Team Retainment and Recruitment

Hey, a little new here so let me know if I make any mistakes.

So I’m part of a team that’s been around for a fairly long time and we’ve had our ups and downs in terms of how well we do at competition. We’re usually pretty bad though, if I’m being honest (1-2 blue banners in our 10+ year history). A few years ago we had a change in mentorship and shifted into a more student-led team, largely out of necessity as our new mentor had limited knowledge on FIRST. New mentor is also very bad at time management, which is occasionally detrimental to the team.

Last year, many of our members were seniors and thus graduated, leaving this years team very bare. We were unable to do as much recruitment as usual due to COVID restrictions and not knowing what this season was going to look like. We currently have around 5-8 students doing the majority of the work, most of which are current juniors/seniors who hold leadership positions. This means we aren’t training as many people for the future as we would like.

Right now, I’m extremely worried for the future of this team, as the current structure does not seem very sustainable. Lead mentor tries their best to support the team, but we are usually the last thing on their to-do list, as they are also a teacher, parent, etc… Our current captains are also more focused on working on the robot than general team improvement/training new members, as they take on most of the work, which drives away new members, and the cycle continues.

I don’t think anybody wants this team to fail, but we certainly aren’t taking any steps to improve. How should I go about bringing this topic up to the team? I don’t want to “force” anyone into more work, as everyone on the team has other commitments outside of robotics and we are barely staying afloat right now with our limited size. But again, we need to do something if this team is going to survive beyond next year.

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Found your problem.

The best (for any meaningful value of best) teams have several mentors who develop and stick around over time. Depending on how student recruitment goes, they can either be the experienced trainer to help new members integrate or be the institutional memory that helps bridge a gap in labor in some area (say, your most seasoned CAD kid graduates and the other one has to take the year off). In the mid-2010s, 1293 was down to one mentor. When I returned in 2018, that became two. In 2019, once we found the right equilibrium and added a third regular in the shop (plus a couple part-timers), things really started singing. 2020 had us mostly back down to 2 mentors, but we still had a great season (as it was).

It’s not an instant fix, but it is one you can develop over time by starting recruitment. And the experience will be better for it.

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Hi! I think this is any issue many teams face at some point in their FIRST journey, and good for you wanting to step up to address it as a student. I’m responding as a mentor (and parent and teacher), so my view may be a little different than what you’ll hear from other students.

First, your team likely needs more mentors. It’s a big job! Seek out parents to help perhaps, but also other teachers. Do you have a math or science or English teacher you get along with well? Ask them to attend a meeting. I started mentoring because a fellow teacher as well as kids I enjoyed teaching asked me to check it out. I had no prior FIRST experience, but I got hooked pretty quick.

Second, take a hard look at your team culture. How accessible are your meetings for new team members? Do they feel welcome? Are you going out of your way to celebrate their contributions? FIRST can feel like it has a pretty steep learning curve. There’s so much vocabulary and skills, plus knowledge of past games and teams… so different from other sports or clubs. How do you bring new recruits into that culture?

Third, it can be easy to focus on one season at a time or even one week at a time during competition season. Have you talked with your teammates about long-term vision for what the team would look like? On my team we started talking “5 year plans” because then basically every student in the conversation had to think about sustainability. How do you set your teammates up for success after you’re gone?

I’ve been a head coach since 2015. Things were going fine I suppose, team was competitive and okay in terms of size. In 2017, though, we had an off recruiting year and the upperclassmen recognized a team culture issue, and decided we needed a more sustainable model. You need to have other students to buy in. Focus on having underclassmen build, even if it takes more time. Have a plan for meeting times, so new people don’t feel lost/left out. We worked on a curriculum for summer/fall to teach skills in a formal & interactive way. New and experienced teammates work through together. Find a middle school STEM program to partner with. Recruit actively - send invitations to people you think would enjoy robotics. Invite people who have a skill set different than those currently on the team.

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Usually we have another mentor who has been with the team since its inception, however this year, due to health risks, he has been unable to really be a part of the team, which is likely contributing to our problem. Our team is currently looking for another teacher sponsor to help our head sponsor, but nobody seems to want to take the job. We also have a couple of parents that help out when they can. Do you have any tips on what we should do to recruit some mentors?

Thank you for your help!

See my reply above for our situation on mentors.

As for team culture, I would say the current team right now gets along fairly well. I do think we could do a better job welcoming new members. Nobody on the team is super social so it’s probably hard for new members to break into our “circle”. We don’t really have a solid plan for educating new members as of right now and it’s hard for us to always find something for them to do that’s not just “help out so and so and see what they’re doing”. There has been discussion on the possibility of holding training camps/activities aimed at new members during the off-season though.

I like the 5-year plan idea, I will definitely consider doing that.

Our middle schools do VEX robotics, we have discussed trying to convert them into a FTC team to help feed them into our team. FLL is very active in our elementary schools but many of the kids drop out to do other activities by the time they reach high school.

No reason to convert. VEX can play nicely into creating new FRC members. Converting from one platform to another could mean losing mentors at that level (VEX or FTC). Plus, there is the added cost of buying into a brand new ecosystem that will mean thousands of dollars in new equipment.

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Word of caution: FTC is harder than FRC. The floor is no where as close to the ceiling, there is less community support, and it is much more design focused. Just because it’s smaller doesn’t mean it’s easier.

I think this is completely untrue as a blanket statement.

Each program has things that are difficult.

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Do you have a college or university in your town? If so, that is an excellent resource–both students (some of whom may be alums of other FIRST teams), and faculty/staff.

Another source of mentors could be employees of your local sponsors. Also local engineering firms.

Your industrial arts (“shop”) teacher may be able to suggest some possible mentors in your community.

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I agree, VEX is a good introduction to robotics concepts in general. We would just like to increase our involvement with the middle schools overall and we were thinking FTC would make the transition to FRC easier, as well as make team mentoring easier. This might not be the case though, as I’m reading the other comments.

Thank you! We do have a local university that we can look into recruiting mentors from, as well as 1-2 recent alums from our team that I know are willing to mentor sometime in the future. They are waiting a year or so though, so they have time to properly disconnect from the team and play a more mentorship role instead of “glorified senior”.

If there is one thing that help me the most is the mentality of “Most reward for least effort”. This will allow you to be the most productive.

Example:
For the last 3 years, I haven’t even touched a custom drivetrain. It’s been kitbot all the way. Sure we could squeeze out 5% more out of custom, but why do it when you can squeeze 25% out of another area? At some point, that 5% will be worth it, but not yet.

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One thing that might help is to start this process earlier. In the ideal case, the seniors on the team shouldn’t be the “do-ers.” They should be the leaders working with a few underclassmen who are the actual do-ers.

eg: Your best programmer should (almost) never touch the keyboard. Instead, a younger team member (or three) should do the typing/mousing and the senior should teach. This way, both/all students are developing new, valuable life skills, and you are better institutionalizing your knowledge.

I know this is difficult when you don’t have a big enough group of students, and it always seems like it will be faster if “I just do this myself” instead of watching someone else do it with less skill. But in the mid-to-long term, your students learn to communicate, transfer knowledge, and work together as a team.

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Difficult in Covidland, but outreach efforts are crucial. Get your robot and team members out there to be seen. Service groups, local manufacturers, etc. Each and every pitch has to include this sentiment: "This is what we’ve been able to accomplish so far. There’s more and better ahead. If your employees have high school aged kids encourage them to look into this. " Getting random students to join the team is great, they’ll often surprise you. But getting students whose parents/grandparents are machinists and programmers and such…often they become mentors. Or at least people who can provide important niche support.
TW

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I’m just going to talk briefly about retaining people.

People will stay from year to year if they enjoy being on your team. While robotics is a lot of fun, it’s also important to do team bonding. By doing successful team bonding you are helping to make everyone on your team happy and happy people stay on your team.

If people leave the team because they are unhappy or get frustrated, it’s important to ask those people why they left since no one can fix a problem until they understand what the problem is.

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This sounds all too familiar with my own team, but I think I can say we have learned and developed a little bit since we were in your exact shoes.

What we’ve found is that keeping good mentors around is key. Especially how you described your team leaders struggling to teach the younger ones - that’s hard. We struggle with the same exact thing, and even when we’ve tried, it takes up too much time during and around build season to teach kids. Having an experienced mentor around to help teach the new kids is so vital. Even if they don’t know a whole lot about FIRST, as long as they know how to properly run machines and have decent ideas of how programming and wiring work, they can teach. And while the new kids are learning in the shop with mentors, they can closely observe and possibly help with the bot. Keeping those kids engaged is important, even if a mentor has to help with that.

Quite frankly, it looks like you need to search for some new mentors. I know that search can long, hard, and frustrating, but it is absolutely worth it to get a decent mentor.

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A training program could be a simple has having your experienced team members plan a one-day lesson on something that interest them. Maybe directly tied to FRC maybe not (soldering, CAD, programming, history of FIRST games?). Get new and old team members involved as participants.

As for middle school connection, VEX and FLL are both great! Don’t worry about changing to FTC, but instead reach out and work with them. Can they visit your lab or you visit theirs, even virtually? Can you plan a robotics workshop/lessons to include them? Plan an outreach or community event together?

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I think you summed our problem up perfectly here. We do a separate robotics competition in the fall, which limits our offseason time to mostly summer. Having more experienced mentors would certainly help.

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Those are all great ideas, thank you!

Do you have any suggestions for outreach events that we could do with them?