What do you look for in a perfect mentor?

With school starting up soon, so too is another robotics season: New game, new parts, and a new role.

Problem is, I’m no longer a high school student.

Going through vex, ftc, frc, battlebots, and robofest, my views on a mentor’s role has always been changing. Sometimes I wished they offered more guidance, sometimes I wished they would back off. Sometimes responsibilities were overwhelming, sometimes responsibilities were just petty.

I came from a team where the students did pretty much everything from designing to programming to talking with sponsors and even organizing outreach events. Our mentors did touch on each of the areas, but they mainly did things we students weren’t authorized to do (paperwork, school requirements, etc.).

As an officer, I did my best to create an illusion of independent thought. It was a kind of balance which sparked and inspired younger members, but it limited them enough to ensure that they were running to failure. At times it was successful, other times it failed, but from what I’m told, my team liked it.

However, how does the role of an officer differ from a mentor?

Where should a mentor draw the line? When is this educational? When is this fun? when is this a competitive experience? How does this change among members? How do you help your students grow? How are you guys organized, and what do you like/don’t like?

Please, opinions from both students and mentors are great. You can rant all you want and predict mistakes everyone’s going to make :stuck_out_tongue:

As a mentor, my role varies dramatically based on the capabilities and personalities of my students. Being a mentor is much more about understanding your individual students and acting in the manner which will most benefit them, rather than setting somewhat arbitrary rules or boundaries.

As a result, there are some seasons where I get very involved in engineering and management, and others where I am practically not involved in these aspects at all. Within each of these scenarios, I may work with individual students in very different ways.

One important thing to recognize is that your students will grow and change, more than you expect, and you need to grow and change your mentoring techniques accordingly.

I just started last year, so I spent a lot of time talking to other mentors to see how they worked to see if there was anything I could emulate (steal) to help my team succeed.

For mentors, I think you need someone who has enough background to ask students the right questions about their robots. Someone who can have the authority to be the final word in the arguments that will invariably come up. Someone who knows when to step in and be the adult, and when to be the biggest kid in the room. Someone to define expectations, both in the build and during competitions. A group of students can make a team successful for a short time, but if there isn’t a mentor to shape the program, it dies when they graduate.

James Pearman

Please elaborate :stuck_out_tongue:

Mentor goal #1 - ensure your club can operate, have a place to build, buy parts, and are signed up for competitions. Without this the club does not go very far. With a school based team, this can also mean getting the school board to allocate the right amount of money, ensuring teacher/administration support, securing event space. Fundraising, collecting money, and maintaining mailing lists and website communications goes in here.

Mentor goal #2 - relentless task manager! Ensure the work gets done and you actually have a robot in the time frame needed. As the kids get older they seem to think they can do all this themselves and don’t need a mentor. But it seems kids think work can be done in much smaller increments of time than it would seem humanly possible. Sometimes you are a mediator role but many times it is asking “what is next and how are you fitting that together” and “what parts do you need for next week”. Parts don’t magically appear unless you are driving distance to Vex to pick them up. Setting realistic expectations is in here too. By year 2 or three the kids want a robot to do it all and dominate. Your job is to lead them there and draw out of them how they get a dominant robot from a pile of parts.

Mentor goal #3 - teaching the kids about STEM via robotics. Get the learning in there so the kids understand what is going on and get interested in engineering and science. This can be hard with tight time frames of the build time so we spend extra time in the spring on concepts. This should be goal #1 but practicality of actually getting a robot is a predecessor.

Mentor goal #4 - herding cats. Goes with #2 but focus on safety and productive activity. This means ensuring there is not any idle wandering around, not being productive, doing unsafe things as rubber bands and zip ties lead to, plotting the overthrow of small island nations, etc. Zero tolerance on unsafe activity. Everyone needs their fingers and eyes.

Mentor goal #5 - managing competitive aspects. Once you have a robot, design down, and the like, focusing on getting the kids to develop their robot to its fullest potential within the time you have left is next - autonomous routines, skills runs, drive strategy, etc. This can lead back to #4 if you have one programmer and you focus on skills, the rest of the kids are idle. Driving skills runs can mean some kids may not be driving.

Instead of making my own list, I’ll just borrow this one and add stuff (engineering!)

I agree with these two points, specifically the bits I bolded.

When I was a student, a long time (3 years) ago, these were the only things I wanted out of a mentor. I wanted parts to build stuff with, a place to build them, a school that cared, and I also wanted to learn cool things.

My worst experiences in high school robotics were when mentors controlled everything and told us everything we had to do, and when we had to do it by. By contrast, my best experiences were had derping around with my team mates building silly contraptions and hacking a robot together.

Sure, most of the time when we got to competition, out robot wasn’t quite what we wanted it to be, and no, we didn’t feel too great about it, but we HAD FUN! We learned from our mistakes, and were humbled by defeat.

VEX isn’t about competition. It’s not about winning competitions to get your school’s money back in the form of trophies. It’s about learning, and for a lot of people, competition is great motivation to learn. What can we do better? How do we do it? What questions should we ask that we haven’t asked yet?

Mentors should be as hands-off as possible. You shouldn’t have to force kids to build robots, they should be there because they want to build robots. And if they need help, that’s what the team captain and student leadership is for. And if the student leadership needs help, they talk to the mentors. My VEX team had 1 or 2 mentors, and we had no mentors (just parent chaperones) at a few of our tournaments. I believe the perfect mentor is always there for support and answering questions, but never for strict guidance.

Plus, that gives the older students the chance to learn leadership and how to teach the things they were taught a few years back when they were little freshmen who didn’t know anything. My high school’s VEX program failed when the mentors took power from the students and enacted martial law.

I would agree that mentors shouldn’t have to force; but when 50 - 70% of your school’s teams want to make a clawbot with an elevatorlift just because it looks cool, it could be really harmful to the impact of the reputation of a robotics club; especially when funding can be so sacred.

IMO I think teams need to start ASAP on design. 'The designing process is what the most insight can be taken / enriched, and is most likely a mentor’s greatest presence outside of driver training.

Glad to hear you are planning on helping out the ones following in your footsteps.

Rule 1: Make sure they are safe, that they wear their safety glasses, etc.
Rule 2: Don’t design their robots for them.
Rule 3: Don’t build their robots for them.
Rule 4: Don’t program their robots for them.
Rule 5: Don’t let them use something on their robots they don’t understand and can’t explain to the judges.

Having said that, I should add that I’m no fan of “constructivist” theories that insist kids need to figure out how to do everything for themselves in order to learn “authentically.” I guess constructivism is the flavor of the decade for education, but from what I’ve seen of it, constructivism too often leaves kids “lost at sea” and causes kids to “construct” knowledge improperly (rotating metal shaft supported in a hole Dremeled into a piece of aluminum plate - really, guys?), so I tend toward a more old-fashioned traditional approach. In fact, some might call it an *ancient *approach, known as the Socratic Method.

:slight_smile: Mentor: “So what makes you so confident your chain here can withstand the forces it will be experiencing?”
:confused: Kids: (group shrug)
Mentor:“Did you test it?”
Kids: “Uhhh… nnno.”
Mentor: “Did you do some kind of calculations?”
:confused: Kids: “How you do that?”
Mentor: “It’s easy. You take the sine of these angles, calculate these force vectors created by the cube weights here and here, then figure out the torque induced in the-”
:mad: Kids: “We’re only in 7th grade, remember?”
Mentor: “Oh… uh…”
:eek: Kids: “What’s a Tork?”
Mentor: “So, uh, okay, let’s think of ways you can *test *this thing…”

I don’t think it’s wise to let the kids use an idea of their own that you know is doomed to fail just so they can have the “authentic” experience of failing. It’s better to use the Socratic approach and probe them relentlessly until they see the light. And if they are totally stuck, it’s far better to start presenting a variety of design options and get them to talk about the various ideas rather than let them wallow in their own misery and ignorance for mind-numbing stretches of time, as strict constructivism seems to require.

As for teaching programming, I have them work with RobotC, and very early on I walk them through how to create Defined Functions specifically for their robots. Then they are free to use those Defined Functions to program the robots for autonomous, etc. I insist they use sensors instead of Time simply because I want them to learn more.

I urge them to help teams that ask for assistance at competitions even if they are scheduled to go against them sometime that day. Fixing the non-functional robots of other teams teaches my kids how NOT to design crappy hardware.

Be sensitive about the emotions of the parents of the kids on your teams and on teams your kids play against. Parents can get crazy competitive at tournaments. Also, parents can be very sensitive about what their little darlings are doing - or not doing - on your teams. Try to smile when they take your picture.

Good luck!

Honestly, there never is a “perfect” mentor. Everyone is different. But for my group, I know we have the right one.

A mentor should be able to understand the boundaries of their students, be able to place them towards their strengths, push them harder when they need to be challenged, but at the same time, know when they are pushing them too hard.

A mentor has to be in tune with their students, and in our team’s case, he is a student with us. Although he may have gone through high school and college, he still goes through the same learning process we are.

A mentor cannot take control of their team where they are the one building it instead of the students, but he should most definitely take part with the students in building the robot together.

All of this may sound like a lot of work for the mentor, but a good one knows exactly how to handle it. But on top of that, it must also be an effort of the students. A mentor is only perfect when the students he is teaching are equally perfect.

My Advisor is all of these things. And I appreciate everything that he has done for us, and everything he will do for those after we graduate. He is solely the reason why we are where we are.

In my opinion, a mentor needs to run everything the members are not authorized to run and step away from everything the members are capable of doing.

This might sound unreasonable for a mentor, but running a team with such a mentor, I did learn everything associated with VEX, more generally, running a successful team. We were allowed to exceed just as how we were allowed to not exceed. With such freedom we were taught to be self-motivated, an important character in life.

I have been mentoring my sons robotics teams since FLL. He is now in middle school participating in VRC (5 years total mentoring). I can’t speak to what a team/coach would look for in a perfect mentor. However, I can tell you what my personal goals are for mentoring. My number one goal is to make kids excited enough about engineering and science that they too one day will pursue that as a career path. (Hopefully Computer Science). I am a Software Engineer, not an educator or administrator, so I need to realize what from my professional career can help these kids. I am not there to build or program robots for the kids, I am there to teaching them how to program, and how to apply the engineering process to building a robot. Having the kids think through their problems before the jump in and tear something apart, or reprogram something. How to properly and calmly debug a problem.

Someone who inspires

“Errors were found during compilation.”

Several seconds later:

*Picks up computer,

hurls it across the room,

smashing it into the wall.*

Others here may have already mentioned something similar, but the quality I appreciated the most in my mentor was his willingness to step back and let the students take charge. From administrative tasks within our club to the actual design and construction of the robots, he required that we (the students) do as much of the work as possible. I feel as though VEX tends to be about hands-on learning, and I appreciate that he allowed us to explore and learn by doing. He also gave us considerable reign over the club, allowing us to take on certain administrative roles that might typically be reserved for an adult/mentor. Personally, I have found that the most valuable lessons from VEX aren’t in robotics/engineering (my fondest, lifelong memories from VEX are of the people, not of the robots). While a mentor cannot be entirely hands-off, the ideal mentor is one that supports and enables the students, rather than personally take charge.

That said, from my observations, being a mentor can still require considerable time and effort, even if many of the tasks are passed down to the students. I am extremely grateful for my mentor’s boundless enthusiasm and encouragement and tireless dedication of his time and resources to our learning. So, I suppose the ideal mentor is actually one who is truly committed to the education (and safety and happiness, among other things) of his/her students. That way, regardless of how they may start out, they’ll learn how to be great (alongside their students).