My experience as an FTC mentor, and how FTC has changed my perspective on FIRST
So, to start off, it’s been a while since I’ve written for the FRC blog (finals and robots, y’know) and I’m happy to be back. I’d like to depart from my series on FRC electrical briefly and talk a little bit about my experience with the FTC program. This was the first time I’ve ever participated in FTC, mentoring a team of 13 students, none of whom had ever participated in a FIRST program before. Working alongside the two other FTC teams started by Gear it Forward this season, we gradually scaled the steep learning curve of FTC, with the teams taking home a champion, finalist, and Motivate award at their qualifying event. I’ve learned a lot through this program, about FIRST, about leadership, about robot design, and about myself, and I thought it would be interesting to put these lessons in the context of the FRC program.
TETRIX and Team Budgets
The TETRIX design system took some time to get used to, but after becoming acclimated with its quirks, it was an engaging and effective construction system. The radial hole pattern they use on their C-channel and plate metal is awesome for making angled connections or linear connections consistently, without the need for complicated dimensions or gussets. The servo mount plates were extremely convenient, even when we weren’t using them for servos. The motors are surprisingly powerful and almost all of the parts fit with each other as they should. The versatility of TETRIX means students can be very creative with their design, making it a really great system to use. However, the base TETRIX kit they give new teams is pretty limited. The amount of long C-channel stock was only sufficient for a basic drivetrain, and the limited screw sizes became very frustrating as we continued to develop more complex mechanisms. It seemed like the kit had a lot of some parts that weren’t particularly useful, and very few of the most important components. Any new FTC team looking to do much more than the most basic tasks will definitely need to invest in some additional parts.
More important than the headaches we experienced with the sparse TETRIX kit, though, was the realization of just how difficult it can be for rookie teams to be successful in their first season. The struggles of building a successful robot with the kit alone don’t necessarily come from being unprepared for the build season; it comes from the fact that you don’t really know what you need for the robot until you’ve already designed it. As a result, rookie and low-budget teams are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils: buying extra parts before the build season, or buying parts during the build season. Spending money on extra parts before the beginning of the season is a huge risk, because if those parts aren’t needed, you’ve just wasted a chunk of your budget that might be needed for the parts you actually need. But, if you order parts during the season, you’re guaranteeing yourself a week or two where you can’t do much on a certain mechanism because you have to wait for the parts to arrive. I remember vividly the disappointment on the faces of the students working on a climber prototype when I told them the sprockets and chain we ordered hadn’t arrived yet. I’ve always been impressed by rookie teams with strong robots, but working with FTC has made rookie success stories all the more inspiring to me.
As I’ve described earlier, we made three new FTC teams this year. As the FRC team draws students from two high schools, we organized the teams such that one team was all students from one school, the second team was all students from the other school, and the third team was split half and half between the two high schools. The team I mentored was the combination team. We had the largest roster of the three teams, and very few of the students knew one another before joining the team. So, inevitably, the first few meetings were rather awkward. The lively and bustling nature of a typical brainstorming session was much more subdued as students struggled to quickly form the strong relationships needed for success during a build season. For me, watching this was stressful; the question developed in my mind of whether students would group together based on their school, creating a clique scenario that would inhibit progress on the team. Yet, as the prototyping and building process began, students suddenly began to develop the bonds of teamwork and friendship I had been so worried about. Two students, in particular, proved to me that this team’s lack of closeness outside of the shop would not cause problems down the line. A senior and a freshman, from different schools, worked together as equals, masterminding the prototype that would eventually become the telescoping arm on the robot. With barely any guidance, as I myself was still figuring out some of the finer points of the TETRIX system, these two figured out how to make a two-stage, pulley-driven telescoping arm with only the materials from the base kit, and a couple pieces of polycord from a scrap bin. On top of this, they opened up their design to the rest of the team, who, together, agreed upon improvements to the design, eventually resulting in a fully functional telescoping arm, capable of lifting the entire robot without much effort. It was amazing to me to watch this group of students become a team. Starting with a few simple parts and a big idea, this unlikely combination of students became a powerful catalyst for team-building. The power of hands-on activity is not to be estimated, and the development of my team throughout this season is representative of how FIRST’s hands-on approach to STEM outreach can affect how students interact with each other.
Much like any other form of volunteer, mentors are constantly the subject of (well-deserved) praise from those outside their role. Yet, those who rain praise down on mentors seldom take a step back and consider how they may help make the life of a mentor a little bit easier. I’ve always been told being a mentor for a FIRST team is very challenging, and it certainly makes logical sense that mentoring a bunch of energetic high-school students could be a bit stressful. However, taking the role of a mentor in the FTC program made me realize just how much work actually goes into being a mentor, and has given me a new level of admiration and respect for the work that mentors do. In preparation for the FTC season, we knew we would need our FRC programmers to be experienced in FTC Java so that they could teach students on the new teams. However, only one programmer was able to attend the FTC meetings, and he had already volunteered to mentor one of the FTC teams. So, instead of leaving two of the teams out to dry, without an experienced programmer to train new students, he retained his leadership role on his team, while mentoring programming students on all three teams simultaneously. Attending almost every meeting for all three teams, he took on three times the workload of any of the other mentors, while keeping his patience with the students and leading his own team. The level of dedication he displayed, not to the success of his team, but to the success of all three teams, was astounding and has led me to reevaluate the level of dedication FIRST mentors must possess to maintain both their team and their sanity.
The Transition into FRC
This was the first time there has been FTC teams in my school district. Before the introduction of the three FTC teams, participation in the middle school FLL teams was the most FRC-like experience any of our new students had available to them, and this transition isn’t particularly smooth. Transitioning from FLL to FRC, the change in the scale of the competition was startling to me. Before attending my first FRC regional, I was expecting wood fields in a school gym, just like FLL. Showing up to a stadium with stage lights and a metal field was quite a surprise to me. Power tools, CAD, and long days of hard work were a far cry from my experience with FLL. FRC, at first, felt completely alien to me, and I sometimes felt that I wasn’t able to contribute as much because of my lack of experience with this scale of competition. However, going through FTC, the students I mentored got experiences much more like the FRC, without the aspects that made the transition difficult to deal with. Concepts like strategic design, scouting, and wiring that aren’t necessarily taught in FLL are present in FTC, making it a great basis for entering an FRC program. With the experiences of FTC behind them, the first-time FIRST students on my team will be able to more confidently enter the FRC environment.