As with any youth development job, coaching can be one of the most rewarding, yet challenging things a person does. It is a job that requires commitment, flexibility, and creativity. Teachers, parents, or industry professionals are all excellent choices for robotics coaches.
Ideally a robotics coach is someone who enjoys working with youth and encouraging them to try new things.
As a robotics coach, you will be expected to:
- Inspire students in science, technology, engineering, and math
- Motivate and engage students through activities
- Establish ground rules to provide a safe and nurturing environment
- Create open communication within the group
- Provide youth with support and resources
- Ensure all youth have opportunity to be involved in all aspects of the project
- Create team spirit by keeping things fun
- Maintain organization
- Assist with establishing goals and timelines
Some of the skills a robotics coach helps youth develop include:
- Problem Solving
- Mutual Respect
- Self Confidence
- Value of Listening
Robotics coaches DO NOT need to have a technical background to lead a youth robotics program. They DO need to be able to ask questions and guide youth through the process of finding answers. There are many professional development opportunities across the state to help coaches find the answers they need or provide them with any training or program assistance required.
The most effective robotics coaches, approach their job as a facilitator rather than as a teacher. By doing so, these coaches make the youth responsible for their own learning and development.
What does it means to be a facilitator? Facilitators provide the group with direction and support rather than providing them with direct knowledge. A facilitator will guide youth to finding the right answer, rather than providing it. By doing this, the youth develop practical knowledge, creative thinking, and problem solving skills. They are also encouraged to work together as a team. One way of doing this is by answering their questions with more questions that guide them to finding their own answer. Coaching through facilitation helps to empower youth and build their self-confidence, in addition to fostering a trust relationship between youth and adult.
One of the most challenging things about facilitating a group, rather than teaching or leading, is sitting back and allowing youth to make their own decisions and possibly make mistakes. The mistakes they make are wonderful learning opportunities and provide opportunities for the coach to guide them through the why and how of what happened. As a coach, sitting on your hands and letting the group make its own mistakes is often the best way to allow the youth to take full ownership of the team/group and their accomplishments.
Youth ownership of the team can begin at the very first meeting when goals are first established. A coach should guide the group to make both long and short term goals for the team. When helping the team set goals, a coach may provide them with examples but be sure it is the youth that are setting the goals. Also, coaches should use this goal setting time as an opportunity to teach the group about SMART goals.
Their goals should be:
- S - Specific
- M - Measurable
- A - Attainable
- R - Realistic
- T - Timely
For example, if the team decides that competing in a Robotics competition is a long term goal they can make it more specific by stating which robotics competition they would like to participate in. Do they want to compete in 4-H Robotics, BEST Robotics, VEX, FIRST, or multiple competitions? Then to make it measurable, rather than just stating they would like to obtain a certain score at the competition or receive a certain award. To make sure the goal is attainable, they can then put together a list of short term goals that they need to achieve their long term goal of competing. Coaches should help them keep their goals realistic, for example, if they haven’t ever touched a robot before they may not win the top place in a competition that is only a month or two away. Lastly, coaches should assist them with putting together a timeline for their goals. Teams should put together a timeframe for all the short term goals to help them reach their long term goal. One of the biggest roles of a coach is to help the team stick to their timeline.
Once the group’s goals are established, youth can begin defining group roles. An ideal robotics team will have between 5-7 members. If the group is larger than this, and the resources are available, groups may consider dividing into multiple teams. A team of 5-7 allows each individual to be actively engaged with the robot.
Key roles within a robotics team include:
- Team Leader – This youth is responsible for making sure that the team stays on task and keeps on schedule. During a competition it is vital that they remain within their time allotment. He or she will also be in charge of assisting with any other roles necessary.
- Builder – This youth is responsible for fixing, maintaining, and improving the robot as necessary. It is their responsibility to ensure that the robot is ready for every test. They are also responsible for making sure that the batteries are charged and that spare parts are on hand. If the team is larger than 5 youth, there may be multiple builders.
- Programmer – This youth is responsible for programing the robot.
- Tester/Troubleshooter – The youth within this role will be responsible for the operation of the robot. They will run the robot on the course and provide the builder and programmer with feedback on any changes that need to be made. They will then help the builder/programmer make those changes If there are more than 5 youth on a team, there may be multiple testers/troubleshooters.
- Reporter – This student is responsible for recording what happens at every meeting. He/she will record the various builds tried as well as adjustments made to the program. It will then be his/her responsibility to look back through the records to help troubleshoot programs and builds.
No two kids have the same experience or skill set – this variety of personality and characteristics will be what sets your team apart from others at a competition. These personality traits will help determine their individual roles within the team; however during regular meetings and practices, be sure that all youth have the opportunity to experience every role. Doing this ensures that each youth is getting a well-rounded experience.
If the team is planning on competing, they may decide to assign each member a specific role at competition. For example if one youth is very good at time management and works well with all the other team members, then he/she may be assigned to be the team leader during the competition. Or if one student is more comfortable with programming than the others, he/she may be the designated programmer at the competition.
A club or organization comprised of youth from a variety of ages, may find it more challenging to not only assign roles, but to work with a wide range of skill sets and maturity levels. In instances such as these, it may be best to group them into multiple teams with an age range of no more than 4 years. The 4-H age divisions and those of FLL can help you determine age cut offs. Your team(s) of older youth can always help facilitate activities with your younger teams.
Above all the most important thing you can do as a coach (aside from ensuring the safety of the youth in your care) is to ensure that they are having fun. Youth that are having fun are more likely to be continually engaged in the program and even STEM outside of robotics. If they get hung up or frustrated about something, encourage them to take a break and come back to it later. Do not let them get disheartened by mistakes, but teach them to learn from it and recapture a positive attitude.
For more information on coaching a robotics team you can check out the following resources: