Team Help

Hello, this year I have been promoted to the captain of my team’s (4787) mechanical sub-team. We have been a team for about 6 years and as far as I have seen, we haven’t left what I believe is our “rookie mindset.”

I was wondering how did other teams progress through the years. What pre-season and post-season activities did you guys do to expand your knowledge?


That’s a pretty vague question.
What do you mean by “rookie mindset”?
What does the team do right now that you think is limiting?

We have had the same issue, but we have grown so much over the past year. In my opinion, you need to spend the same amount of time teaching the rookies as trying to improve performance. Finding a way to effectively pass the information down is crucial. Otherwise, as students leave the team, you lose the knowledge you gained (maybe this is why you still feel like you have a “rookie mindset”. This will help build a more sustainable team overall. Different types of activities work better or worse for different teams, but maybe have workshops teaching skills like CAD, Fabrication, PR, etc. You could also work on a mock kickoff (make sure to involve rookies and perhaps have the veteran members act more like mentors during the kickoff).

Start training when school starts in the fall, and participate in several off season competitions. Kickoff should seem like just the start of a new phase of the year, not the beginning of the year.

Sorry about being vague. What I meant is that the team is absolutely terrified about trying new things. An example being until last year we only tackled one challenge (one mechanism) each year (Ex. Stronghold we only had a low goal shooter and nothing else). For Steamworks I had to constantly petition my leader to get permission to have a climbing mechanism in addition with our gear hopper and they made me design most of it myself due to their lack of comfort.

Unfortunately what I think are the most limiting factors is the fact that there are only 7-8 dedicated members in a team of 28 and because everyone is too scared to try new ideas.

I would say do stuff like this in the off season and try new stuff that members may be terrified of in a more relaxed time when you aren’t really in competition.

I know how difficult it can be when there’s not a lot of enthusiasm, but get members trying new stuff and I think it’ll change. If you want to talk just PM me.

There’s a number of things you can do.

The first is to recognize that even VETERAN teams don’t always understand that focusing on one task can be pretty important (148 in 2008 as my witness). However, good veteran teams recognize that you need to do the entire game, and will either design in sequence (that is, what’s coming up next must work around what’s already there) or as a unit (everything at once). (And there were quite a few rookies that did both gear and climb.)

Second, building on that, suggest a “sequence build”. That is, let’s just pick on Steamworks: Build the gear mechanism first. Then, once that’s well underway, start spinning off members to work on the climber.

Third, you need to start increasing the team’s knowledge base. Find your local offseason workshops, and drag as many team members as you can with you. You won’t regret it, or maybe you’ll regret the lack of available time to attend all of them… Can’t attend the workshops? Find out who is presenting, and ask if they can give a lecture or two at your meetings. No local workshops? Post back and I suspect you’ll be slammed with videos of workshops…

Fourth, apply that knowledge from the workshops. Build a summer (fall) robot next year and attend your local offseason event with it. Build a demo robot. Add on that fuel shooter to your current robot. Test stuff out.

7-8 dedicated members isn’t a problem. It’s an opportunity. Let’s say that for next year, you plan to do two mechanisms. You take those dedicated members, and tell them to grab minions (non-dedicated members) and get busy working with them, and you tell the minions to learn what they can on the fly. Ideally, you do this during the offseason, but the general idea is to train those less-dedicated members and get them more involved so they realize how much fun this is and become more dedicated. Then the following year, repeat the process, but with another mechanism (let’s just call it an alternate prototype for doing one of the game tasks).

I think the main thing that helped my old team advance beyond the “rookie” mindset was having a few more serious projects throughout the year. After competition season, they did a design review to make some “risky” (high risk/high reward) changes to the robot for the county fair scrimmage in June. In the fall, they do another design review to make similarly “risky” changes for October off-season competitions (last year they did two, some years they do one). We’ve often gotten razzed by other teams we’re friends with for winning a regional, then tanking at the off-season (although sometimes those risks do pay off, and we do well at off-seasons). After the October events, they build a robot for the Christmas parade. Last year they had the funding/inventory to build a completely new robot, but in less rich years they’ve re-invented the past season’s bot for this.

All these activities serve two purposes: they give students the opportunity to take risks in a lower-stakes situation, expanding the number of mechanisms they “know” and becoming more comfortable with risk. And they give the newbies an opportunity to work on something “real”, not just contrived learning exercises. This helps with having a few more dedicated members, although 7-8 out of 28 doesn’t sound too unusual. But if you can up that to 10 or 11, it may be less terrifying to try to divide and conquer on bot design.

The final piece I would say is to heavily recruit freshman and make them feel like part of the team so they’ll stick around and become dedicated. A senior who’s been working hands-on with robots since they were a freshman will be more confident and open to taking risks than one who joined as a senior, or joined as a sophomore but didn’t really get to touch anything until they were a senior. One of our techniques for recruiting enthusiastic freshman is to give presentations and live robot demos at all the local “feeder” middle schools in the spring, and at freshman orientation in the fall.

One of the key things that has helped our team continue to improve year-over-year is an annual “lessons learned” conversation in the days following the end of the season, and followed up on in the summer. What did we do right? What did we do wrong? What could we do better? We usually have this conversation on-line (e-mail early years, slack more recently) which means that it is written down so we can reference it.

Then, over the summer or early the next fall, we review those notes and make specific changes to our processes. Note that we don’t limit this to mechanical issues, but all the robot functions, the non-robot functions (chairman’s, web site, etc) and team organization. Having notes as to what we thought we had done correctly and incorrectly from the end of competition season improves the quality of the changes we make, and seriously improves buy-in for those changes.

The fact that you are taking the initiative and trying to actively do something to improve your teams capabilities speaks volumes to your passion and drive. Keep your passion with you and you will never disappoint yourself.

That being said, a very important area to focus on, based on what you have told us about your team, is strategic design. Your team figured out that gears are important (as they were, by far, the most important scoring opportunity in this game), but to completely oversee the relative ease and high scoring potential of climbing the rope is a problem. That really should have been something decided early in the build season. 50 basically free points is something no team should discount, especially with the ease at which this particular one was done.

A good place to start to improve your strategic decision making is Karthik’s infamous Effective Strategies for Design and Competition. Here is the same presentation with Karthik himself giving the presentation (quite more entertaining that reading the slides).

Another great resource is 148’s Using the Engineering Design Process for Design of a Competition Robot.

Both of these documents give great insights into in-depth strategic decisions teams make at the very beginning of the build season and how those strategic decisions drive their design. This is what design engineers do every day.

As simple as it sounds, your team won’t learn how to build new mechanisms if you don’t build new mechanisms. The original hurdles of creating something unfamiliar are definitely difficult, but it is something every team has to go through. Many teams figure out they need to make something completely new during the build season and are forced to (sometimes without success).

Your team has the opportunity, at least for the rest of the off-season, to go out of their comfort zone, to build something new. Take this opportunity and go as far as you can with it. Eric’s point of using the minions sounds like a great idea to me. Let the driven members inspire the minions.

My team has that issue as well, we have 8 dedicated members, 2 of which are build team. And they are both graduating this year so we are screwed. Id say try to get them to do small projects off season such as building a shooter or a grabber to help teach them and get them out of their comfort zone. You could also make them make a climber on the previous year’s robot as practice and for use in later years.

I’m gonna go ahead and second this point. Our team does the same thing every year and in fact, we view it as one of our most important meetings of the whole year as it helps guide our offseason decisions and it helps us improve as a team from year to year.

Go to some off-season events before Kickoff in January. You probably know who the more established and more accomplished teams are by now. Visit those teams and ask them how they think about the game and how they design their robot. Ask them about their robot mechanism and the software associated with them. Ask what they might have done differently. Ask some of their lead designers (students and mentors) to look over your robot and make suggestions. Most of them will be happy to help.