Middle School FTC Structure

This year was my first year coaching FTC, after many years doing FRC. I work for a non-profit that partners with public schools to provide STEM programs, and I’m coaching a rookie FTC team at the partner school where I work. This year our school did an FLL team for 6th & 7th graders, and an FTC team for 8th graders.

We’ve had a lot of what I suspect are typical rookie-year problems:

  • None of our students have ever done robotics before, or built anything from a kit, or used a wrench, etc before mid-September.
  • Teamwork and leadership skills are very very low compared to the high-schoolers I’m used to coaching - none of them are able to divide up tasks, and if one of them asks another if there’s anything they can help with, the answer is always “no”, even if there’s a dozen other parts of the elevator (or whatever) that need to be worked on.
  • As a result engagement has also been low, it’s a good day if more than 5 of my 13 students are actually working on robot-related tasks at the same time.
  • We meet 4 hours a week, and even though we’ve never had a working drivetrain except for during our first league event (another team helped us get it working enough to scrape by, but since we got home it’s had more problems), the kids have zero interest in adding more meeting hours. And why would they, since most of them don’t even have anything to work on during the regular meetings?
  • Patience and focus are also pretty low. If they get stuck and I’m busy helping another group, there’s about a 90% chance they’ll have gotten distracted and wandered off to do something else (non-robotics-related) by the time I get back to them
  • The design has also been much more adult-driven than I’m normally comfortable with, since we had to hit the ground running with all-new students (had our first info meeting two weeks after kickoff, due to a teacher’s strike).

And I would be fine with all of that - I’m sure rookie years are always hard - except I don’t see a clear path to making next year go better. Because we’re structured as an all-8th-grade team, it’ll be all-new students again next year. I don’t know how to get past the rookie stage without being able to develop student skills and leadership year-over-year - I’m used to high-school FRC where we always had a handful of seniors and sometimes juniors who could teach and lead the newbies. My manager is very set on continuing to do FTC, and wants to try to get this year’s team to start teaching next year’s team in the spring, but I’m a little dubious that
a) the 8th graders will come back in the spring (given how the season’s going, and that many of them plan to play spring sports)
b) 7th graders will want to start coming in without a competition to motivate them

Has anyone successfully run a single-grade FTC team before, or was this a fool’s errand from the beginning? Do you have any general tips for doing FTC with middle schoolers? Or other advice for making this program viable?

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Wall of text coming.

My first few years of FTC coaching we ran just 8th graders (we ran FLL teams from 4-7th grades). It was definitely rough given the team was brand new every year. We found that those that had done FLL prior had a bit more grip on building and programming but still needed significant adult supervision to get something going. Our first year I think we could score 1 ball in the center goal. We got a little lucky the next year since the kids where already familiar with CAD (our school district has a jr high shop class where they learn the basics of Autodesk Inventor).

After a few years we decided to conclude FLL at 6th grade and start FTC in 7th grade. This allowed us to get another year with the kids in FTC before they go on to FRC. One thing we’ve noticed with this split grade approach is that those with a year of experience tend to help reign in the rookies so we aren’t too overly ambitious.

In general, we’ve found that middle schoolers are much more interested in the hands on tasks (fabrication and assembly) versus the less tangible ones (CAD, programming, awards submissions). Given this, we push (sometimes less successfully) to keep the bots simpler and to integrate more COTs parts.

We usually run the following timeline.

Summer → optional meetings 1x a week where everyone gets a taste of each aspect of the team (mock kickoffs, machine training, programming, prototyping, etc). Note, we invite the 6th graders in the spring so when they become 7th graders in the fall they have an inkling of what’s going on.

Fall → Recruitment right after school starts. Introductions and basic shop training again. Then the season starts and we try to adhere to a schedule similar to one like this.

Winter → Competition season. Generally, we’ve found that if the robot works okay then there isn’t much student push to improve it. This can be a bit of a pet peeve for some of us more experienced people. After each event we do an event recap and track what goes well, what goes not so well, and then brainstorm plans to improve the not so good.

Spring → End of the season and things slow down a lot due to the workspace being used mostly for the FRC team and the above lack of student interest in iteration. After our last event of the season we do a season look back and note what we enjoyed and get feedback on how we can do things differently in the future (this is more for us as mentors to see how we can better support our kids).

Kinda general tips but

  • Get more help → Parents, even if they know nothing of engineering can be invaluable just being there.
  • Set reasonable expectations → Everything you think will take an hour will take like four. Things that seem easy…aren’t.
  • Teams don’t know what they don’t know → All our rookies generally only think of an arm and a claw for ways to solve a task since that’s what they have knowledge of. We generally run through a presentation with a ton of examples so we don’t just come up with an the same thing.
  • Student leadership → We have a decent number of FRC students that help with the FTC teams. They are more relatable to our jr high kids than us mentors are.
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You might check out the VRS- from the Ultimate Goal season. Virtual Robot Simulator I/We have a simulated FTC event curriculum that you could run with your 7th graders after the FLL season.
Check out “A Simulated FTC season VRS Doc’s” Simulated FTC season VRS Doc’s https://bit.ly/Simulate-FTC-season - Google Docs

Fun stuff, it was my first season as an FTC Mentor as well. I led build, while another mentor, with 1 year of FTC experience led programming. I was recruited so we could share knowledge year to year instead of parents fully leading it, and every other year turnover of knowledge. The goal being to have them a little more ready for FRC and excited to interact with FRC.
We had 14 7th (5 students) & 8th graders (9 students), about half with FTC experience. We are in FiM (Michigan) where FTC is only 7th & 8th grades. Here is what I think I learned this year.

  • Please don’t use Tetrix if you have a choice. We switched to Gobilda and are incredibly happy with the change. The kit is incredibly well thought out. Beauty is we used 1 size allen for almost everything, 1 more rarely for stuff small stuff like set screws. 1 wrench for nuts. angle clippers for zip ties, needle nose pliers, a hack saw and file.
    -We started 2 weeks early, explained FTC for a meeting then began a practice bot, a trunk or treat Candy Bot with conveyor and hopper. We used this bot throughout the season to be supplemental build tasks. After we qualified for States, extending our season 3 weeks, Build began working on a FRC Kitbot and getting safety trained on larger equipment, namely to get kids more tasks, experience, and excitement to move to the next level. The FTC kids were incredibly excited and proud to build the FRC bot. Programming and Drive team continued to work on autos and tele features.
    -I came up with tasks before the meetings for build and drive team. We would divide up for each of those tasks at the beginning of every meeting. I would attempt to cycle around and assist those kids as fast as possible. Later in the season we got amore “adults” (dad or FRC student) that would help. I would put them with a group or 2 and they would watch those groups and I would rotate the others.
    -Attention spans were low. We started with brainstorming, a lot of looking at Ri30H and picking what features would be cool, important, and drivable. From there some students played with gripping prototyping, but most built the bot that was described. There was almost no thoughts or questioning how or why we were doing stuff. They were getting used to using larger items then legos and trying to grasp the problems they were running into. how do we attach our wrist servo to a slide that will allow us to 180 and not have interferences, how do we run wires up there, etc.
  • Teach them how to use Allen wrench’s to properly tighten. 90% of or problems went away after I told them they must tighten with the short end.
  • Recruited parents to help write the engineering notebook/portfolio and prepare the presentation.
    -Students have been invited to be 8th grade interns at FRC.

Plans for next year:

  • start 3 or 4 weeks before build season to make sure everyone know how to use tools/code, etc.
  • engage parents to be their earlier. Even without much technical expertise they can keep kids ontrack and learn too. (they get a break on the program cost if the parents volunteer)
    -Have another filler project. Make it meaningful. Make sure to rotate who is working on the bot and the project.
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