The Struggles of Bigger Teams

This is kind of an unusual an thread title, so here’s a little bit of back history of where I’m coming from. The team I am associated with has always been a small-to-medium sized group of students (10-26 students), floating around 15 students the last few years. Upon some off season analysis, we determined that our team would be much more efficient and productive if we could maintain at least 24 students, and as such worked our tails off in the offseason to do some really good recruiting.

Now that the season has started, we are consistently seeing numbers of around 60 to 70 students showing up to meetings! It’s great to see this much of a dramatic increase over the course of 1 summer, but there are alot of associated unknowns I realize that come with this increased size.

First, we’ve NEVER had more than 26 students come kickoff time, so while we are FULLY aware of the struggles of NOT having enough people to do everything needed to be done, we have no idea how to handle having so many people.

My main question here is what are some issues/struggles/problems you may have encountered that come up with having a large (50+ student) team? What things can we nip at the bud before they become a problem and hinder the preseason or come back to bite us during the build season? I might be just over-worrying altogether, but the fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all.

This is certainly not the worst problem to have by any means, but (simply put) I want to keep it a blessing and not a curse.

As a member of a 50+ team, I can say the main issue you’re going to run into is keeping everyone doing something productive for the team. While the major draw of being on a robotics teams is “OMG I GET TO BUILD A ROBOT”, there is not nearly enough robot to go around for people to build.

As well, a less looked at issue is how to manage travel costs and logistics. Booking hotels for 60 high schoolers plus mentors, and getting them all to that hotel in the first place can be a major challenge.

I’m joining a new team as a mentor this year, and they anticipate a large number (up to 50) after our school club fair and demonstrations… 2nd year team.
In our meetings so far we’ve discussed a series of training sessions that students MUST attend to remain part of the team. I would highly recommend doing the same. If you have 10 weekly sessions and students only show up to 6, they probably aren’t dedicated enough or educated enough for build season.

Too few students causes stress from too much work.
Too many students causes stress from distractions and possible accidents.

I’m interested in responses to this thread too. We have a medium-ish size team (between 32 and 40 last season) and had 17 new kids show up for our mixer the other night! Which is awesome, we lost 10 seniors last year, and having more kids is always good.

But we even have run into problems last year with not having enough for the kids to do after about week 3 when we’re waiting on parts, etc, which causes the kids to goof off or go into another classroom that’s attached to our build room with computers in it under the guise of doing homework or scouting, and instead played minecraft or hung out on facebook for 3 hours. (Wow that was a run on sentence - sorry) And we couldn’t send them home because a lot of them relied on their parents coming to get them at a certain time.

We’re trying to nip this in the bud this year by starting things early and having things that the kids can fall back on during the year (Logo design, pit design, programming, etc). So we’ll see how it goes. We’re also coming up with a handbook of rules and regulations and consequences - I’d recommend putting something like that together if you don’t have one already.

I would also figure on a good-sized drop-off in attendance. 60-70 is probably going to translate into 30-40. Set some fairly easily-attainable target to travel/maintain membership in the team–say, 6/10 training sessions and 2/3 of build season meetings to travel, 5/10 and 1/2 respectively to be on the team.

Now, while you’re in the offseason, it may also be a good idea to introduce the idea of having a marketing/outreach/animation/non-robot sub-team. That way, anybody who thinks they would rather go that way can get a good head start.

We can feel the growing pains here.

Usually at our first meeting we’ll have 20-30 kids (and that’s just from one school!) Usually by the week before Kickoff the number has tapered off to 10-20 dedicated members between both of our feeder schools. In addition, 10 or so of those members are seniors or juniors who already have experience building a robot. That works fine, and the majority are happy with the load distribution.

This year however, each school had 30-40 kids show up, and that number hasn’t been decreasing like it has in previous years. What’s worse is that between all of them, we only have 7 or so veteran members who can pass down information.

My main concern is that we will not be able to teach everyone what they need to know pre-season, and that we will suffer from it this build season.

I guess what is happening to my team is uncommon. We’ve gone from 35 two years ago to 7 this year, plus newbies who come in. I personally think it’s cooler having a smaller team. Each person gets to do more, and it becomes a tight family.

An interesting situation that’s for sure…

1058 grew exponentially during 2010 when we one our first regional, but since then our team has become smaller once more (as stated by my teammate above) having seen both a team of about 30 members and a team of less than 10 members, there are definitely pros and cons to each side. Being a bigger team does mean people will have less to do, but you will also have more minds working and more people to do certain tasks. I’d suggest maintaining a reasonable and safe amount of kids to work in the pits,(not kicking the other kids out, just keeping it safe and maintaining your pit space) make a full scouting team, a safety commitee, get some kids to work on PR and communications, and other various tasks. When it comes to build season, I personally would make sure that kids are always either doing something or being taught something. Just because you can’t be fixing or building certain things doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it.

Hope that helps!

We started small as well and grew drastically our 4th year (from 18 to 42) had a huge drop off the next year (13) and now have grown to a confirmed 41 an expected 52

The biggest issue we have has been stated, make sure everyone is doing something, though also make sure everyone feels they are important and what they are doing contributes to the greater good. What I mean by that is sometimes rookies have been regulated to sorting nuts and bolts to proper containers and felt like they were being under utilized.

With a lot of incoming rookies like our team had for the last 3 seasons the best thing to do is make sure the more experienced members are teaching them, the older ones feel smarter while the younger members feel like they are being trained to take a meaningful position.

A few other issues highlighted are the travel arrangements, which becomes harder with a bigger team and you thought to wonder is it better to rent cars (or ask parents) or rent a bus? Also going out to eat, at the Orlando regional this year when of our parents said she called ahead to Panera Bread and got the ok when I walked in and she asked about my shirt and I said that 50 more people were about to walk in wearing them she looked like she was going to cry.

The one thing that I feel hasn’t been spoken about is that the more people involved the more likely personalities will clash. When your team is small everyone feels like a family, when you get bigger more people means more opinions. Sometimes even in our FIRST culture people will just not get along and it is important for leadership to notice as quickly as possible. The best way to avoid this is make sure everyone’s opinion is heard and appreciated sometimes that is enough

The final thing that I can not stress enough and I noticed this in my team this year and with a lot of bigger teams over the years, it is imperative that every member knows what FIRST and your team is about, it only takes one person on a team to “not get it” to ruin a reputation or a competition. Make sure yo stress that it is more than just a robot, that we believe in Coopertition not just Competition, and regardless of bias be happy for those around you.

The challenges of running a large team like this are making sure all of the students are engaged and all of them feel valued. One way to help achieve this goal is to get your team involved in many of the competitions or awards within FRC that have little to nothing to do with the robot. The Chairman’s Award submission, the animation competition, and other awards like spirit and safety are all good goals to work toward that can help engage more kids. It may also encourage people who don’t necessarily have strong technical skills to get involved with the team.

Many times another hurdle experienced at one time or another, which isn’t by any means exclusive to larger teams, is disgruntled parents. This usually results from a misconception or miscommunication about what FIRST is and how your organization works. It helps to keep parents involved with the team, whether it be by mentoring, bringing in food on the weekends for build season, occasionally attending meetings, or going to competitions. I’m adding this here simply because more students = more parents and that increases the chances someone might be upset at some point in the season.

At the start of each season (pre-build season), my team usually has a kickoff. Typically the team draws 60-70 at the start of the season, and dwindles to about 40-50 at the end. First thing (and imho the best) to do is to set expectations.

"I’m glad we have a large team this year, but realistically only 8 people can have their hands on the robot at any point in time, only 6 people can fit in the pits during competition, and only 4 people can be on the drive team.

If you expect that you’re going to show up to a few meetings, goof off and not positively contribute to the team and then drive the robot, you need to rethink your expectations.

We expect you to behave as adults, and to figure out a way that you can contribute to the team. We’re not here to babysit you, and during the build season we don’t have enough time to find jobs for everyone as well as build a robot.

When it comes down to the end of the build season, don’t feel offended if the people in charge brush you off or ask you to move. They’ll be under incredible stress, and chances are they’ll show it.

Having said that, we’ll gladly help you learn roles on the team and we’ll be even gladder if you can find roles on the team to fill."

After that you can describe the structure of the team, who is in charge of each part, and the mentors that associate with those parts of the team.

People have already mentioned the problem of not having enough to do. There will be times durring build where you need every available person and others where you don’t need very many. The difficulty is if someone feeling like they don’t have anything to do they won’t show up next time when you really do need them.

Another problem is in the management of the team. In smaller teams the team leader (or whoever is in charge) can oversee most of the people working to make sure everything progresses smoothly. But in a large team there is no way one person can see everything. There has to be several layers of management so the team leader only has to deal with less then ten people and still know about everything thats going on.

Organization.

  1. Break the team into smaller teams. Chairmans, Business Plan, Spirit, Web page, Bylaws, Mechanical, Electrical, Outreach, Sponsorship.

  2. For every team, have a student team leader.

  3. For every team, have a set of goals. This should read like this:

A. Where are we now.
B. Where do we want to be at the end of the season.

Students are responsible for creating a timeline of progress that culminates in the final goal of their group. Weekly reports to mentors on progress help.

  1. Veteran students (more than 2 years), are NOT ALLLOWED TO TOUCH ANYTHING for the first 3-4 weeks of the season. Their purpose is now to train the new incoming members. You will never have enough mentors for a team over 30 people, so you co-op your experienced members into teaching. Once you hit ‘crunch time’ as we call it, all bets are off and the experienced members jump in to get 'er done.

  2. Train ahead of time. Do so in small groups. Not big all-must-attend meetings where people fall asleep, chat, and play on their phones. No more than 8 people at a time. Shop safety, basic programming, basic mechanical, etc.

I thouroughly agree with all of your points except for this one. Build season is short enough as it is to have veterans wait until week 4 to do anything except teach. While I do agree that the veterans should be spending as much time as possible teaching the newbies, most of these veterans have probably waited their turn to be able to be in charge and be the lead builders for a season. I’m not saying that you’re wrong, I just don’t think making the veterans wait 3-4 weeks to touch the robot is fair, because they have already put at least 2 years into the team.

However your other points were spot on, great ideas!

Tom brings up a great point here, but I do see where you are coming from Jay. It depends on how your team runs build season, size, and ratio of upperclassmen to lower classmen. If you had a huge increase in freshman you want your seniors and juniors to pass on as much information as possible this is a great method to enable the next generation.

That being said, many experienced teams spend weeks 1-3 prototyping and in depth design of their robot so not too much build/crunch time happens until week 4-5 when final parts start arriving and its time to put it all together. If this is how your season is run it is possible to have upperclassmen stay hands off until weeks 3-4 and still remain effective. It could prove healtheir because as you enter crunch time your seniors might have more energy to put into the robot instead of being physically and mentally exhausted come week 5.

In terms of the robot, we built 2 this season. The first was for prototyping, and was a backup in case our compbot was not ready. What we did was spent the first 2 weeks on protobot and then, using what we learnt on that, built our compbot in the remaining weeks. During this time, half the team continued building the protobot (as it wasn’t completely done) and the other half worked on compbot.

I really don’t agree with this at all for several reasons but the one I don’t agree with is the mentor statement since our team is sitting at 21 active mentors across the various sub-teams meaning a mentor for every 2 students right now.

Teams have different resources and operate differently based on those resources. Depending on one’s mentor to student ratio, some teams might have to rely on upperclassmen to pass down knowledge and train new students due to a low number of mentors. We had more mentors our first season with fewer students than this past season.

You seem to have a very high number of mentors so a system like 1718’s would never work for you guys! :slight_smile:

I was just stating that he said that you could never have enough mentors to mentor a team of 30 effectively and you can, and we do. We are lucky for it I do admit

My apologies!

Interesting topic though when and if a team can reach mentor saturation! Depends on the team size, mentor dedication (every meeting, all day, one day, etc), and the number of sub-teams.