A Guide to Mentoring/Advising

The following is a paper I put together to describe the philosophy I follow when to managing my five teams (3053, 3054, 3055, 3056, and 3057) and the rest of my extra-curricular organization.

I posted the first few sections in posts, and the entire file is availible as a PDF.

Enjoy - constructive feedback appreciated - I consider this to be a perpetual work in progress.




The following is an outline of the philosophy I’ve developed over my time spent in educational robotics programs.

I’ve written and am sharing this document for two main reasons: The first is that I would like to share my philosophy of the role our robotics program as a part of a holistic educational experience. The second is that I would also like to share my philosophy of my role as a teacher and mentor.

My Background

I think is it important, before I begin to explain my philosophy, to explain how I got to this point, and what my experiences in the world of educational robotics competitions have been.

I am 25 years old. My background in robotics goes back to the year 2000, when I joined my high school’s FIRST robotics team, as a freshman, at the urging of my science teacher, Paul Kloberg. When I was growing up, I was the kid on the playground reading a book. I was no athlete and didn’t really have a place to fit in with classmates. Robotics gave me a place where I could challenge myself, intellectually, and do something as a part of a team after school. That first year, I became the lead strategist and tactician for the team. I created and executed a plan for creating databases of robot abilities, with accurate information from the field. This was vital to that year’s game, as 4 robots all had to work together for one task, and the faster that task was completed, the higher the score. If teams could be more efficient, their collective scores would rise.

I did this mostly on my own, and saw success as the result of my ideas put into praxis. At that point in my life, I had never been prouder of something than that project. It was, challenging, and satisfying work that gave me a feeling of achievement. I wasn’t just another student in the classroom. I found a sense of competence, a sense of achievement, and a sense of being a part of a community and team.

I continued with robotics up through high school, then worked as a volunteer during college, and also helped to set up events in the northeastern United States. In my junior year of college, I got involved with Vex, (Then a part of FIRST called FIRST Vex Challenge, or FVC), helping to set up events along the east coast, including the NJ championships at The College of New Jersey (my undergraduate college), and ended up as a key volunteer at the early World Championships. It was there that I met the team that I am currently the faculty advisor for. My senior year of college, as a student-teacher, I served as a faculty advisor for a FIRST robotics team in a school near my college.

By chance and circumstance, my first job interview was at West Morris Mendham High school – home of Team 3053, Occam’s Engineers, Inspire Award winner and Winning Alliance captain in the 2007 FVC competition at their World Championship event. Over the past three years, we have gone from one small team working mainly outside of school, to about twenty five students arranged in five competitive Vex Robotics Competition (VRC) teams and a SpecOps group that works for the organization as a whole. Three to four days a week, after school, we fill our school’s technology lab to capacity. Students often take robots and parts home to work during weekends and breaks.

I also help to run and set up VRC events in New Jersey, along with other repeat volunteers such as Paul Kloberg and Mike Snook. We’ve gotten pretty good at packing and unpacking VRC competition fields, AV equipment, and game elements, all the while maintaining a reasonable degree of sanity.
So in summary, over the last eleven years, I have served as a student, as an outside volunteer, as event coordinator, and as a faculty advisor for two separate, and very different educational robotics programs. I feel that I have seen a good cross-section of what works, what doesn’t work, and seen the effects of different barometers for success and different definitions for the “right” spirit of competition from many perspectives throughout my participation.

Philosophy: What is Robotics?

Ultimately and perhaps paradoxically, I believe that the heart of an educational robotics program isn’t primarily about robots. It is about creating a place for students to feel safe, accepted, and connected. It is about giving students the freedom to explore and experiment, and learn through the process. At its core, I am not the advisor of a “club” as I am of a supplementary educational program. It is a different kind of educational program; most classes are highly structured – they have to be. As a teacher, there is curriculum to follow, standardized tests, AP tests, IB exams, national standards, school standards, and state standards that all need to be followed through the year. An after school robotics program doesn’t have those constraints, so students can explore their interests as their journey takes them. They have the freedom to take risks, to sometimes fail, and to learn from those experiences. It is learning by exploration, rather than by dictation.

By allowing students to explore and discover things on their own, with measured and minimal guidance from me, I feel they learn a lot more, not just in content, but far more importantly they internalize the process of thinking critically and creatively. Perhaps, if things go right, and some inspiration is sparked, they may rediscover a sense of discovery and pleasure in education. There is a significant cognitive different in exploring knowledge versus learning a set curriculum. Learning the “right answers” isn’t education. Education is about asking the “right questions.” Being about to think independently, creatively and critically view a problem, and then seek out and pursue avenues of inquiry that lead to greater understanding – that is what I feel the purpose of real and valuable education is, and that the purpose and value in this robotics program. We don’t build robots in order to compete; we compete in order to build robots. It is a means to an end: an educational tool.
Robotics Philosophy V8.pdf (112 KB)

The Role of the Advisor:

I feel that measured and minimal adult intervention is important for developing a culture of ownership within the team. When students are in control of the process, including idea development, building, programming, and taking initiative on awards and interactions with the public, they learn leadership and personal responsibility skills that have a positive impact on the program. Their enthusiasm and energy compounds on itself, and can be self-sustaining.

I believe this can only be done in a healthy, sustainable way by having students taking initiative in having control of the process. This is the way I found my place in robotics when I was a student, and the reason I was eager to be the advisor of an extracurricular robotics program; I could give students the same opportunities and experiences that had such an impact on shaping who I became as an adult.

From my experiences, I’ve seen the pitfalls of heavy leadership and involvement of adults firsthand. Students are conditioned to accept adults as their leaders. In the average classroom, the teacher has the answers, and students are trained to respond to the instructor’s questions with the “right answer.”

With my robotics teams, I generally respond to student questions with questions of my own. For example, my response to a student inquiry of: “Why doesn’t this work?” would be “Why do you think it doesn’t work?” After the students expresses his or her theory: I ask, what could you do to test that, if that test is negative, what else could be causing the problem?”

In the entire exchange, I give no information, or very minimal information; I simply ask students what they know. Most of the time, students know what to do, and they have all the information they need to solve the problem. When they ask a question, they want affirmation: they just want to hear it from an authority figure. By denying them that safety net, students are empowered to take initiative, take risks, and learn from failures or setbacks. Eventually, they stop asking questions of the instructor, and learn instead to share information amongst each other and truly troubleshoot their problems in a way that is logical and self-directed. After a while, they become very eager to test a hypothesis, try out a new design, or work out a new strategy: they have gained the confidence to take risks, and have confidence in themselves to know that they have a scaffold of knowledge, experience, and support to allow and encourage them to reach higher.

It is not uncommon for my students to redesign and rebuild the robot constantly – even after winning or being successful at competitions. The process of recursive improvement for the sake of building a better design is internalized when students take pride in the process, and a part of that pride is being responsible for the success of the design by working out the bugs, glitches, and challenges that arise throughout the design process.

The emphasis on the process also deemphasizes the role of the competition as the main goal for the activity. The competition becomes a proving ground for the design – the design work is what is important – the competition is merely a place to test the design and see other ideas and solutions to the same design problems. By focusing on the process, I believe robotics becomes a highly educational activity in terms of both character development and of serving as a platform for engineering and design curricula. Lessons in mechanical engineering, design, and programming are self-directed and internalized. Because the design process is by nature both recursive and holistic, not only are students learning discrete concepts but are also learn how they interrelate, and to apply them in concert.

Maintaining a Values Driven Approach

I have five core values that encompass the overarching ethos of how I advise my robotics teams. All five are interconnected: the loss of any one affects all others, creating an unstable system. They can be described as the following:

  1. Ownership
  2. Productivity
  3. Sustainability
  4. Unity of Vision
  5. Sanctuary

1. Ownership

I passionately believe that developing an environment in which students direct and “own” the design and learning process is vital for unlocking the potential of robotics as a tool for learning. Many students are a part of an education system that is quite micromanaged and structured. There is a lot of pressure to the get “correct” answer, and information is indiscriminate and disparate between subjects. Rarely are curricula integrated in a way that is meaningful – my leadership style allows and encourages students to work to realize avant-garde ideas and take risks without fear of failure. If it fails and something is learned, the experience was valuable and thus not a failure.

This “sandbox” approach seems to be particularly attractive to gifted students because robotics is so multifaceted – there is the strategy of the game, mechanical design, and programming, working with random partners, playing random opposition, and navigating human interactions. There is a lot of “mind food” available to challenge students intellectually in the form of a game, and giving students the freedom to play that game without undue interference, by taking their own initiative is the basis of creating a culture of leadership where smarts and craftiness are celebrated, and mistakes are forgiven as learning experiences.

Allow students to take initiatives and feel free to experiment without a fear of failure – not only in terms of the robot, but also with everything else. It is important that the program is truly student-led in order for it to stay student-oriented. I’ve found that students become passionate about the program, and by investing in it, they “get” more out of the experience. Let this culture develop itself, and it will become self-sustaining by its own nature.

I like to call the environment “constructive chaos” – ideas flow freely, experiments are performed, and learning happens. This is different from lawlessness – students need to be on task, but are free within their task. The analogy of the sandbox again works well here – as long as students are in the sandbox, (that is, on task) – then they will learn and grow within that sandbox.

2. Productivity

Each student needs to be productive and have a role in the team. Some are inclined to be programmers; others are more interested in mechanical aspects. Still others have little interest in building the actual robot, but work on press releases and media relations, artwork, and aspects of the program that are not technical.

To build an organization, and not just a team, you need students that can look at the big picture and belong on every team and no team. I called my group of students “SpecOps” which stands for “Special Operations.” They write essays, take pictures at events, write press releases, make banners, signs, logos, buttons, and help with other projects, along with students attached to specific robots. They help where needed and fill in any gaps in the organization so it can function smoothly.

The idea here is that everyone needs to fulfill a role. This minimizes distractions, builds unity, and ensures that everyone is working together on the “big picture” project: running a robotics team – combination engineering competition and small business.

The idea that every member needs to contribute (no dead weight or freeloaders) also extends to what certain people do not do. Adults generally are not involved besides assisting in supervising fundraisers. As advisor, I do the administrative things that students cannot do, while leaving the rest up to them. At the start of the year I give each team an engineering notebook. I arrange students into five teams, with between three and five students per team. After that, students self-organize within their teams. They come up with their own designs, strategies, and ideas. I do not touch parts or contribute to their robots – that is the job of the students.

Students form a solid foundation for future learning and cultivate a body of knowledge by exploring the problems basics and building complexity. In my experiences as an advisor, students who control the design process develop exponentially complex and successful designs in a relatively short period of time because their knowledge is based on a visceral, tangible foundation of past mistakes and lessons learned.

An environment of ordered chaos allows a lot of great things to happen by circumstance, by design, or by accident – and the combination is the best way to nurture students to take control of that chaos and turn it into something of their own design that they can be proud of. There can be little personal pride to be had by just following the orders of an authority figure. I am the advisor, not the leader. Students are internally motivated to be productive by genuine interest, rather than top-down enforcement.

Maintaining a Values Driven Approach

I have five core values that encompass the overarching ethos of how I advise my robotics teams. All five are interconnected: the loss of any one affects all others, creating an unstable system. They can be described as the following:

  1. Ownership
  2. Productivity
  3. Sustainability
  4. Unity of Vision
  5. Sanctuary

Edited for Consistancy - the 10,000 character limit is difficult.

Thanks for sharing this – it’s important for us to keep thinking about the “whys” as well as the “whats” of robotics.