First post, so we’ll see how the formatting goes.
My name is Alexander Brown and I am a mentor for Team Orion #3240 which is based out of John Jay High School in San Antonio, Texas. I feel it is a unique team in some of the advantages and disadvantages received from being both a STEM based Magnet School, and a Title 1 school. I do not know what specific plan will work for your particular situation, but I’ll try to give some insight into the tactics that my team employs and why they work for our particular team.
I’ll try to target your questions in order, but it’ll be a bit of a read ::rtm:: .
Retention and recruiting:
In general, our team will receive students of two different cultures. Those that go in with the intention of pursuing a STEM career (generally, a magnet school student), and those who we managed to entice with shiny robots in passing (The vast majority). STEM career tracked students are the easiest to recruit, but it still isn’t easy. Our team works with the school (we have found that to be important) by getting involved in the magnet school recruiting fairs, open house nights, Freshmen introduction events, etc. to get the word out. We usually showcase one of the more impressive FRC robots in a safe area, along with some smaller FTC/vex robots for the incoming students to drive. We then have multiple student members available to talk one on one to the parents, and the students who come to these events. I highly recommend that the students do the talking. When the school year rolls around we have multiple team introductory meetings to try to catch as many freshmen as possible. Working with your school shop teachers is also effective in getting talented students who want more practice/projects/skills. Those students also help break the cultural stigma that can sometimes be found around robotics, and it may help to improve your recruiting in a title 1 school.
From there, we focus on freshmen retention. We find that with a high freshmen retention rate, recruiting from other grades is efficient without the mentors/teachers having to focus on them because the students recruit their friends and classmates.
Retaining students is complicated, as they have many reasons for and against their involvement. We look to build a program that provides value, and that the students know provides value. Beyond that, we try to provide as many times as possible for meetings and distributing the load among the students so that they aren’t required to be there everyday. We have two teachers who dedicate two hours to at least one day a week each during off-season, and a tremendous amount of time during the FRC season, BEST robotics season, and FTC season. We have found that by having multiple FTC teams we have increased freshmen retention as the competition is a little easier for them and earlier in the year, so they don’t lose interest. Beyond that, our team has a mildly moderated group chat for enhanced communication, and regular meals with each other to form bonds and friendship.
Back to the unique issues of our school. We have a few parents that are heavily involved during competitions that do a great job providing pre-made sandwiches and snacks (saves a lot of team money) and we love them for it. We also have one set of parents that will take the time out of their day to help out the teachers with some of the managerial side of the events we have (Love them too). These are often the exception. With the magnet school, a lot of the parents have to commute a large distance in rush hour traffic to get to the school. That makes things a hard sell. As for the non-magnet school parents, we rarely see or hear from them. We do try to involve them through having parent meetings and inviting them to competitions, but their is only so much we can do in that realm. Usually once they make it to a competition like FRC, they are much more impressed with their kid and are more forthcoming on the time they allow their children to be involved. That doesn’t necessarily mean the parents become more involved. This is something our team is working on. We are gradually increasing our communication and feedback with parents and we will see where that leads us in the future with increased parental involvement. Parental involvement is not just a team wide issue, but a school wide issue at our particular location.
This is a tough one. I joined this team as a Freshman at the school back around 2011, went on to captain the team, graduate, and return as an industry mentor. Throughout these years, I have put in more hours than I have bothered to count. We are on our third Lead Coach/Teacher/Mentor who is off to a great start this year. We have also had about a half dozen other mentors/teachers get involved and leave due to a large assortment of reasons. The best tactic we have found to work so far is to get other teachers involved during the off season by having them commit to ~1 day a week from the end of school to about 5:30~6:00pm which works out to avoid most of the rush hour traffic. By distributing the load and not being the only one, you’ll see more improvements and have less headaches. Providing an environment where families can comfortably get involved and have fun is also a good way to minimize the flack they receive for coming home during the wee hours of the night during the build season.
Recruit Freshmen by convincing them to give small through showing them how fun the competitions are, and what they can learn by being involved. Leaders will appear from among them, and over time they will develop to be talented (with a bit of effort on teaching them). Show the parents how fun things are, and what they can learn. Communicate, bond, grow together. The more teachers/mentors/team members you have giving pre-planned small amounts of consistent time, the harder it is for one to burnout. Don’t forget to have game nights and other bonding stuff between the parents/teachers/mentors as it will likely build trust. Good luck. It’s not easy, and it will more than likely take a couple years for you to see a return on your investment, as it takes time and dedication for a team to gain noticeable momentum.
This is what my team has learned throughout the years and mileage may vary as we are still constantly evolving and learning in an effort to improve. Hopefully it helps.
Outside of your questions, I recommend talking to other local teams, and coordinating with them more on event planning and such. Forming a community of local teams can lead to quick help when you need it most.