How involved are your team’s mentors in the design and programming process?


I agree. Before 2015 we worked out of classroom and shipping container. We finally got a bandsaw and an old CNC router in the container. We relied on outside vendors for making some of the more difficult parts. Moving to a larger dedicated shop helped a lot for training our students and expanding their experiences, and has helped improved the quality of our robots, but we were successful before that move.


… And from some of the videos your team posts, it is clear that you don’t meet as often or for as much time as other less successful teams (really the rest of us). Your team is successful because you are working smarter than other teams, not because you are working harder or being spoon-fed by NASA engineers.


On our team, we try to let the students come up with all the ideas, and then the mentors work with the students to make the idea they choose as successful as possible.

During the brainstorming phase, or if the students don’t have any ideas, we will provide our own ideas. But for the most part, the ideas that end up on the robot are student-originated (even if the mentors think they had a better idea)


I mean that is pretty generous some mentors on the team talk about IHOP and help keep optimal sarcasm and cynicism levels in the environment, while providing minimal amounts of help.

Yeah you are all welcome 1339…


The Sarcasm Mentor is just as important as any of the other technical skills. That’s why we pay you the big bucks


We recently received this email from a counselor on our campus, who sent this to our principal as well. I don’t think our program is unique in this way, BUT I do think that FRC is unique among high school programs in this way:

I was leaving a meeting at DHS last night and happened to walk through the robotics team’s busy space. I was so impressed I thought I’d send you an email of appreciation.

Here is a small sample of what I observed:

· Students consulting with mentors who were listening (and not telling them what to do)

· Students gathered around picnic tables having what appeared to be high level discussions/problem solving/planning

· Students carrying heavy materials being quickly approached by other teammates offering a helping hand

· Students gathered around computers with smiles on their face appearing to be engaged with their curriculum

· Lots of movement and excitement

You really do provide a strong community for those young people and trust them with so much. Thank you!


All very valid points. I was trying to convey that my opinion is “success” (in terms of ROBOT design and functionality) has more to do with the overall team (size, maturity, resources, facilities, etc) than just the level of hands on work by mentors. I agree that you can be space constrained and still very successful. However, I strongly believe there is a positive correlation between amount of resources and success. Certainly between resources and simplification of build season. Our first year we build in the storage hallway of a local community center, with all our materials and tools stored in a utility cage. Every meeting required setup and teardown. This year we have a space that we can leave mostly setup and just have to clean at the end of meetings, which is a huge boost in productivity.

The second and potentially main point is that this does not make it in any way unfair. We are a community based team and have never had a stable, long term space. 4 years in, 4 different design and build spaces. Never had any fab space in the off season to train. We might have developed a longer term relationship that will get us space for off season work for next year. This being the same space we managed to start using a week after kickoff this year. 4 years in we have fund raised enough to get us all the basic tools we need to build. Now can start considering moving up to the next level with the classic metal working tools (lathe, mill, cnc router, etc). The onus is on each team to get the resources they need, not on First to make it “fair”.


Often, people think of the cause of the success is the amount of resource a team has. This is often true. It is also true that teams have more resources available to them because of their success. In other words, those teams earned those resources. The Hawaiian Kids is a good example of this.


We got a large shop because we elevated our profile in our district with our success (and a media campaign that put us in the local paper and on a TV station.) BTW, getting to know your local elected officials is very helpful–have a mentor attend civic events.


I can agree with this.

I’d like to point out that “success” can be any number of things, not just competitive prowess. Our greatest success these past few years has probably been getting parents more involved in the team and solidifying a team culture. Being cognoscente of the family/culture that we as a team build around us and helping it grow has been huge. It’s led to dedicated students, dedicated mentors, better team administration, less pizza(more home cooked meals), and even some excellent sponsorship opportunities. As a result of this our team’s been on an upwards trend both at competition and locally in our community.

Our technical ability and access to manufacturing resources has not changed significantly. We still build robots the same way we have for years. But enhancing the “soft” side of the team has helped significantly.


This, exactly.

My family and friends who don’t necessarily know much about FIRST always as how we do at regionals, and I always tell them that we didn’t win but I’m still super proud of how well my team did, given the goals we set out to achieve during the season, and how well we achieved them.


The flip-side of success bringing in resources is illustrated by a friend on another team who was saying that his employer was considering stopping their sponsorship because the team did not seem to be learning anything and kept making the same sorts of mistakes year after year. I don’t think the sponsor was expecting them to “win” but they were probably not seeing what @Citrus_Dad described in this post.


When I talk with other mentors, I personally stress a 4-step process to mentoring:

  1. Mentor does, student watches
  2. Mentor does, student helps
  3. Student does, mentor helps
  4. Student does, mentor watches

It doesn’t matter what it is, you always start at step 1. A student that is fully competent on the mill might be a first time user of the lathe, and need to start at step 1 there. It means we keep a few bins of scrap around, so when we need to walk a student through a new machine or process, we have something to do it on, rather than just doing the job for them. It’s also part of the reason we build a practice bot - it’s a place for us to show the students how to do something or help them figure something out. If they screw up, we just adapt and move on, and focus on getting it right on the competition bot.

It’s also important to note that every student moves through that process at their own pace. They all learn at different rates, get engaged differently, and come back the following year remembering different amounts. What works for one student doesn’t work for another.

When it comes to design… I’m a firm believer that the best way a mentor can help is by figuring out the design, issues, and solutions in their own time, then show up at the meeting and let the students do the same thing. That way, when they get stumped you know the questions to ask or concepts to explain to help them get past whatever the issue is. It means tossing your ego out the window as well - if they go in a different direction than you were thinking, it’s not really your job to redirect them to your solution. It’s your job to help them evaluate their solution. Part of that might mean giving them alternative solutions as well.

A few examples:

  • Back in 2014, we had a design decision to make - how do we pull back and release our catapult? I worked with the design lead to get some ideas out of her, and then added a few of my own to the list. In the end, we had a list of 8 different mechanisms. I knew which one I would pick, but we still spent 3 more meetings discussing them, going over the details, and making sure we all understood the pro’s and con’s of each one, before she made a decision and we implemented it.

  • Just this past weekend, I was helping a freshman install some rivet nuts to mount some hinges. That meant each pair of rivet nuts needed to be 1.5" apart, and they all had to be in line together so the whole thing would rotate properly… and it all had to be done by hand, because the bar was already on the robot. She had never even seen a rivet nut before. So, I showed her how to install the first one. I showed her how to properly measure the spacing, center punch the next location, and then helped her install the next one. Over the course of all 6 of them, we got 1 hole drilled incorrectly (it was off by about 1/4", pretty much unusable), that we were able to recover from fairly easily. And over the course I gradually decreased how much I was helping, letting her do more and more of the process. When we get around to that same task on the competition robot, I doubt she’ll need any help with it.

When it comes to success, it’s important to define success. And to understand that the team’s internal definition of success may not match your own definition, your sponsors definition, or your school’s definition.

  • For me, I want to see my students grow. I want to see their passion for what we do.
  • For my team, they want to play Saturday afternoon and get to champs, and some of them want to win one of the engineering awards (even more than chairman’s/EI!)
  • For our sponsors… I’m not really sure. But they all want demo’s, several of them want us to help out with programs they run (like Girl Scout Badge day activities).
  • For our school, they want to see the students engaged, growing, and taking on leadership.

Define success your own way. Make it something that stretches you, forces you to grow, yet is achievable.


We have this big thing called “Work Flow” and it is resonated around all of our shops. Once students and/or adults affect or stop the work flow, others step in to ensure it continues on schedule until the robot and trip preparations are complete.
We’re not going to all sit around because 1 student is having difficulty working on a sub-function with the notion that only students can work on it.
In a perfect world and build season, all students and mentors are equipped with adequate knowledge and skill sets to get the job done. The reality is kids are learning while doing and the importance of having an adult experienced mentor around cannot be ignored.
Telling kids what to do and stepping back while they work isn’t reality. Collaboration and integration is. We empower students who demonstrate they can handle a task(s) as much as possible.


Absolutely. We got our current build space via networking we did at an outreach event. We have gotten a significant number of our students and some mentors via outreach events. We are very active in the community.

While my answer to all internal spending discussion is “more tools”, we are living proof of lower resourced teams delivering success (as defined on the field). More importantly I think we are being successful in terms of things like team culture, GP, student career path.


^^ This is great when you have one or more students willing and able to learn the task. What do you do when no student is willing (or both willing and able) to proceed past the first or second step in any given season?


That depends. If it’s a season-killer, then I’ll keep doing it (and looking for that one student who wants to learn). If it isn’t, then maybe not doing it will convince somebody to step up.

Fortunately for me, most of the kids on my team seem to be bent on getting to the 4th stage as fast as I’ll let them.


Fortunately, that’s never really been a problem, and I don’t think it will ever be a team-wide problem. Possibly an issue with individual students, though. It’s also the reason why the whole debate between “mentor built” and “student built” misses the point of FIRST. If I have a student that is slower to grow in their capabilities, that doesn’t mean I give up. It doesn’t mean I step back and say “well, I’m hands off, so you’re going to have a half functional robot this year”. It means we keep trying to move forward and I keep working with them until they get it. It means in that year, I might be more hands on than in other years. But the focus remains the same: keeping them engaged, keeping them inspired, and keeping them coming back for more. And while we do it, I keep looking for that niche where the student can be really productive and “own” something for the team.

I was talking with a mentor from another team a week ago. His team had an autistic student on it that was really struggling. One of the mentors sat down with him to focus on a project for a week last year, just them, one on one. That was transformational for the student. He handles that process for the team now, can focus on it, and had even handled presentation in front of the whole team, something that wouldn’t have been possible before. It just required a mentor to be a little more hands on and a little more focused on the individual than the team.


I team them up with another student who I’m confident can run the task at hand with minimal help from me. Sometimes older students are better teachers and motivators then a coach, or at least they’re less intimidating for a shy student. Seeing an older student run a big complicated mill can give a younger student the confidence to do it them selves in a way that a greybeard machinist won’t.

If it comes to it, I’ll run the task and the student can hang out with me and watch or help to the extent they feel comfortable. At the end of the day I remind my self that I’m not there to train a machinist, just to get them interested. For a lot of kids that means getting hands on, but for some it just means being in proximity.


Once again, beating a dead horse…
BUT - @Ben_L I couldn’t disagree more with every comment in your post. I will keep the more common arguments out of the post but I want to explain a personal story that counter-acts your quote above:

I grew up watching 118 and 148 reveal videos. I grew up watching 2056 and 1114 win countless tournaments together. I got beat my junior year as a driver at worlds in quarterfinals by 254 and 341. I got beat my senior year as a driver at worlds in the quarterfinals by 1114 and 118. Did I feel insignificant, in-capable, or depressed at our quality of robot?

Ohhhh no I didn’t. I felt inspired. Not insignificant. That fueled me to one day give back to the FIRST community to make another robot just as good as the ones that were constantly beating me. Me, with some other mentors, should be able to take those experiences and work with students to strive to some day be THAT team.

I now sit as a head coach to a 2nd year team, with 3 other FIRST alumni mentors, and went to worlds last year - winning Rookie All Star at worlds. We qualified as a rookie to IRI for the first time in like 10 years or something. The mentors work hand-in-hand with our students; we are peers.

I would say those “mentor built robots” (and I would argue that they aren’t mentor designed) did EXACTLY what they were supposed to do - even to a student not on their team. They inspired a student to become an engineer. They inspired a student to return to the STEM arena and inspire a new generation of students.

If that doesn’t sound like FIRST’s mission, I don’t know what does…