Why You Should Consider Mentoring a FIRST Robotics Team

If you’ve read my bio, you know I mentor FIRST Robotics Team 3322.

Developed as a student competition, FIRST Robotics gives teams six weeks to design, build, program, and test a robot that can perform the necessary tasks to succeed in each year’s game. FIRST exists for students of all ages, but I work with a high school team–a passion that started in 2008 when I was a programmer for my high school team.

This year’s game is an exciting challenge: FIRST Stronghold.

How would you design a robot to play that game? There are some big questions that need answers right away: What defenses do you want to be able to breech, should you build short or tall, and how are you going to shoot the balls? There are a lot of subtle concerns too: Will drivers be able to shoot from a robot that’s obscured behind a portcullis? Will electronics hold up in a robot that’s going over lots of bumps?

If thinking about those questions is exciting to you, I recommend that you check out one of your local FIRST Robotics competition events. Events take place all over the USA, and there are several international events as well. If you go to one, make sure to bring some safety glasses and set aside some time to check out the pits. There, you can see the robots up close and talk to the students about the robot they built. You’ll see complex engineering, computer vision, and many different strategies and approaches firsthand.

You may find that you’re like me, and you want to get your hands on some of these robots and watch them get built. If so, approach your local teams about being a mentor. Technical mentors with experience in any kind of engineering or programming are important, of course, but so are lots of other skills. Teams also do lots of marketing and business projects and presentations, as well as design, team branding, and strategy analysis. If mentoring isn’t for you, but you’d still like to be involved, events need judges and volunteers, and teams always need sponsors.

For me, mentoring is a lot of fun. I love getting my hands on the robot, and I love the variety of games that FIRST throws at its teams. Although mentoring is insanely rewarding, it’s challenging at times. I’ve referred to it before as “herding cats”—sometimes the simple tasks can take hours to get finished. There are other moments, though, where students take on and solve challenging problems on their own, or you can see them learn something and teach it to someone else.

As a woman mentoring programming, I enjoy setting an example for the girls who are starting to think about career decisions. I also enjoy setting an example for the boys on the team, not only in being able to talk to them about my own career, but giving them experience working with women and having respect for the women on their teams. I’ve written before about my experiences teaching programming skills to girls and women, but it’s at FIRST Robotics that I have the most fun, and feel the biggest impact. (It’s also where I spend the most time.)

At the end of the day, FIRST Robotics is a great organization getting students involved with engineering projects in an exciting way. It’s such a cool thing to be a part of–it’s a great way to make a difference, and see a difference being made. If you have a chance, it’s worth checking out an event in your area.