[Renamed] Hands-on ideas for a Virtual Season

Are any other teams staying completely virtual this fall and most likely for the rest of the 2020-2021 season?

I hope this starts a healthy discussion and helps other teams in our situation. I do not wish for comments on our safety precautions, COVID-19, team structure or mentor involvement. I will not comment on your team’s either, please just ideas.

Our Team:
Community robotics program not affiliated with a school. ~20 students. ~1-3 consistently active mentors with a host of new mentors just joining the team as a result of a new sponsorship. I am the Student President who has been responsible (along with some peers) for developing a virtual learning environment and creating a curriculum and training plan which has been running since May. It has been an incredible experience learning to teach and switching roles from student to teacher.

We have a virtual training program with multiple meetings a week and constant communication via Discord. We know the value of hands-on learning for students and would really like to excite and involve mechanical kids not interested in CAD so:

We are struggling to develop ideas for our students to explore hands-on engineering from the safety of their homes.

Improving/driving our robot seems highly unlikely for us. We have very limited access to our robot, limited access to our tools, limited access to our manufacturing facilities and we are unwilling to cause any exposure whatsoever.

The good thing about this season is we can make each student’s education very personalized, they get to explore and learn what they want to. We also have a significant amount of money due to reduced costs this season. Here are our ideas:

Competition Ideas:

  • FIRST at Home (competing with what we have without driving it so?)
  • FIRST Game Design Challenge
  • FIRST Innovation Challenge
  • CADathons (ex. Cheezy CAD)
  • Software Competitions (ex. WPI Game-Jam)

Hands On Ideas:

  • Individual Ardunio Kits: kits sent home to explore and develop a basic understanding of EE. We have never explored EE on our team and it would be interesting for both our Mechanical and Software students to explore the discipline that combines both. These kits would also be used to make projects exposing students to the engineering design process, prototyping, iteration, and most importantly FAILURE!
  • Cardboard/Common Household Materials Competitions (ex. Cardboard+ductape boats, who can build the one that holds the most weight…)
  • Give students funding for their own engineering project at home
  • Rube Goldbergs
  • If we sufficiently design and review a mechanism we may have the possibility of manufacturing parts and sending those home to the student along with tools to construct it. They would be able to look at the mechanism and start to figure out things that need to be iterated but the cool factor is the only really value of this.

Any other ideas? Thank you so much for all the help!

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You’re looking at about what we’re doing on 1197.

We’re also making sure to have weekly meetings online. And we drop into local virtual sessions on occasion (Beach Blitz).

One other thing I would suggest: If you happen to run through YouTube or similar places and find an interesting mechanism, or engineering “thing”, particularly one that you think the rest of the team will find interesting, send the link around. I know that yesterday’s SpaceX launch was announced to the team specifically, for example. (And when SpaceX did their Crew Demo a few months back, their public ISS docking simulation was linked in the team Slack…)

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We certainly are for the fall. And although there was talk about resuming some in school learning, I believe this is off the table for the time being.

I think we’re in the same boat. We won’t have access to our robot. We’re limiting meetings to keep people from being bored and trying to do what training we can for new members. I believe we are focusing on the FIRST Innovation Challenge, but I haven’t seen a ton of enthusiasm for it.

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In the Columbus area, our team set up a completely remote “mini-bot” competition using Arduino for local middle and high school students. It started as a way to keep our new students busy during the pre-season, but it grew quite a bit. Students are going to be dropping off their robots in the next couple of weeks and we will live stream the tournament for them. If you want, check out the manual here - http://bit.ly/RobotWrigglers. Feel free to use and modify!


An idea our students on 177 came up with is that there would be a CAD challenge every few weeks or each month that students design a solution for, and can then send files to be 3D printed either in the school or outside of school by mentors who have printers.

Whatever happens, just remember everyone is doing their best, and if you can’t make robots a priority right now, nobody is going to hold it against you.


Link is not working, but here is the correct link for the everyone’s benefit: http://bit.ly/RobotWrigglers

Thanks for catching that, Derek! I just edited my post.

We are entirely virtual for the rest of this semester (only a couple weeks left at this point), and most likely for all or most of the spring as well. There’s some talk about possibly re-opening the school on a limited basis next semester, but I think even if that happens it’s extremely unlikely extracurriculars will be allowed to meet on campus.

Mentors still have (limited) access to the classroom and machine shop, so that’s expanded what we can do with the students virtually. This semester we’ve done our usual fall project (building bots for an old FTC game), but with students doing design, CAD, and programming virtually, mentors machining parts for contactless curbside pickup, and students assembling and testing their robots individually at home. Altogether we budgeted $8k for this project (5 groups, $1k per group, $3k for tools to send home), which we were able to do because we’re not going to build a new robot this spring & won’t be traveling anywhere. The robots are progressing slower than they would if we were in-person (and there’s no build season this year), so we’re planning to extend the project a couple weeks into the spring. Engagement has been high, and I’m really impressed by how much they’re learning. But at the same time, organizing this project has been very time- and effort-intensive - I’m about as exhausted now as I usually am by the end of build season, even though we’re only doing 4 hours a week of regular meetings.

We haven’t really decided yet what we’ll do in the spring (besides continuing our small-robot project). We sent out a survey and it looks like there are a couple students very interested in the Game Design Challenge, and a couple very interested in improving last year’s robot (probably designing and trying to build a climber, and improving our auton) but it’s unclear if we’ll have anywhere we can drive/run auton routines. We have a large number of students “somewhat interested” in the Innovation Challenge, so whether we do that will probably depend on whether anyone steps up to lead it.

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I’ve renamed this thread for clarity.


We’re still in our Fall Training phase, and have been using various work-arounds to find ways to get students engaged in our weekly Zoom meetings/training sessions. While we don’t have any in-person meetings on the horizon, if our lock down extends into January, we’ll likely have to generate some more activity ideas. Hopefully FIRST @ Home, FIRST Innovation Challenge, and the Game Design Challenge present some natural areas where CAD skills, Programming skills, Design Skills, and Project Management skills can be easily applied, but it’s going to be a struggle to maintain some of our mechanical/fabrication skill sets this year (and even Parent/Booster skill sets, like organizing team meals).

If we hadn’t switched to OnShape for 2019-20 already, we’d pretty much would have been forced to by this season. Not having access to our lab space and the computers within has made cloud-based programs a MUST HAVE for remote meetings. We just set up our new students with their OnShape accounts earlier today, and are going thru lessons with them in the coming weeks. How we work to keep skills sharp after that is still TBD.

Similarly, our current LabVIEW access is limited, without our club owned programming laptops (currently locked in the school building). We’ve been using VEXcode VR to teach some programming fundamentals to new students, and have plans on sharing screens to do some LabVIEW introduction, but will still need to determine our ultimate plans for generating new programming skills come the new year.

Mechanically, we’ve utilized the resources of some of our officers in their homes to instruct/train new students. They’ve shared themselves working with VEX EDR components to introduce students to different aspects of a drivetrain, and had new members interact and guide them thru which parts fill each function and it’s analogous components in FRC. We’re also planning on using sites like Gear Generator to teach important concepts.

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That sounds great! What have previous challenges been, and how constrained have they felt due to the size and scope of 3D printers? Have you been sending any tools or fasteners home for construction as well? Do you print multiple iterations for each student or just one? Thanks for the great idea!

That is fantastic! Why did you choose Ardunio, not Mindstorm, VEX… cost? I would love to see some clips of the robots too!

This sounds awesome! I know engineering is engineering and any program or project will teach engineering, however, it is nice when programs overlap with FRC. I don’t have any experience with FTC or VEX so are some of the specific programming, fab… skills directly transferable to FRC? (we code in Java and CAD in Onshape). What tools did you end up sending home? Did you structure the teams with one student of each discipline and then send the kits+tools home to the mechanical/fabrication student? How did you manage multiple households in a group with one kit? Thanks!

It is great to know there are other teams in our situation out there. Any other ideas CD?

$$ vs $$$ comes to mind. A basic Arduino-type kit is $40 on Amazon; Mindstorms EV3 is 10x that at the same place. VEX kits start at about the same as the EV3 (slightly less if you’re going for the IQ line). The difference is that for Arduinos, you need to build everything else around them, while the other kits have everything you need for mobility. But don’t underestimate the creativity of a bunch of kids with Arduinos… EVER.*

Additionally, Arduino has many many tutorials in how to use it; while I know Mindstorms and especially VEX have tutorials as well, those tend to require payment, while Arduino doesn’t necessarily. Plus, real-world parts. (Don’t ask how many Arduinos might be hiding in a random company’s R&D department… I’m not even sure for my company, I just know we have quite a few.)

*When I was in college, I had a Mechatronics lab. Each group of about 3 students got 1 Arduino and needed to build 1 free project of anything we wanted and 1 competition project (follow the line). Wood, cardboard, metal, I think one group used LEGOs as a base somehow… If you’re interested I’ll see if I can find the YouTube videos. The variety of robots and projects was pretty large, to put it mildly.

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100% cost - we wanted to keep it as low as possible and as accessible as possible. Our kits were only $30 a piece, came with everything they’d need to build something that would be able to compete, and they get to keep the kits after the competition.

Some of our MS competitors are struggling with the concepts a bit - this is their first exposure to Arduino and breadboarding, but for the most part teams are moving along nicely.

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Those are great questions! We’ve tried to structure our fall project to be as relatable to FRC as possible, rather than trying to stay true to the FTC experience. For electronics we’re using HERO boards and Neverest motors, and the HERO boards require use to program in a different language than we use in the build season. We CAD in Onshape for both the fall project and our FRC seasons, and we use similar parts as much as possible. We have students design their robots with the same kinds of materials we use during the season (such as 1x2 square stock rather than the patterned c-channel common in FTC). Some design differences tend to emerge, such as teams opting to use chain instead of belts, but on the whole our fall project robots end up looking more like tiny FRC bots than typical FTC bots. Overall, despite the differences, we’ve found that the skills transfer pretty well and new members have been much more prepared to contribute during build season than they ever were when we used to spend the fall on workshops and tinkering with the last year’s FRC bot.

The full list of tools we sent home is here: Mechanical Tool Kits - Google Sheets. We’re also going to send home an electrical tool kit, but I don’t have that list (and some of the parts are back-ordered so it hasn’t gone home yet).

Each team has 3-4 returning members, and we tried to balance them out so that each team has one experienced student with skills in CAD, electrical, and programming, as well as trying to put two captains on each team and account for personalities. Then we added new members to the teams semi-randomly, with some preference toward putting them with their friends where possible, and keeping the total number of kids on each team close to balanced.

We let each team select who we sent the mechanical kits home with, and encouraged them to choose based on who was most interested and who was reliable in terms of attendance and communication. Two teams chose someone with lots of experience in assembling mechanisms, one team chose their main CADer (who had a little prior experience assembling) and two teams chose new members.

We’ve sent home a combination liability waiver and cleaning agreement, which parents are required to return before their student can receive parts. We anticipate each team’s parts/robot will pass through 3 or 4 households (mechanical assembly, electrical wiring, and software testing, with some teams splitting the mechanical assembly between two people).

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