Monday, March 26, 2012

The Six Stages of a FIRST Time Mentor

Beginning in January of this year, I had the opportunity to volunteer to mentor a FIRST Robotics team at St. Robert CHS. I had only a vague idea of what I was getting into, but the videos that I had see online seemed to be filled with manic high school students almost euphoric with excitement and passion for robotics. Anything that could get high school students that excited about learning about geeky things like programming, sensors and mechanical engineering was something I wanted to be a part of (spoiler alert: I’m a huge nerd).

A (very) short two months later, a robot was born and I had identified the six stages of mentoring a FIRST team:

Stage One – The elementary school dance: The high school dance is a ubiquitous analogy. Students and mentors grouped around a room, mostly keeping to the relative safety of our individual peers. Some brave students and mentors came together to dance around the topic of what the heck this robot was actually supposed to do...and how?
Quanser's engineeering and production mentors helped the project get off to a great start,
laying the foundation for the students to build on.
Stage Two – The sermon: The classic paradigm of teachers preaching to a class of students has existed for as long as time. Unfortunately, it has become so engrained in the educational psyche that old habits die hard. Having been intimidated by a room full of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students, we mentors may have fallen back into our comfort zone. The beautiful part about FIRST, however, is that you can’t lecture for long. There’s work to be done. The build team and our crack production mentors went to work on getting a head start on the build, prompting the rest of the mentors to get our hands dirty.

Stage Three – Shock and awe: This stage was the real turning point for the mentors, and to a certain extent the project overall. As the students got down to work, we mentors started to realize just how talented, bright, and capable they were. I will never forget walking into the shop on a Saturday afternoon to help get the control system up and running, only to find out that it was already pretty much complete. As our confidence in the students grew, and the students’ confidence in themselves was reinforced, the project really took off as the students began to invest their hearts into the project.

The students quickly took over the project,
while the mentors stepped back into a supporting role.
Stage Four – Tool rack: As the students took over the project, we moved into the culminating stage of the build process. In this stage the students took an active role in the construction and design of key elements of the robot. At the same time we mentors began to take a more passive role: holding a tool here, lending a hand there, and only occasionally interjecting with a friendly piece of advice. I really started to feel like I was a part of their team, and that we were all in it together.

Stage Five – Pride: As the robot came together and “bag day” approached, I was really struck by the overwhelming pride I felt in what the students had achieved. I think that the team did an amazing job, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.

The students eventually took control of the project and became fully involved
 in the construction and design of key elements of the robot.
Stage Six – Repeat: As the competition day draws closer, talk around the Quanser office seems to be turning more and more to the subject to FIRST. Not a day goes by, it seems, without someone mentioning competition results, interesting robot designs, strategies, etc. I can’t wait until next year’s build, and I know the other mentors feel the same way too. Go 4001!


pkeenan said...

Peter sells himself and his Quanser mates a little short in the blog. He was instrumental in getting the kids to come out of their shells. As a teacher on FRC team 4001 I can tell you we were thrilled with the guys from Quanser. The students have benefited big time from this association. Thanks Peter and the gang.

Quanser said...

Thanks for the note - much appreciated.

Very happy this has all gone so well - looking forward to success on Friday -:)

Paul Gilbert
Quanser, CEO