How to turn an below average robotics program into a great robotics program?

I am a captain on team 4549, the question I have to ask is how to build a good support structure for our team, so in my time as captain, when I have a chance in changing the program i can make as positive of an impact as possible.

(I am a sophomore as of 2021-2022 school year)

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I think personally for us our priority isn’t our bot. It’s our attitude and gracious professionalism. Once we finally got comradery (mostly from emotionally scarring bus rides) and started acting like a team we got a lot better and it truly turned the program into someplace fun to be.
Team meals and other team activities helped with this. The first few weeks we all sat in established cliques but now we move around and are friends with everyone. In my opinion big teams make this hard so teams that are 20 members or so are ideal for team building.

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I am also trying to focus on the team building aspect of that we have 7 members and outside of the team no one really knows we exist in our town so recruiting is hard.

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I’d simply just start off with a consistent meeting schedule. If you are a school team maybe evens see if you can meet weekends. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy. If you and your students truly listen to each other and maintain involvement and excitement, you will build a great robot. Maybe not a winning robot but one you will learn from. Our first in seasons in was at the at home challenge. This was because performance in this game solely depended on the effort your team put in. My brother and I would spend 40 hours a week plus at the build site trying to perfect our challenges. There was no interference from mishaps at competitions or other teams. Sure you lose a lot of the experience but you will also learn perseverance and resilience.

In the off-season, find some projects. Build a parade robot (a T-shirt cannon robot or all terrain robot) and see if you can demo it at your school, drive it in community parades, etc… hand out pamphlets at these events. get CAD projects to work on. Spend this time to learn about new mechanics and mechanisms at your disposal. Do outreach events. Recruit sponsors through parents and friends. Recruit members the same way.

At competitions maybe come up with some chants in the stands. Give all students a role. If you need more get a scouting division together. Encourage pit walks. Try and see what other teams do as inspiration. Go check out other competitions even if you aren’t competing.

Most importantly though have fun. Make it a welcoming place. Focus on building relationships and gracious professionalism before anything.

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Is it a community team or school team?

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school team

Okay try putting up some posters. Tell your STEM teachers to encourage involvement through the program. Have a school bake sale - this is how I learned that mine exists. If you have morning announcements try and put meeting reminders or recruitment sessions on there. Include a flyer in the school newsletter. School social media. Anything lol - I know it’s a lot with 7 people - I was one of the only active members on my team - but I spent so much time working and driving my team I made so many great friends and many memories. Now we are a fairly sizable team with about 25-30 members. The more you work together the more fun you’ll have.

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Succeeding at FRC is an organizational challenge that is bigger than any one season. I recommend you sit down with mentors and formulate a 1 year, 3 year and 5 year plan.

To succeed your team needs resources:

  • money
  • space (a practice field can be a game changer)
  • time (do you meet in the summer?)
  • people (especially experienced mentors)

You won’t get all those things solved in one year, but you can set goals and timelines for them. (Using other successful teams as benchmarks) Once you have a plan, you can use it to drive your choices: How much money do we need from grants and sponsors? What should we spend money on? How should we recruit mentors and students etc. It may take longer than you have time as a student, but you can always continue with the team as an adult to see the full transformation through.

Good luck!

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You didn’t specify what sort of “greatness” you are going for. There is competitive greatness, but also great from a “spreading the message of FIRST” perspective. Different teams will weigh these differently, depending on the team culture. We tend to feel that competitive success is an enabler to achieving the goals of FIRST. Students (and mentors) are attracted to joining a team with a culture of performing well on the field.

There are several key steps we have made along the way towards becoming more competitive. The first of those is that everyone on the team, especially the mentor team, has to share the vision. A great deal of the burden will fall on the mentor team, and it requires both the ability and desire to spend a lot of free personal time on FRC.

  • Move from being a build season team to being a year round team. This enables technology development projects instead of trying to cram everything into build season.
  • Develop a strategy to work within the rules to leverage your resources to maximize productivity during build season. For teams with access to advanced CNC equipment, this might mean designing and prototyping mechanisms and drive trains during the off-season that can be fabricated rapidly starting kickoff day. For us, we designed a west coast drive train (see our YouTube video series) that could be fabricated and assembled quickly from mostly COTS parts. We also, over several years, invested in a stock of COTS parts such as gears, pneumatic cylinders, motors, gearboxes, and belts that allow us to design and build mechanisms during the season without needing to wait for COTS parts to ship from vendors.
  • Build 2 robots during the build season. This was more important when bagging was required, as having two robots allowed one to bagged while design and development continued on the other. This effectively removed the 6 week deadline imposed by the bag. Even after that, having a robot that the programmers can use for software development while mechanisms are developed on the other is a huge increase in efficiency, as it allows everyone on the team to work in parallel.
  • Figure out how to have a practice field. Our most major jump in competitiveness happened when we could tune autonomous routines and do driver practice on a full sized (or at least half) field. Arriving at a competition with working autonomous modes, a bot that has already been beaten, broken, and debugged, and a drive team that has practiced setting up the bot on the field and knows how to use it to score is HUGE.
  • Record your matches and review them with the drive team after every match. This is so achievable for every team, and so beneficial to gameplay, that it still stuns me that every team doesn’t do it. We review all the tactical and strategic decisions made during the match to see what we did right and how we might improve in the next match. This match video is also invaluable for tuning auto routines to varying field conditions and occasional robot troubleshooting. Memory is faulty, especially in high pressure situations. Having video of what REALLY happened is invaluable. Plus, you can use the footage for YouTube videos later.
  • Learn from others. Be willing to ask exactly the kinds of questions you are asking, and be willing to take the best practices of others and adapt them to your own team culture. That goes for everything from how teams operate to how they design and build their bots. On weeks you aren’t competing, take a handful of team members to another nearby competition and work the pits, asking questions, taking pictures, and talking to other teams. You can pick up a TON of valuable knowledge in a very short time.
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This shouldn’t matter but are there currently any girls on the team? I know that we started off with only boys. Once we had 1 girl suddenly more came and now we have a dominantly female team. It just helps to have representation and an inviting place to be. If you don’t have any girls maybe try outreaching to clubs in your area like girls who code or others.

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I highly, highly suggest reviewing the Compass Alliance Pathways. It gives you a direction to go for almost any area of your team. It will help you take your team to the next level.

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Focus on the goal of making great future engineers, not just winning!

(or businesspeople for our chairman’s friends)

Our team motto is “Building futures, one robot at a time”.

A lot of people are giving suggestions on how to win, I would like to offer some things that help us achive this mission:

  • Mentors that really care, they don’t have to work at Nasa
  • Team spirit/good work environment. Work on making everyone friends, that way they will push each other and make it fun.
  • Do community outreach events. Parades, carnivals, football games. Mentor some FLL teams. This also helps with recruiting.
  • Do offseason projects designed to learn about specific things.
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My best piece of advice is to establish consistency in the critical resources of the team. Obviously this doesn’t happen overnight, but it makes the largest difference once you get it all locked in. Hundreds of teams have not completed this step and this alone results in their poor performance.

-Consistent mentorship (and where you might find more)
-Consistent student members (and where you might find more)
-Consistent build space
-Consistent money (and where you might find more)

Then spend time with the whole group discussing what your teams goals are. The point of goal setting with the whole group is so that everyone is aligned with the desired direction of the team. Start with cultural goals. These can be whatever you want. Here are some examples:

-We want to have fun
-We want to learn about robots
-We want to engage our community
-Etc.

Then talk about performance goals. These can be a mixture of long term and short term goals. You can think of short term goals as stepping stones to reach your long term goals.

Here are some long term goals.

-We want to be a consistent contender in our region within 5 years
-We want to never miss the playoffs again
-We want to qualify for the world championship before we graduate
-We want to start working towards wining the chairman’s award

Here are some short term goals:

-We want to make the playoffs this year
-We want to build a functional robot this year
-We want to win a judged award this year

And then once everyone is aligned you go out there and give it your best shot.

Meeting your goals doesn’t really matter. The point of setting them is benchmarking your performance against something that you decided matters to you. After the season look back at your goals and where you succeeded and where you failed. Failures indicate areas where the team could do to improve, successes indicate areas where you can push for higher results. Finally, you repeat the process again and again and again, hopefully improving a little bit each time, until you eventually reach your long term goals.

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Real talk, be informed (enough) about what you need to do from a robot/strategy perspective and get lucky.

Ex. if 225 hadn’t built the full court shooter in 2013, not sure we would have built the team into any significant level. We got really lucky we won SCH with 341 in 2013 and subsequently capitalized on the win to build up the team.

The team had $0 in the bank, just a couple new mentors with some experience, about $2,000 floated on credit cards, and a lot of grit. We stumbled our way to worlds through a lot of luck and the generosity of FMA providing region champs / world champs grants to teams, then used the exposure to make it so we could stand on our own going forward.

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I know exactly how you feel.
Team 3636 has been well below average for most of our history. From 2011, our rookie year, to 2019, we were unpicked at over half of our competitions. 2019 (my first year) was our first blue banner as a 2nd pick robot, qualifying us for the PNW District Championship for the first time ever. That inspired a lot of the team, especially the freshmen like me, to believe we had potential to be much better. In 2020 we built a simple and effective robot and managed to rank 2nd at our first district event, before our season was cut short due to the pandemic. We lost a lot of talented students over 2021, but a core group of team members worked tirelessly learning CAD, programming, and game strategy. We built our own CNC router in spring of 2021 and taught ourselves how to use it (with plenty of advice from people on the FRC Discord)

This year, we joined the Open Alliance. I honestly can’t think of anything that’s helped us more in our team’s history. If you want your team to succeed, I’d highly recommend starting with that. Publishing your design and build process doesn’t just let others copy you - it opens you up to a massive amount of feedback. For example, us and team 8177 (who is currently Rank 1 in Texas… just sayin’) built extremely similar robots, and have both benefited from each other’s ideas and iterations. And our climber probably would have broken in our first match if @Nick.kremer hadn’t spent a couple hours talking me through everything not to do for a high-torque pivot mechanism. The connections you can make through the Open Alliance are invaluable for learning how to succeed. FRC does have a “meta”, and the more you understand it the more successful your team can be.

Everyone always praises the idea of building within your limits (and they’re right!). The way I like to phrase it is “raise the floor before you raise the ceiling.” Great robots aren’t great because they can perform well, they’re great because they always do. Consistency is the most important part of success in any part of FRC.

This year we built a robot with a fender shooter and a Mid climb. It was simple and made heavy use of COTS parts, we got it done week 4 of build season, and from there we never stopped iterating. At our first district event, we showed up with a tarmac-range shooter and a Traversal climb. All because we set our expectations realistically and improved only after we’d achieved our initial goals. We started by raising the floor of our robot’s performance, then we raised its ceiling.

My TL;DR of how to build a competitive robot:

• Set realistic goals and design/build within your limits
• CAD the robot & take advantage of precision machining like CNC routers, lasers, and 3D printers
• Lean hard on COTS parts, and use design info from the Open Alliance to expedite your prototyping work
• Get the robot done early (around week 4 of build season) to prioritize driver practice and programming time

Sorry if this all sounds like me talking up my own team’s success, but we came from a very similar position and I truly believe any team can do great things by using the resources they have effectively.

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We started taking competitiveness seriously maybe 5 years ago --and it’s been a rough but now rewarding march forward. I say that because you don’t change culture over night and you need some strong mentors and students who are disciplined to stick to a plan and do the little things right before worrying about if your team can carry alliances to winning blue banners. It’s hard because it’s gutting to do everything people said above here and my suggestions below and still fail (because you will) --but getting competitive is really hard and with some exceptions doesn’t happen right away.

I’d say the key is get a good foundation --solid drivetrain that you understand and can build quickly . I don’t think a lot of teams who are trying to go from below average to average should spend a lot of time discussing drivetrains on kickoff day --just pick something you know works every match (this is an offseason project if you won’t have your own drivetrain or just use a solid kitbot). Avoid the temptation to try for those 18-20fps drive trains to keep up with 254 or 148 because you’ll inevitably screw up the gearing and brown out your robot (see 4206 in 2018). What you consider average or maybe even slow is fine if it works from your first match of the season to the last match… Practice and experience matters a lot --so if you don’t have access to a practice field you need to learn during your early season events and dead / non-driving robots kill that.

Don’t fall for the trick of doing everything and don’t second guess your choice once the season starts. In 2017, we decided that we were just going to be a gear cycler and didn’t even consider a climber until other teams posted good designs that we could easily implement AND our gear cycling was going well. That was the first time we stuck to the plan and won the Dallas Regional and eventually got invited to IRI that summer. In fact, this season we decided our swerve bot (that we’ve been using for two years now) that can climb and pick up cargo from the floor were the three priorities we needed to focus on --and all we did for about 2.5 - 3 weeks. The thought was if we couldn’t pick up cargo then that meant we couldn’t shoot them so why care about the shooter until that problem is solved? A simple robot that is done, works and can get practice time is what has worked for us while incomplete awesome designs that were never used/tested until our first competition day killed us over the years.

Finally get the basics right. Don’t let bumpers fall off, don’t use saggy reversible bumpers (reversible is OK if it’s done right). Make sure all your wires are securely connected but with a little slack to handle getting hit, make sure your battery crimps are solid, make sure you have enough batteries to get through a competition, make sure there is no way the battery will fall out. Again anything that can turn off your robot during a match takes way opportunity to learn and get better throughout the season. Average and above average sometimes don’t score tons of points but they hardly ever die on the field.

Read JVN’s blog: The Weak Robot Cart — JVN Blog

Once we read that we embraced that we weren’t too good for: COTS solutions, pre-match checklists, using designs that worked for other teams, etc… and we got a little better and better every year. The results didn’t always show but I’d say our 2019 robot was better than 2017, our 2021 robot at the Texas Cup was better than the 2019 robot, and our robot this year is better than last year’s. After 5-6 years of struggling we’re having our best season ever and we look at our next challenge as being consistent not trying to be the next 148.

Finally, there is a quote from Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines Founder) that I shared with my team in 2019 (Admittedly, it went in and out of ears though): “We got big by thinking and acting small. And we’ll get small by thinking and acting big”. He meant that in the sense if we didn’t pay attention to details, got complacent, and didn’t embrace who we are as a company when we pushed American Airlines into bankruptcy that we’d be next to go under. I think it’s critical that teams understand who they are in terms of capabilities, mentors, training, etc… and build within their limits and eventually good things will come.

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I think one of the biggest changes you can make is to start pushing the kids, during build season. It feels weird at first, but it is astounding how much more kids can achieve when they are sufficiently motivated and given specific goals. As weird as it sounds, Mentors stepping in and setting the timeline for the season (after asking the kids how much time they can commit, of course). That made a huge difference for us. Also visiting nearby successful teams

Other answers would iclude:

  • more practice space
  • Using more COTS parts (versa frame, climber in a box, … ). Lets you focus on the tuning of the intake, not the fabrication. After you master the versa frame intake, you can build your own. But you have to understand the system first. Also, this lets you focus on one specific element without throwing away the others. Focus on a shooter, and still have a climber. Turn the climber in a box into a level 4 climber, instead of spending the season trying to make your own telescoping climber
  • Learning from other teams (1678 webinars/presentations, …). Cannot overstate how important this one is
  • Getting rapid prototyping tools (and using them), like a laser cutter/good 3d printer. Then start making mechanisms on day 1
  • Practice skills outside of the season. Then ramp up into the start of the season. We usually CAD/prototype some mechanisms in the weeks/months leading up to the season, build an elevator, build a climber, build a hatch panel mainpulator…
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Regarding recruiting… We gained a lot of insight into this when we started doing targeted, intensive exit interviews with our graduating seniors. We ask specifically, “Why did you join the team?” We wanted to focus our outreach efforts (public demos, community outreach events, middle and elementary school visits, support of FLL teams) where they would be most effective. In other words, we wanted our outreach efforts to be results based. Not based on what we “thought” was working, but based on what the students say actually was working. Over a period of 5-7 years (I don’t remember exactly when the interviews started) we found a surprising, consistent answer. None of our “traditional” outreach activities were actually pulling students to the team. The overwhelming majority of influenceable students who joined the team were there because of one reason. Their friends pulled them into it. All of our efforts with public outreach, though nice to point to for publicity reasons and Chairman’s applications, actually were completely ineffective at bringing students to join the team. People were joining because they wanted to hang out and have fun with their friends.

Now, there is some element of self selection bias in these answers, in that this sample is from the subset of students who stuck with the team until graduating. We also recognize that there is a subset of students that come to a few meetings and then stop coming. These represent a missed opportunity that we’ve been strategizing to capture. COVID has thrown a wrench into our team growth, but we see our most effective outreach efforts as being directed towards getting students to pull in more of their outside-robotics friends, and retaining the newbies who are leaving after just a few meetings, for whatever reason.

Maybe these lessons will be helpful to you in growing your own team.

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This is where your kids can help – virtually everyone came to our team already knowing somebody on the team (a sibling, a fellow scout, a church friend, etc) – they all surely know somebody who would enjoy FRC.

The other thing we have done is having our students mentor FLL teams – another great way to form those personal relationships that lead to a growing team.

I would not underestimate the value of diversity on a team. A variety of folks bring a variety of opinions and ways of thinking, and a variety of ways of doing a certain task. Making the team a brighter and more welcoming place is always a positive because it creates team sustainability. For example, having girls on a team can help encourage non-male mentors to join the team, which in turn fosters more diverse student recruitment. Not only is it the right thing to do, it will end up being the sustainable thing to do in the long run!

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