Rookie Onboarding — A new mentor’s perspective

Recruiting and training new students is an essential off-season activity for FRC robotics teams. Just when you get your seniors ready to run the place, they graduate and go out to rule the world. Not only do they leave big shoes and empty seats to fill, they take everything they learned WITH them! Enter the rookies, all wide-eyed and open-minded, like a fleet of sponges ready to soak up the suds of robotics wisdom.

Building a successful team with ~25% annual turnover is a challenge faced by every collegiate sport, including FRC Robotics. This season was a year of growth for the TerrorBytes, with tripling our mentors and our biggest rookie recruitment season ever, so we have LOTS of new folks to get up to speed.

Here’s some lessons learned from this year’s rookie application process (full disclosure, this is from a rookie mentor—lots of learning going on here):

1. Cast a wide net.

We are fortunate to consistently have enough applicants to fill our spots. The flip side of this is the heartbreak of turning away lots of great students. Mentors put a lot of effort into recruitment, interviewing, and screening applicants. Much like giving birth, the decision process is protracted and agonizing and absolutely worth it. We sadly don’t have enough room for everyone, but we’re really really happy with the ones we got!

2. Aim high.

Although it would be easy to fill the off-season with recruitment, onboarding, outreach and grants, that wasn’t enough for the TerrorBytes. Riding on the high from the first real season after the COVID hiatus, our rising seniors pushed to make a second robot over the summer that included new (to us) technologies like swerve drive, a turret, and vision tracking. Despite world-wide robotics supply chain issues, they mostly pulled it off. Incorporating the parts of lesser robots and last-minute donated motors from other teams (thank you, Hawktimus Prime, FRC team3229!), the aptly-named “Backorder” competed at the Thundering Heard of Robots (THOR), Doyenne Inspiration, and Rumble in the Road off-season events. (Much like the rookie decision process, building an entire robot took longer than you’d want and was not pain-free, but it was worth it!)

3. Make teaching everyone’s job.

This year we wanted to do a better job getting rookies over the steep part of the learning curve. There’s a role for structured lessons, but it’s hard enough to get kids’ attention during the school day. Robotics is the most fun when it’s hands-on, but you can only get so many hands on a robot at once. (Maybe next year we should build two extra robots?)

Fortunately, the TerrorBytes have a strong culture of prioritizing rookie learning. The emphasis is not on making veterans teach as much as making sure they include rookies in learning opportunities. (Veterans soon figure out that teaching is a great way to learn.) Rookies are paired with a “student mentor” and are highly encouraged to ask anyone about anything they don’t understand. We’re monitoring our process, checking in frequently, and making sure students aren’t getting lost or overwhelmed. 

Getting rookies up to speed might take time, but the TerrorBytes’ mission is not “Build Better Robots,” it’s “Build Better People.” What students will eventually figure out is that building a robot is just the sneaky way to trick them into becoming smarter, wiser, and generally better people. (Otherwise we’re just a bunch of adults using free child labor to make cool expensive toys.)

Robotics students and mentors – what have you learned about getting your own rookies up to speed?

About the author: Heather Frederick is a Robotics parent, maker mom, middle-grade author, and identifies as a woman in STEM. She started as a TerrorBytes mentor in May, 2022.