitment. If you tell kids that they should join robotics because it looks good on college apps, you’ll get a bunch of kids who show up in the fall and do the bare minimum to say they were on a FIRST team, then stop showing up in the spring. If you want kids who will stick around through build season, talk up how fun and rewarding build season is instead.

In a bigger picture sense, the best thing you can do is ask your students. All the insights and changes we made this year came from asking our students why they thought we were having so much dropoff.

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