Informing New Participants FRC is Mentor Based

There is an aspect of the seemingly endless mentor/student topic that I don’t think has had enough discussion: why do we keep having this debate? The obvious answer is “new students every year”. I don’t think that does it justice. How is it that year after year we have students, mentors, parents, teams, whoever that aren’t aware FRC is a mentor based competition?

For these new folks, it can be shocking to see a mentor do any work. In their eyes, this is obviously cheating. They channel their frustrations toward the teams who do work with their mentors. Maybe they speak up and ask the team, or ask on CD. They’re probably told “We do what’s best for our team”. In their eyes, they’ve just been told “It’s OK, we cheat”. Imagine Tom Brady telling the Colts that deflating footballs is OK. (I know, I know)

Assuming the above situation takes place at a competition to a rookie team, they went through the season under a different set of rules (though self imposed) than the other teams. They were competing at a disadvantage, and it’s too late to make up for it. The students also lost out on potentially life changing experiences working directly alongside mentors.They have a right to be upset, though they are likely upset at the wrong thing.

This problem is exacerbated by the other FIRST programs requiring mentors to be hands off. I know this is the case for FLL, I’m not actually sure about FTC. Looking at the descriptions about FRC( and FLL( they are surprisingly similar. No mention that one requires adults to be hands off and the other does not. It seems pretty reasonable for an FLL-graduating-to-FRC student/team/mentor/etc to assume that FRC also requires mentors to be hands off.

I admit, I am completely out of the loop about the resources available for new participants. Are there some obvious resources I’m missing? Am I making an issue out of nothing?

The goal of this thread is to come up with some ideas that we (FIRST, teams, CD) can implement to be proactive and help ensure everyone is aware FRC is mentor based going into the season.


It’s slightly different from the main topic of the thread, but one thing I think FIRST could be better at is providing a comprehensive list of beginner’s resources for new teams. The fact that you are unaware of the resources available indicates a partial failure of those that exist. A big part of this is the non-technical and cultural aspects of FIRST. It would have been great to know how much other teams would be willing to help us out our first years. Another cultural aspect is the mentor based issue you are referring to.

I always tell people who are new to the program that FIRST is for the students, but happens because of the mentors. I also make sure to use language that doesn’t cast a negative light on teams with more mentor involvement than others. I like to say “there’s no right way to run a team, just right teams for each person”.


As a mentor I often say, mentors are necessary and provide the most valuable aspects of FIRST to the kids through working together. FIRST is like Wu-Tang, its for the kids.


At a Kickoff workshop last season, I ran across a rookie team. Of course I made sure to greet them, see if they had any questions. One of the mentors asked if it was OK for him to CNC parts for the team.

At which point, I explained loosely about the “student-built-mentor-built”, and that it was perfectly fine–and encouraged–if the team was able to make use of that resource. I also advised the team to make sure that they worked as a team.

And that’s sort of my standard answer: As long as you’re building a robot, the mix doesn’t matter, except to people whose opinions don’t matter (those not on your team).


I know this is just a sample of four, but this weekend at Rock City, I did at least half of the inspection for four rookie teams. On three of the four teams, it was clear that at least one mentor was fully a “member of the team”. They didn’t always get their hands dirty, but they didn’t seem to be afraid to do so when needed, and they regularly gave advice/direction, and knew which of their students needed supervision, and which could be trusted to do their jobs. The exception was a team which apparently had no technical mentor/coach. Late on the day of most quals, I spoke to their head coach for several minutes, both about FIRST and our lives and families, and it appeared that they just didn’t have anyone to fill the role. I’m not sure exactly how the message is getting to teams, but 3/4 of the rookies I worked extensively with at Rock City had hands-on mentors, and the other was looking for some.

Edit: not really germane, but neat stuff

The team with no technical mentors built a crazy-simple robot with just a drive train and a one-motor manipulator to hang hatch panels. I think I did ALL of their inspection except final weigh-in. The first shot at inspection, I didn’t check/initial any boxes beyond weight and dimensions, but I brought them through what would be inspected. Their manipulator’s motor was mounted with duct tape such that I couldn’t tell what it was, and I explained that I needed to see it for them to pass inspection, and suggested a couple of mounting options. Late Thursday, I passed them WITHOUT a motor/gearbox on their manipulator.
I went back to them Friday morning after getting another rookie team through inspection, and took them through re-inspection with the (miniCIM) motor and gearbox. The non-exempt items on their BoM were a piece of plywood that was a bit too large to fit a $5 price point, a single stage VP gearbox, and a length of paracord which probably could have gotten past a $5 price point if they’d needed it. They literally spent less than $100 over their rookie KoP. In their first match, they scored at least two (I believe 3) HP, and climbed the HAB level 1 for 7 or 9 points. Their alliance racked up 19 points, winning the match by 3; they obviously fully contributed to the win. OBTW, their alliance included a team which ended up on the event winning alliance. This rookie team ended up being the first selection of the #8 alliance.


ideas for FIRST to inform new participants? have FIRST publicly endorse mentors designing/building/programming robots with clearer definitions, rather than just passionate mentors saying it and a speech from 1885.

let the fact that mentors can be involved and not just guide be in the google searcher’s face.
even if the mentor’s guidance fails to let the student (or lack of student to) do the job, the mentor can build it themself, and not just only in safety and “last resort” measures… if that’s what you mean. a lot of people defend mentor built with safety and student availability, which implies they view hands on mentors as a last resort that wasn’t meant to be in terms of competition (but isn’t as a result always unethical).

meanwhile, on the current about FRC page “teams of students are challenged to design, build and program industrial-size robots… Volunteer professional mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team”

but please define “based”.
a purely mentor guided team can be mentor based since the mentor passes down their knowledge base. maybe it’s mentor based because the mentor recruits all the students. students need supervision, so the team can’t exist without mentors, so it’s mentor based? one can also say it’s student based because students do most the work, it’s for students, etc. or does the word “based” even matter in your purpose?

i think a problem is that people fight for or against “mentor built” based on different definitions. from filleting corners to mechanism brainstorming to online elevators for sale to mentors cadding intakes. once in a while you’ll even find someone saying mentor built is okay because mentors are allowed to mentor.


Best topic of the year


If I accounted for the time I spend talking with people about FRC, 75% (not including conversations with veteran team members) is intentionally explaining this aspect. This holds true for conversations with:

  • New students
  • New parents
  • Veteran parents
  • New sponsors
  • Potential sponsors
  • Veteran sponsors
  • Community members
  • School administrators
  • Potential new mentors
  • People who participate in literally every other robotics activity for students
  • People who have ever participated in a Pinewood Derby

So yeah, the more FIRST gets out in front of this, the better off we all are.



All memes aside I genuinely think this is an important discussion that we need to have. I used to be on the side that student built teams were better because students would learn more however I think anybody who has talked to students on those teams that have are more “mentor built” can see that they a lot of the time they learn more and are more passionate. I think that it’s a much different challenge to work on a student run team but I don’t think anybody can be in the position to say that they know what is the best way to structure a team.

As for solutions that’s much more tricky. A lot of new people don’t check CD a ton so they probably won’t be very informed on the topic. Besides getting more people to read CD I think that the only solution to this problem can really come from FIRST themselves. They have to stress how important mentors can be in facilitating learning but also talk about how different teams operate differently and that is okay.


If I may share an anecdote,
My son’s team was fortunate enough to compete in the VEXIQ state championship this past weekend. During the opening ceremonies, the Master of Ceremonies (a person for whom I have a great deal of respect) said, “This is a student competition. Adults may not touch the robot. Adults may not program the robot. Adults may not fix the robot. Adults may not carry the robot. If an adult is seen touching the robot in any way, that team will not be eligible for awards.”

I do not know if that verbiage was mandated by the VEX folks or written by the event staff.

While I certainly understand this sentiment is appropriate for an elementary competition, I fear this sows some pretty poisonous seeds for the students and their parents as they advance through more complex and mature competitive platforms. Competitive robotics is still a bit of an unknown world for a lot of folks out there, and when it’s framed at an early age as “white glove” it’s hard to change that conception as the participants age into more mature competitions.


They get Arkansas rookies can have adult mentors because of me and John telling them that.


This was most likely mandated by the RECF. The VEX IQ Challenge is a “student-centered program”, with both the manual and code of conduct specifically calling out adult involvement. At the World Championship level, there is basic programming testing for the top scoring teams to prove their robots were programmed by the students.


Thanks for clearing that up. I did not intend to cast the VEX family of programs or its partners in a negative light. I support the VEXIQ program with my family’s money and time, and we helped start eight VEXIQ teams at our kids’ school over the past two years. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best elementary STEM program out there.

I was simply trying to illustrate how we as mentors have to be aware of how deeply the bias runs.


I’m with you 100%. FRC is completely unique among high school aged programs with its level of mentor involvement. We need to stop being baffled when people are initially surprised and perplexed by this.


I think part of it is the ambiguity of who did what. If you see a really great auton, for example, and you’re unfamiliar with FRC you would be amazed that a student programmed it. Then you might hear that a mentor (with years of experience and education) did it. Or you might even hear someone SAY a mentor did. You ask about what what they said, and hear it’s within the rules and done all the time. Without more information, like the fact that the student will now be able to do it from now on and just needed to see how, you might think ALL the great autons are like that. Even if they WERE programmed by a student. And if they say a student programmed it, you might think they’re just trying to sound good. Without a constant stream of information explaining how actual mentorship works, it becomes a constant cycle of surprise and bitterness thinking they’re not showing the right “spirit” of competition. It also doesn’t help that we are always comparing ourselves to sports and the is no equivalent HS sport that I can think of that would allow adults to be such a major component of the game.
On top of all that, there’s the fact that so many adults don’t even agree exactly what mentorship means and how involved a mentor “should” be. And the fact that teams can have such diverse access to resources. (Which is one of the things FIRST tries real hard to change)
Many of these things seem “unfair”, and as long as this program stays uniquely “mentor based” I don’t think the debate will ever end. To be honest, I’m not convinced it should. More available information would be AWSOME, and I think it’s important. However teaching (or taking about) the same thing over, and over again to diffrent kids (and parents, sponsors, whatever) every year is kind of how it’s supposed to work. (Talking to the SAME people over, and over again is diffrent) It’s understandable people would find a program like this a foreign concept. That’s what makes it unique. And explaining it to them in the most unbiased way we can should be part of what’s expected of a FRC participant. It is a unique and major part of the program, even if you elect not to participate in it (white- glove). The fact that they leave that choice up to the teams, allows more teams to participate even if they CAN’T get a mentor that can build a robot.
I think a major marketing push would help with the negativity involved. Something where it’s not mentors vs students. Something more focused on being a whole team. I’m proud to be a mentor on my team, but to me it’s just a job description, like presenter, or scouter, or operator. And I do believe each team should be able to define the limits of each “job”. But, what really makes me happy is that I am not just a mentor on my team, I’m a member of it.


I’m bookmarking this for the student/mentor built debate that is scheduled for the 2020 season.




I think a comparison with high schools sports could be useful. Someone might say, “well, only students are allowed on the field,” but that is only a tiny portion of what actually happens. At the game, particularly football, the plays are being called by adult coaches, adults are watching and conveying information to the adult coach. And the practices, the majority of the time, are closely supervised by adult coaches. In baseball, much of the batting practice is thrown by adult coaches. Adults are intimately involved in the training process–athletes rarely have much input into the design of that training program. (I was an exception when I designed my own off season training, and even did my own separate 6-week preseason program.) So I think students hold misconceptions about how sports work and how FRC compares.


This is how I try to explain it as wel. FRC is like most high school sports, and that’s a good thing! The best sports players didn’t get that way by being let loose on a field and told to figure it out, they got that way by learning from experts and building on that foundation. The same goes for scientists and engineers. If I tell a student to use polycarbonate instead of aluminum because in my experience it will work out better because of reasons X Y and Z, what’s the difference from a coach telling a quarterback to run the ball instead of pass?

I think so long as you engage the student in the reasoning behind the decision and not blindly dictating then you are contributing to them learning and being a positive influence.