How to bring a team back from 2 years off?

Our team never got the chance to compete in 2020, and 2021 was a complete non-starter. This is sort of a rambling explanation of how things have progressed since COVID began and a question of where we should go from here.

My last meeting of the 2020 season took place after both our Regionals had been cancelled but we were still trying to finish the robot, thinking maybe we would go to an off-season event or two. That was in March 2020, and after the meeting I went to the grocery store and for the first time saw people pillaging the toilet paper aisle. Shortly after that, our sponsor restricted all visitors to the facility where our shop is located, effectively cancelling all future meetings until COVID was over. The team was pretty bummed out but we understood it was necessary for everyone’s safety.

We tried hosting some virtual meetings once or twice a month, but really struggled to get any meaningful topics or discussions going. There were some lofty ambitions of planning for future projects and things we would do once back together, but as time went on both students and mentors shifted their focus away from robotics and on to other things. After we decided not to register for the 2021 season, participation slowly dwindled from maybe a dozen students (almost half the team didn’t really have an interest in virtual meetings to start with) and 4-5 mentors, down to a phone call between 2 or 3 mentors with no students.

With the exception of a couple employees/mentors, visitors are still not allowed at the workshop until September at the earliest, and with the Delta variant now that may even get pushed back again. We might have a temporary meeting place in the interim with nothing but computers or a few hand tools, but I’m not sure how many people will even come back at this point.

We’ll have lost over half of the students to 2 years of graduations, not counting the ones who have just lost interest or moved on. Most of the mentors have either moved on to other personal pursuits, or have had kids and can’t commit to the same level they did before (myself included). By the time we really meet up again, our team is likely down from our usual 25-30 students and 6-8 mentors & parents, to maybe 6-8 students and 2-3 mentors.

As a community team we draw students from a multitude of different local schools which is great, however it means we don’t have an “official” presence anywhere outside our workshop, and recruiting from a school where we don’t have any current students becomes exponentially more difficult. That’s all before taking COVID into consideration and needing to limit physical interactions even further. Same story with mentors, we have employees of our primary sponsor (myself and 1 or 2 others) and typically parents/grandparents of past students that stayed on (and now many of those have moved on with no events for 2 seasons), but not much outside of that pool of candidates.

So to make a long story short, our team is in pretty rough shape at best, and struggling to survive at worst. I’m not really sure where to go from here. I don’t see the situation with COVID improving much further for a long time, and I’m not sure when I’ll even feel comfortable at a competition again. I want the team to pick back up where we left off a year and half ago, but it feels like a ghost town.

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I’m with 1023, and we practice just a half mile over the state border. If you want, I can put you in touch with the coach. Maybe we can give you a space to work, though it wouldn’t be for a few months as we are out of our building while it’s getting repairs. At minimum we can give you some mentor help.

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If this was my team, here’s what I’d be thinking about:

  1. Get some certainty on the workshop. It sounds like the shop is part of your employer’s facilities so at least you have a direct line of communication. Figure out what it’s going to take to be able to work in person. If there are restrictions due to coronavirus, what PPE, behaviors, and vaccination status would be required to make in-person work possible? Could your team live with that? If you can’t have high certainty that you’ll have a place to build, the feasibility of maintaining a team drops precipitously. If it looks like your shop plans are falling through, you could look for another shop option, perhaps at one of the local schools.
  2. Don’t expect to pick up where you left off. Too much has happened since then for your team. Let the past go. Focus on the future.
  3. I’d suggest thinking like a rookie team with some experienced mentor help. Starting back up with 6-8 returning students and 2-3 mentors is certainly do-able if you have a place to build, some tools and equipment, and a source of base-level funding. You didn’t mention anything about funding in your team status description, so I’m assuming that it’s not in the top few of your worries.
  4. Recruit where you can, but don’t have any expectations of a 25-30 student team. Recruit throughout the entire season. Students who get on board late can still be important for keeping the team going in future years.
  5. Plan to build a simple robot for 2022. If your team is short on design, CAD, fabrication, programming, etc. skills, build an Everybot or look to some of the robotics suppliers for COTS mechanisms or publicly-released designs. Lean heavily on your own team’s software from 2019 or before. Publish it before kickoff if there is something there you can reuse. The most important thing is to have a robot that runs that you can take to competitions. Competition is the thing that is going to re-light the fire. Start your re-skilling and team rebuilding process with a bite-sized success rather than a too-much-to-chew failure.
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I think everyone is in much the same boat, to one degree or another. Even for teams that were still active this past year, recruitment was difficult or non-existent, and attrition was very real. So, the answer is recruitment, recruitment, recruitment! We’re running our annual summer camp right now (it’s by far our biggest recruitment effort each year) and have 7 new students there. The trick for us is going to be keep all 7 and maybe growing it a little more in the fall as well.

After recruitment, the season comes down to the same thing as every other season - do what’s within your ability to do. Don’t push for a robot that’s too complex for your current ability (which probably means taking a step back from where you were 2 years ago). Don’t push for more events than you can comfortably afford. Focus on the student experience, and ensure that the students you have this year are both going to return and bring enough excitement to help recruitment next year. Focus on growing, and you’ll get back to where you were (and then some!) before too much longer.

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These are all great steps.

You’re in a small enough media market that should be able to get some stories in the local paper and web based news sources. You should also plan to attend every local festival/event/market with students in team garb and a brochure. (We might have ideas for producing one if you have someone to create content.) Stage recruitment at every school sporting event you can think of in the fall. You need to raise your visibility. (And it will have the side benefit of improving your fund raising too.)

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Everyone is rooting for teams in trouble. If things with covid don’t get worse most of them should pull though. If FIRST decides that the delta variant and whatever comes next means no 2022 season it might be the final straw for the program as a whole.

TW

We’re very much in the same boat. We were a small community team before and going into this year right now we have 4 mentors and 2.5 kids that reliably show up, one of which is a rising senior. We’re looking at 3 new local kids with positive interest in joining going into the schoolyear, and one exchange student. The pandemic cost us our build space which had been generously donated for 5 years, so we are now meeting in my garage, which is compact and was already full of my personal workshop stuff. I obviously don’t have any silver bullets but here’s some stuff on our mind in no particular order, with our team survival experiment:

  • Zoom option for all meetings so anyone has an opportunity to join regardless of quarantine/lockdowns and keeping meetings reliable; we meet year round, I think we’ve taken 2 meetings off since the pandemic started
  • Reorganizing our team entity under 4H to ease our non-profit status and hopefully add both name recognition, opportunities for students, and familiarity that might help secure a new build space (we’re presently under another local non-profit, but it makes money complicated for us, 4H will allow us our own bank accounts among other things). We’re almost all the way through the process.
  • Recruiting: We feed off of 5 potential member schools as well as being open to homeschoolers. Being a community team has been a challenge. We have almost no presence inside the schools. A local kid visiting a fair booth we had set up, said “Wow it would be cool if we had a team here”, that was a pie face moment for me. We obviously need to figure out how to get in front of the teachers and administration more as well as the students directly, at their level, wherever they are.
  • Focus on skills development for fundamentals, and knowledge improvements for the mentors. We participated as best we could in the NEFIRST mini bot challenge using the Romi platform to get our feet wet with characterization, path navigation, etc for autonomous. It wasn’t feasible for us to go all the way with it, but we stepped back and followed in parallel, trying to make it work for us rather than focusing on submitting a half-cocked competition entry.
  • Doing that skills development on other real bots that do stuff: both our never finished 2020 bot and some bots that we intend to use for recruiting attention with a mix of FRC components and hobby electronics.
  • 3D printing as much prototyping stuff as we can. A couple years ago we fell in love with HYPE blocks and Spectrum ProtoPipe. Our team is pretty solid with 3D printing, which kept us busy early in the pandemic with making thousands of face shields, that’s since translated into the ability to print like crazy. We’re using that ability to build a library of prototyping parts that we can both actually prototype with for cheap, but also build some fun stuff for recruiting efforts and live prototyping at community events.
  • Strategic purchases and tooling improvements that will make us more efficient in build season: For example one thing that we’ve never done well is cutting bearing holes, we’ve been using step bits forever and our bearing holes always take forever and come out sloppy. Doing some learning, we found that moving over to an annular cutter in our drill press makes it way easier for us to do that easily and quickly. We like to rivet and have always done it by hand, a fairly cheap pneumatic riveter, slashes that time down and improves our quality. So for the small outlay on both those tools our speed and quality go up together at what our big time pinchpoints are in season.
  • Taking a hard look at fundraising and bang for buck events. We usually do some events that may be a lot of fun, but don’t really bring in much cash for the time invested relative to time spent just asking sponsors to give us money. We don’t have quite enough money to pay for the coming season. We tightened our belt as best we could, and our mentors have been self-sponsoring some of the small stuff we’ve actually needed to pay for. Build season is going to be a challenge in my home workshop, we’ve had to get a little more brave about approaching large building owners about looking for space. We’ve been met with a fairly hostile response a few times, more usually a “sorry can’t help you”, but we need a space and don’t have a lot of cash, we don’t have much choice but to keep asking different places.
  • Keeping it real with the kids. We don’t have too many mentor-only conversations, we try to keep our kids having a realistic eye on what our situation is, they pretty much understand that money is tight and our team survival is at stake. They need to have some skin in the game with recruiting and fundraising. We’re determined to be a free team for local kids, our local area has about 40-50% of students from families on food assistance, so there’s an economic reality there about student fees that we’re pretty up front about needing to make up with team fundraising. Our senior member [predictably] wants to build a swerve drive, so we need to manage expectations and help them see that if we don’t accomplish the fundraising and member recruiting, we’re not even going to be able to build an Everybot.
  • Trying to stay a little zen about it all. There are big forces at play and much is out of our control, so within that, how do we have fun and stay inspired with whatever our current situation is and at the same time act with long term team survival in mind?

These are just my morning coffee thoughts. I have no conclusions and there aren’t going to be any easy answers, you can ask me in 2023 how this worked out.

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Honestly, don’t think about it as if you are “bringing back” a team, think of it as starting a new one with a few extra resources under your belt.


Leadership
Ask students how to “fix” your (non-sensitive) problems. By doing that, you can get them engaged and taking ownership. Ask them at least once every meeting how you can help them accomplish these missions.

Set smart goals, make plans to act on them, the make sure to review them afterwards. The review time is critical, it allows you to celebrate your successes and making set action plans to remediate your next goal-action-revise cycle.

This is often referred to as Agile Development in the software world. I highly suggest running a team using agile development. Agile is a work flow that focuses on quick sprints of work with review, that help a team progress.


Work flow
I’ve often here teams have too opposing problems. They don’t have enough students to do all their projects, but they can’t keep students because they don’t have enough work to do. This isn’t a paradox, this is an effect of poor project management.

I like to run sprints with a Kanban boards (Achievable with Trello). There is a list for “Backlog”, “Todo”, “Doing”, “For Review”, and “Done”. A task assigner (often know as a scrum master) is in charge of moving priority items from Backlog to Todo. Developers goals are to move items from left to right from Todo to For Review. The review items have to be approved, both by a higher up and other developers on the board before it moves on to done.

Note that while Backlog and Done can be infinite, Todo, Doing, and For review have finite list lengths. This is to keep WIP (work in progress) items to a minimum.

As a mentor/Senior student, you should be the scrum master. You are also responsible for helping students with “blocked” items, and help do everything in your power to allow them to move the card from left to right.


Build the Basics
“Basics are borings,” people say. Rubbish! What’s boring is having a broken robot, disorganized student, and general frustration. Top tier teams don’t win off swerves, they win because they have perfected the basics. I highly suggest using “The Compass Alliance Pathways” as a roadmap for making sure you have all the basics down. Create a checklist for each pathway, and each year check off each requirement to make sure you are meeting them.


Let me know if you have any questions, and feel free to reach out!

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Hi everyone, thanks for the advice and varied perspectives!

Currently our team doesn’t plan to compete in the 2022 season, but we are allowed back in our build area so we will have some time to clean house and optimize things for future seasons. We have some leads on possible additional mentors, but more advice on recruiting (both mentors and students) from outside of our immediate orbit is always welcome. We have always focused (not always on purpose) on recruiting “build the robot” members, but have admittedly lacked in recruitment for non-build support like management, travel, media, fundraising, and other overhead type stuff. The result has been that these tasks fell to the mentors like myself who were also guiding student build groups. That was fine when we had free time to handle it, but everyone’s reduced availability will mean those tasks need more dedicated attention.

As far as finances, the team’s main sponsor is still involved and we have enough funds otherwise to reboot the team, so we are fortunate in that way. Going forward we’ll probably have to rethink our fundraising as our main fundraiser (a lawnmower maintenance service over a weekend) required a lot of person-hours and at a minimum would need to be scaled way back if not replaced altogether.

As you appear (on TBA) to be a school team, you might start with talking to your art & business (& so on) teachers to find students who might be interested in that part of your team.

FBLA and DECA clubs in schools are goldmines for getting these types of students.

If you need assistance in finding and filling out grants, shoot me a PM!

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Best of luck going forward. Others have had better results but when I’ve approached DECA locally there was zero interest in doing the kind of work involved. Odd, you’d think actual grant writing and helping manage a budget in the thousands of dollars would be what they do. Odd.

It has probably been mentioned but don’t overlook grandpas as mentors. Or for all I know, grandmas. We have a couple coming on board as we ramp up for build season. They have the time. They often have the skills. One is a retired tool and die maker the other a former med tech supervisor. They get to enjoy being with their grandkid and act as a general stable element.

Hope things work out for you down the road, or even that you get enough of a core group together to just say “Ah, heck. Let’s go for it” this season.
T

We’re a community team, but I think on TBA they listed out all the schools we had students from (plus home-schooled) so hopefully we have several potential groups to approach once we make contact.

I’d be curious to hear how you recruit from other programs like DECA. Our school has a strong DECA program but we have very little success attracting those students.

In my observation, students recruiting students is the most successful approach, so if you can get from teachers the names of some sharp students in, for example, business or art classes and then see if any of your existing kids have a relationship with any of them. The vast majority of our kids came to the team via a pre-existing relationship with someone on the team (sibling, band, scouts, church, sports, FLL, etc).

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To build off this excellent advice, don’t forget that team growth is actually two parts: Recruitment and Retention. Recruiting a student for 2 meetings is different than having them stick around for an entire year.

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Maybe team growth actually has three parts. Recruit and retain are obvious. But there is also, often, a natural Bell Curve of creative effort. Newbies often, not always, take a year to get up to speed. Seniors often, not always, have their energy and attention going towards the Next Things. This is normal.

Its part of why our policy is to actively work with middle school programs and simply promote the most promising 8th graders. That extra year of peak contribution makes them just more valuable than someone who wanders in during build season of their Junior year.

Your mileage may vary.

T

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