Mentoring an FLL team

This was our team’s rookie season, and in a recent meeting to discuss our plans for the future we decided to look into starting an FLL team in our area. I haven’t seen any threads specifically about this here on CD, but lot of FRC teams do mention their mentoring/sponsorship/starting of FLL teams. I’m wondering what exactly that entails? I suppose it’s a bit different for everyone, but besides just contacting local middle schools what are some things we should keep in mind when starting this endeavor? Thanks! :]

Things to keep in mind, gleaned over a year competing in FLL and two mentoring as a student:

1: Have the parents (and teacher/student mentors) read the FLL mentor manual! It helps so much, and there’s a ton of great advice in there!

2: Along the same lines, read the game manual! Despite the lower complexity, FLL does have very particular rules, much like FRC and FTC-- know them, and if it’s a middle school team, make sure all the kids know them. It will save you so many headaches.

3: Make sure you don’t have too many kids (or make sure you have enough mentors). I once mentored three teams of ten kids each that met in the same gym, with one teacher and a couple of rather apathetic parents. The teams were third, fourth, and fifth graders, and it was absolute chaos, but worse, almost nothing actually got done. At the end of the “season,” we had one and a half robots done. Starting small the first year is a good idea.

4: Remember that the season starts late August/early September! If at all possible, organize a “kickoff” and brainstorming session with the kids, especially if it’s a middle school team. It can be very difficult to get kids to focus after they have a full field (which reminds me, make sure to make building the field a fun team-building activity-- it’s a good way to give kids that aren’t experienced a bit of time building before they start the robot). Along with this comes a warning-- don’t burn your kids out, keep a realistic schedule and stick to it. A lot of lessons from FRC also apply to FLL. Try to make sure the kids are having fun as much as possible.

5: Don’t forget about non-robot activities! Practice core values challenges and spend as much time on your project as your robot! This is a great way to get kids that might not necessarily be interested in robotics into the program and STEM (again, FRC similarities).

As for support…
My team currently mentors or supports about 20 FLL teams (a number which we’ve built up over the course of the last five years or so). Support for FLL teams, even among those we support, is highly variable. To some teams, we’ve loaned laptops with the NXT program on them, to others, we’ve loaned full kits for the season. We also have student mentors that stay with teams, sometimes over multiple seasons. Funds for these kits were procured from a grant we wrote to our local Rotary Club, specifically for building FLL in our area.

Good luck, I hope you guys have as much fun with FLL as I have!

Guide for stating an FLL team,

Good Luck.

My background: I competed on a team for 5 years, and we were very successful, having represented Michigan at the World Festival in our last year. I’ve also mentored a team for a few years, which also made it to Worlds one year.

Here’s a few tips from me on being a successful team. I’ve split them into 3 categories, Team, Project, and Robot

As Nick said above, read the Coach’s Manual! It’s a great resource to teams, that’s what it’s for after all.

Team

Get the team together before the season officially starts. If the kids don’t know each other already, they need to! Play some team-building games too, teamwork is a huge part of FLL! (do a Google search for “team building exercises” or something similar and you will find lots of good ones)

FLL is a bit different than FRC when it comes to mentoring. In FLL the coaches and mentors are hands-off. Let the kids do the work, if they’re struggling, ask them question to make them think. “How can you do this? Is there a different way? What pieces can do that?”

Decide on a team name and similar aspects before the season starts. There will be plenty to do when the challenge is announced without worrying about what you’ll call your team.

Everybody wants to work on the robot, and everybody should. But keep in mind that somebody has to work on other aspects of the team as well. Give every student a chance to work on every aspect of the competition.

Learn from your experiences. Take your experience from each season and add it on for the new season! My team was always improving, and culminated with our best year.

Robot

Everything you do must have a reason. Not only does it simply make sense, but the judges will also ask you about reasons for things. If you don’t have a good reason to make a change, why change it? This goes for anything, building, programming, etc.

Have the team look at the field and challenges. Before you even touch the pieces, decide on a strategy. What can you realistically complete in a match? Decide what missions you will complete and when in a match to do them. Remember a match is only 2 1/2 minutes long. Choose a strategy that is realistic and makes sense.

Don’t try to make a complicated robot, remember the KISS principle. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) If a simple mechanism can solve a challenge, that’s good! I’ve seen kids try to make something complicated because it would be cool. It doesn’t need to be cool, it just needs to work. My FLL coach has a motto, “Build it simple, build it strong.” But if a more complicated system is necessary, go right ahead. Just don’t make it unnecessarily complicated.

Sensors!!! I can’t stress this enough. Use lots and lots of sensors wherever you can. Your robot is fully autonomous, the more you can do to tell it where it is on the field the better.

Color coordination, while not strictly required, is good. Make the pieces on the robot match where you can, a nice looking robot gives a far better impression than one that’s “rainbow colored.”

Practice, practice, practice! Once your robot is “completed” practice running timed matches. Score them. How can you improve? Running a robot match is a “dance.” Get the kids to practice enough that it becomes a habit for them. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Practice makes perfect.” The saying should really be “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Make sure they aren’t practicing it wrong, if they practice wrong, they will do it wrong.

Keep a record of changes you’ve made to the robot and your strategy. When the competition comes around, show show it to the technical judges and tell them about your changes and reasons for changes.

Project

Don’t forget about the science research project, it’s not all about the robot in FLL. To get a head start, have the kids do some research before the season. We already know the topic for this year, Nature’s Fury. The research project is usually something along the lines of “Find a problem relating to ________ and research it. Come up with a solution for your problem.” (of course this is a simplified summary, but this gives an idea of what to expect.)

Seek out mentors to help with your research project. In the beginning, find professionals in the field and ask them about what problems or issues there are in this particular area. After the kids have decided their problem and have thought of a solution, find somebody that’s willing to give input about the kids project. Set up a meeting with a professional in the field and the kids can tell them about their project and their ideas. Have them ask the professional what he/she thinks about it. Will it work? Is it feasible?

Their solution for the project doesn’t have to be perfect. It only needs to be feasible. I’ve seen (and done) some excellent projects that probably wouldn’t work, but the kids learned a lot and went through the process of the project.

Keep a list of resources used in research, and keep it diverse! Don’t limit it to only the internet, read books, magazines, and newspapers. But most importantly, talk to professionals!

Lastly, but most importantly, have fun and learn lots!!! Have a blast and learn while you’re doing it! That is what this is all about.

If you have any more questions, please ask! The community and resources out here are vast, take advantage of them. I try to keep an eye on this sub forum and will do my best to help. Also use the official FLL forum found here: http://firstlegoleague.org/challenge/forums

Here is the page on the FLL website about starting a team: http://firstlegoleague.org/challenge/startateam
Team Resources page on the FLL website: http://firstlegoleague.org/challenge/teamresources