Student / Mentor, desgn/build Poll

I was lying in bed sick as I could ever remember and a thought came into my head (I know, probably the first). How do I stir up discussion on an already bashed topic. I am posing 1 question with only 2 answers allowed. The reason i believe is to make us look at what FIRST is about and our perception of what FIRST is all about. Please feel free to back up your side of the vote. Remember that there is no right answer here just viewpoints

While I think it would probably be best for the students to both design and build the robot with assistance from Engineers throughout the process, if mentors/engineers had to do one, and students had another, I would have to go with “Engineer/Mentor Designed and Student Built”.

Students need to see how to get around design challenges. When you’re handed blueprints, not everything is going to work in real life. Something is probably going to be off in a blueprint, such as robot stability or a few measurements, and students should learn how to critically think to get around such problems. If all students did was hand mentors basic designs and then had the engineers/mentors use their creative license and technical knowledge to build it, it would really be more of the mentors’ robot than the students’, since the students won’t fully be in the whole building process.

wow, Im thinking just the opposite

mostly because in the engineering world, engineers usually dont build anything. We do the design work, and hand the CAD drawings or netlist or wiring diagram off to a layout person, machinist, technician… and they do the hands on building

when they get done they walk into our office and say “here’s your unit” - then we test and debug to see if the design meets the requirements specification (engineer-speak for “what its suppose to do”)

so if we really want students to learn about engineering, we should let them do the design work, hand the drawings off to the engineers and mentors (and we will hand them off to the machinists and technicians like we always do :^)

FIRST is not advanced shop class

FIRST is also not Machining 101, Physics, or Computer Science.

But I’ve seemed to learn all of those topics while involved. :wink:

Well, if I had had my pick, I would’ve chosen option #3: Students and Mentors work in perfect harmony to design and build the robot together.

However, the case being the two real options, I feel that both are similar in terms of pros and cons, but in the end I selected option 2: student designed, mentor built.

Before I begin with my reasoning, I will acknowledge that I am biased toward designing, and have followed in the footsteps of our team’s engineer/designer, Art Ostrowski - designing has become my passion on the team. (I believe that this little bias was most likely the ultimate factor in my pick.)

First off, given the options, the students can gain much from both of the options: design and construction. In design, the challenge comes from deriving a solution, and conceptualizing a system for it. However, the actual construction of the system requires skill as well, in terms of correctly fabricating the parts and executing the assembly process correctly. Both are challenging to the students, and mentors are there to help in the processes.

To me, a robot designed by mentors may have great capabilities, but its assembly might be a bit rickety, and less reliable. A student built robot on the other hand, lacks some of the potential of a mentor designed robot: while it is somewhat true that students may not have been conformed to the “standard box of engineering” and can think outside of this box, the mentors usually have seen more machines, robots, and other implements and have a wider database of concepts to build off of already.

Additionally, FIRST is about a learning process, and in my experience with the team, I have been challenged more and learned more from designing a system than I have from constructing one. Imaginations are stretched in order to find some solutions, and for others the solution is marvelously simple - but both put to use multiple skills in conceptualizing and simplification of crazy contraptions into realistic, constructible systems.

In contrast of my general view, construction requires some finesse as well, not in creation, but in implementation. The first part drawing I ever received to make for a FIRST robot was a strange oblong oval with a square hole in the middle- it puzzled me to the point where I just sat and stared at it until our machinist came over and explained the part to me. I didn’t quite get it then, so I was moved on to simpler parts. The most amazing design can never be implemented unless someone knows how to build it.

These two options can both be used effectively to create a wonderful experience for the students, but limiting them to one area is like taking a globe, slicing it in half, and saying, “You can only explore this half.”

Its a fair question, and a difficult one at that. Here are my two cents (2.4 cents Canadian, 1.7 euro cents), paid to CD challenging question fund.


The question is, what do teams want to create: thinkers, designing creative solutions to problems, or workers, doing just what they are told.

If the students are given a design and told “build this,” yes, they are learning how to use shop tools, yes, they will have to gain new skills, but they are not problem-solving skills, using innovative designs to solve the problems they are given. They are basic skills that may be replaced in the future by machines. Yes, they are needed, but has FIRST created this program to inspire people who just do their assigned jobs? I don’t think so. Not anything against anyone who may hold these jobs, but it’s not what our future needs. With all the new improvements in technology, such as the CNC mills, the people in these jobs will probably be phased out.

If the students design the robot, however, they are creating something out of their minds, solving the problem. These are the people who I want in the future of the world, the people who think creatively, solve problems.

I may be taking the term “design” too loosely. I am taking it as meaning solving the problems, telling the builders what to do when there is a problem, and modifying the design to solve those problems.

I’d rather see a team full of innovative, problem-solving students and machinist/technician mentors, no matter what.

EDIT: Or, what ^he^ said…

[rant] IMHO:
I guess the simple answer is, FIRST isnt about teams building their own robots, its about cooperating with engineers.

But, i dont really agree with that idea. I think its a sad fact that machinists are a dying breed and that so many machine shops are closing down. (Its cheaper to have an entire part made in china then to buy the raw materials here).

I have always believed that hands on experience is the best teacher. If a student doesnt want to learn how to physically make a part, thats ok, but i think the option should be open. After all, how can one correctly design a part if they dont understand the processes used to make that part. I found it hard to learn dimentioning until i began making parts, then it all fell into place.

We had engineers who wanted to take over the entire design and construction process, and leave us with nothing do to. Our old mentor flipped out at them, and they didnt come back for the next season.

I would rather build it myself, fail and learn, then watch someone else build it, and succeed, because then, i wouldnt know how to replicate their results. So, in the same sense, i would rather design it myself, encouter something i was unfamiliar with and learn how to do it, than have someone who already graduated school do it for me.

I dont think FIRST should be about who makes more buttons while their engineers build their robots, but i guess it comes down to a simple fact, if the students are having fun doing whatever they do and maybe learning a thing or two, then its all worth it. (i could go on forever with this topic)


If I have to pick one, I’ll go with mentor-designed, student-built.

Why, you may ask? Well, it goes back to the days I was in AFJROTC at Irmo High School. (Yes, there was a time I had no hair.)

For those who’ve never done it, drill is a rather involved process. It involves listening skills, remembering a series of precise movements (especially when you get into fancier things like column movements). It takes most of the first year of the course to learn most of the drill movements. Once you master the elements of actually performing the drill movements, you’re able to transition to commanding cadets and the bucket-o-fun that is.

In FIRST, the engineering mentors have had the education and time to master the skills involved in building these robots, something that most high school students have not had time to do. Just as I wouldn’t expect most second-year cadets to be able to run an entire flight, I wouldn’t expect most high school students to be able to design the entire robot.

Now, should this be some secretive process where the mentors walk in one day with a design that has magically appeared? Of course not. Students should definitely have input into the design. And the mentors should definitely explain why certain aspects of the robot are the way they are. (To use the example of 1293, I wouldn’t have connected the dots about grippy wheels and four CIM motors having the potential to trip the main breaker.) By having the mentors (and remember, veteran students can be mentors in their own way) do the majority of the designing, you both demonstrate the process and have the ability to avert mild disasters, which tend to hit everyone at some point or another.

That’s my two cents. Apologies if they don’t make sense (as the past two days have proven that sleep deprivation isn’t just for FIRST).

I’d say you need to be able to use your hands in order to apply your mind well. If you’re designing a vehicle, but have never driven one, I don’t think that is a good idea. If your designing an aluminum widget with features on 12 different faces, but have never machined anything, I don’t think that is good.

I can’t definitevely pick one of these options because I think neither is optimal, but I am leaning towards the side of engineer designed and student built, since I think you need to have some intuition about building things before you go designing them.

If I didn’t know anything about the physical build process, I would probably design very outlandish things that would require a very large amount of resources to manufacture. Knowing how to build first allows one to put some limits on his/her design so that it can actually become a reality.

I chose option number 1.

How many high school students have the training and knowledge to be able to design frames, manipulators, transmissions, etc? Students are just that, students.

How many of those technicians and machinists know exactly what the unit is going to be used for, and know all the guidelines that the engineers had to follow to design the unit?
The biggest difference here is that the students already know what the robot will do, way before you give them blueprints.
It is my experience that every (and I mean every) student who knows about the game, at some point has their own idea of what the robot should look like. They come up with their own rough mental blueprint.

If you were to hand a set of blueprints to a group of students, what you hand them will be different from what they were thinking. They will see how a professional engineer solved the problem. A professional design will, most likely, be much more, well, professional than what they had in mind.
Even if the blueprint you hand them is the same idea that they had come up with, they will see how it is actually implemented, and maybe even improved over their idea.
I see this all leading to the I (FIRST) - Inspiration.
A student sees what a professional has done and is inspired to try and do it themselves.

Now, compare that situation to a robot that is designed by students and built by mentors. As I said before, most students don’t have the knowledge to be able to design a robot. The reality is that a large number of teams do not have students reading these message boards and learning everything their brains can handle about design.
So, the robot is designed by the students to the best of their abilities. Yes, the robot would work, but would it be as consistent or efficient as a professionally designed robot? The students would end up spending more time at competitions trying to fix things and make last minute upgrades that they overlooked while designing the robot.
There is no doubt that the students will learn a great deal from this experience. There is also no doubt that they will inspired.

The two options are simply different ways of achieving Inspiration.
When asked the question, I choose engineer/mentor designed and student built.

I think any adult involved in First should take a minute and go look up the definition of Mentor and the origin of the word. Then if you see it as I do this poll is unanswerable.

Thinking back now, the only problem I’m seeing now is the lack of parameters by which we can define both “design” and “build” and how to differenciate between them. Is design the first week of build or every design question that comes up while building? Is building taking blueprints and building to the exact specifications, or is it taking the designs and using a bit of creativity with them?

Steve W, before anyone else adds a vote, could you please tell us the limits of each of the words that you were using, as it seems everyone has their own comprehension of what each one means.


False dichotomy: does not compute
Abort, Retry, Fail?

If we follow what Ken said, I believe that is what design and build are. Example would be : I design the robot, give you the plans. You build as per my plans and give me back the robot. I test and redesign and give you back the robot where you rebuild as per plans and hand back to me. I really don’t care what your problems are when it comes to building as per spec and you don’t care what or why I designed my way.

That being said, I know that I have caused a bit of a stir. That’s OK. You see I know that neither of 1 or 2 is the answer in real life. my thought process is :… Sorry. I think that I will remain still for a while longer before touching my own topic.

I see the merits of both sides:

student designed - mentor built
This is really the best way to learn. I can show you how to program, but until you actually do it on your own, you’ll never really know how. I can show you how a gear box works, but actually designing one gives you a completely different level of understanding.

With that said, I cite my experience with calculus. Until I took calculus based physics, I never truely understood the power of calculus. Sitting in math class, I understood what I was being told. I could see how it was useful. I understood how to use it in the real world. Until I actually used it in the real world (I consider physics to be as close to the real world as most classes get), I never really appreciated it. I was sitting in class one day and had this epiphany when I suddenly realized that the math magically predicts things in reality. I can’t really explain the feeling, but trust me, it was something special.

Driving this back home, designing something is different than just building it. If you but together a gear box, you’ll see bearings in a lot of places. Depending on your level, you probably also understand their need. When you design it however, you’ll punch your hole and put a shaft. Again, depending on your level, you’ll probably realize that having a spinning shaft resting in a bare hole is bad. You’ll put the bearing and have just solved a problem that will probably help you solve others.

mentor designed - student built
This gives students hands on experience with building things. In one of the other posts on this mentor/student topic, someone brought up the point that this opportunity won’t come around in college. College will teach you how to be a good engineer, not how to be a good machinist. One of my professors, it being an electronics lab, off-handedly mentioned that most engineers have bad lab skills. He was refering to the fact that, apparently, a lot of engineers don’t know how to efficiently/effectively use the tools they have. One of our team’s moderators made a similar comment. If they don’t learn these skills in FIRST, where will they? College will teach them some, but apparently, not all. I have a feeling that it’s possible to get through college without ever having picked up a wrench. My lab has soldering irons, but we never use them, so I have a feeling that they’re just for decoration. FIRST is the best opportunity to teach these kinds of skills.

So, what’s so important about these distinctions? When you tell someone to do something new, it’ll be a learning process. If they have to design, they’ll learn to design. If they have to build, they’ll learn to build. So the question is, what do you want to teach them. Personally, I feel that they should learn both. You’ll get this by having students design and build the robot themselves. I’m not saying that we should eliminate mentors, just let the students do the work and know that they have help when needed.

Why do they need both? The same reason that I had to take 24 units worth of classes that weren’t engineering, math, science, or writing: to be well rounded. An engineer that doesn’t know how to assemble something is as worthless as a knife that come in packaging that takes a knife to open. Designing the perfect product is one thing. Designing something that can be manufactured and assembled is another. Simmilarly, a machinist or other assembly type person is just as worthless if they don’t know engineering. “I’m out of this bolt, but I need this now, so I’ll put this one in, not knowing what will happen.”

But, seeing as my ideal choice isn’t available, I’ll go with student designed - mentor built. This will be more helpful when it counts the most. Getting some experience and knowing the process is a great help in college. For some reason, my classmates find it strange that I know so much while they struggle. The difference is that they have chosen a major because they want to learn it but I’ve chosen mine because it’s what I do. I didn’t walk out in the middle of a midterm to change my major because I hate the material (yes, someone did this). I started college knowing what I wanted to go into Electrical Engineering. Actually, not only did I want to do it, I already was.

As Ken has been preaching in several threads, engineering is about designing, not building. FIRST gives high school students a taste of engineering. Whether it shows them that they like it or hate it, it’s an opportunity to try it and see how they feel about it. If they find that they don’t like design work, then they don’t have to become an engineer. If they do like it, they know exactly where they are headed.

I voted, mentor designed/student built. I believe it is the best of two bad choices. As many have said, it is hard to design something that you have never built. As an electrical engineer, I have little practical experience in mechanical design. I remember the first thing that I designed in inventer. I spent a lot of time chamfering edges, filleting angles, in general making it look good. It was impossible to machine with the tools we had available.
By learning how things are made, a designer is better able to create workable designs in the future. I think that the best system would be for new team members (students and adults) to learn how to build the robot, and veteran team members (students and adults) can design the robot. This provides a progression from the novice to the expert and helps students learn how to be mentors, since the veteran students can be mentors to the new members as they learn how to build the robot.

I vote neither. Because this topic has been discussed very thoroughly very recently and I don’t like repeating myself.

See the 8pg Baker thread - which ironically was brought back to light the last couple days.

Compromise. One of the most important “skills” we learn in FIRST is to compromise. One of the keys to a successful team is to teach BOTH students and mentors to compromise.

My favorite part of my “what FIRST is all about” rant/speech is talking about the six weeks. Watch the reaction that people have when you tell them what your team has accomplished and will accomplish in six weeks. (Correction for those that are not in New England… Six weeks minus a minimum of 4 snow days) In the outside world, six weeks is nothing. We cannot do what we do without compromise.

Students need to learn what to ask of their mentors and the mentors need to learn that they are not the ones standing on that field with that robot.


Bah… no answer is good. I voted for engineer designed, student built.

  1. Forces the engineers to remember they need to design for a set of builders who DON’T have the skills, knowledge, or ablities to design something amazing. Sometimes we design stuff that is just too complex.

  2. Forces the students, many who have never picked up a drill, to see what all goes into building a complex device. The hope is that they learn what kind of amazing skill is needed to build something, so when they are designing something in the future, they don’t make it too complex.

Of course I can also see it from the other side of the coin - this is just what I thought.


I would draw the line between design and build by looking at the engineering design cycle:

  1. there is a problem to be solved. 1st you must clearly define the problem (understand it), understand WHY this system you are designing is needed, and specify WHAT your system will need to do in order to be an effective solution. This is design. (example: last year we decide our bot needed to pick tetras up off the floor and place them on the goals - this is WHAT our robot will do)

  2. you brainstorm ways to create a system, and you decide HOW your system will do the WHAT. (example: we will create a robot with two wheel drive, with an arm that raises up and down, and with a claw. This is HOW our bot will pick up tetras and place them on the goal) this is still design.

  3. you break up the system into mechanical, electrical, SW, sensors, user interface, and go through the WHY, WHAT and HOW for each of these subsystems. This is still design

  4. you create drawings and SW algorithms, wireing diagrams, sensor schematics… of what needs to be built. This is still design

  5. you have your subsystems fabricated and assembled: this is finally the build stage.

  6. you test the system to see how it works, and if necessary go back to any previous point in the design cycle to make adjustments or modifications.

    OK, looking at it from this perspective: how many students want to ‘only’ do design work, and how many only want to ‘build’ the robot?

BTW, there are 6 steps here, and for a well disciplined team, each step should take about a week!