Late September 2014, I registered our USFIRST robotics team. Because our school is in its first year, there were no team members, money, robotics lab, tools, parts, and, most of all, no knowledge or experience in managing a robotics team. All I had was a vision of a competition-ready robotics team for the 2015 season.
Our regional director, LJ Robinson, convinced me that starting a team was really possible. She quickly connected me to people and teams in the area that could answer questions and guide our team. Mark Buckner and Sydney Buckner, both USFIRST Regional Representatives, provided fast answers to many questions.
Lesson #1 – Seek expertise from those who can help you succeed. From the very beginning, you will need mentors outside of your own team.
Weekly informational robotics meetings and a parent meeting brought together the first few student members. Weekly meetings were focused on communicating USFIRST values and guidelines on “Gracious Professionalism” and safety. We built excitement by showing USFIRST videos of past competitions. Oak Ridge High School visited our school with their robots to give reality to our vision.
Lesson #2 – Communicate USFIRST expectations and guidelines from the very start, and review these expectations frequently.
Lesson #3 – Motivate team by showing them examples of success.
In developing our business plan, it became clear we needed to organize our team into specific departments. Team members decided what area they were most interested in: engineering, programming, and business/marketing. We identified those students with leadership potential for the manager positions. All leadership roles required a demonstration of a good work ethic and people skills, as well as a willingness to dedicate time and service to the team. Sometimes, a student realized they had a greater desire or skill to work in a different department, so we allowed for some changes in team roles.
Lesson #4 – Organize team into specific jobs early. Identify team leaders and modify roles as necessary in case of attrition or the discovery of special skills.
The amount of money needed to build a USFIRST robotics team is very intimidating and finding sponsors was critical to our success. The best marketing ideas came from other USFIRST teams in the area. They willingly shared how they raised enough funds to compete year after year. Taking advantage of grants, like the USFIRST Rookie Grant, was critical. We had to pursue every opportunity to fund our team’s needs.
Lesson #5 – Seeking sponsorships is a priority. Get help from other USFIRST teams and your regional director immediately. Stay alert for any opportunities for funding, such as grants.
We prepared for Kick-off and the build season by asking other teams in the area what types of tools and parts we would need. We also set up a workspace and communicated “build season” time commitments to the team and school administration. During “build season”, we took advantage of every opportunity to get help building our robot. We attended “quick build” sessions at kick-off and found a mentor team that allowed us to work alongside them once a week (Oak Ridge Wildbots, Team #4265). We connected each team member with a mentor in the same role on the experienced robotics team, so they could quickly get answers to questions.
Lesson #6 – Find a mentor team that can help guide you in pre-season preparations and build season activities. Work in a shared space with your mentor team at least once a week for guidance and support.
Lesson #7 – Keep good communication through out the season with school administrators, coaches, parents, students, and other robotics teams.
As a coach, it was important for me to allow the student team members to learn from making decisions and doing the hands-on work. However, it was just as important to stay involved in day-to-day decisions, so that I could offer guidance or resolve conflicts. From the very beginning, we expected that our rookie year would be very challenging. It was important to take a realistic look at difficult situations and do the very best with the resources and support we had to work with.
Lesson #8 – Keep a positive outlook in spite of conflicts and challenging circumstances. Expect difficulties to arise, and accept that growing into a successful USFIRST Robotics team is a long-term process. Set new goals by reflecting on the past season and focus on making the next year better than the last.
Here are some pictures from our most recent robotics exhibition at South Knox Elementary School: