Brian Woo-Shem

Mechanical engineer, tech wizard, cartoonist, writer, creator of things.

FIRST Tech Challenge Robotics Mentoring

I am a hardware & game strategy volunteer mentor to empower students to overcome challenges and learn engineering principles in the FIRST Tech Challenge˺. I primarily work with middle school age students, helping them learn organization, management, and technical skills needed to compete against high school teams.

Online learning resources for students coming soon!

2023-24 CENTERSTAGE

Mentoring 4 teams & advising an additional 4 teams.

Awards

  • Winning Alliance
  • Finalist Alliance x2
  • Design Award x2
  • Control Award x2
  • Innovate Award
  • 1 team advanced to regional competition
  • 6 teams reached the semifinals in at least one of their events

“Baby Bot” Demonstration Robot

In collaboration with a software engineer, I built “Baby Bot,” a mini robot to inspire students by demonstrating how a simple yet thoughtful system can be competitive despite looking like a toy. “Baby Bot” could score 70+ points early in the season, when the median score in games at many local events was less than 70 points.

“Baby Bot” was brought to 8 middle-school age teams and 3 high-school age teams early in the 2023-24 season. Students got to test drive the robot, which was especially fun for newer team members and those who felt intimidated by the complexity of driving their team robot. Teams got to practice working alongside an alliance partner that performs certain tasks very well but cannot do other tasks, challenging them to focus on these other areas. This proved valuable in competitions when cooperating with other teams whose robots might not do all tasks equally well.

Capabilities

  • Doing a “pull-up” by releasing a flexible pole, catching a hook on the bar, and retracting a cord. One team later adapted this idea to connect a hook to a pivot arm instead.
  • Launching a paper airplane from a rubber band cannon
  • Autonomously depositing a disc (aka. “pixel”) on one of three lines randomly marked by a small box using only mechanisms (most students use sensors, which can be more complicated and error-prone)
  • Being unusually small (only 10 inches wide vs. typical 14-18 inches) for increased maneuverability around obstacles, allowing it to make more round-trips across the playing field per game

Mentoring Principles & Philosophy

Much of my mentoring work focus on solving the most common mistakes I see made by teams.

Emphasis on Learning

While FTC is a competition, the purpose is for students to learn! Often, students get too caught up in the competition aspect, stress themselves out, make lots of mistakes, and stop having fun in the process. Students who embrace learning as the goal tend to get more out of the program.

When a team did not perform as well as they hoped at a competition, the students sometimes get discouraged and can quickly lose their motivation to keep going. I try to refocus them to consider what they learned or would want to do differently. I then ask them what is next – what they can still do to improve for future competitions, or what skill do they want to practice or learn?

Team Leadership

I coach the student leaders in each team I mentor on how to set a realistic timeline for project planning, work with the team to decide project goals, delegate tasks, and motivate less experienced team members. Rather than lead the students directly, I let them brainstorm ideas, help them consider pros and cons of each option and present some alternatives, then encourage and provide technical support to help them achieve their goals.

Strategy

FTC games are complicated, with many tasks to complete. For the 2023-24 season, these include autonomously detecting an object and placing two other objects in corresponding locations, placing small objects onto a tall slanted board precisely to create patterns, and having the robot do a “pull-up” on a bar. Often, students try to build their robot to do everything for competitions early in the season, only to discover they don’t have time to make any of it work well. Instead, focusing on doing one thing well first before moving on to the next task helps them be successful. Doing one or two things well is better than doing everything poorly!

Teams compete in “alliances” with another team, such that each game is 2 versus 2. Most teams will first talk to their alliance partner team when they get to the playing field right before the match, leaving very little time for coordination. I work to teach the students how to approach other teams and create a strategy that uses the strengths of each team and their robot.

During games, students sometimes get hyperfocused on one element, missing opportunities to score more points if they were to choose to spend time or energy on a different action. I watch the games and suggest these other strategies to the team during competitions.

Simplicity

I frequently observe students struggling to build complicated mechanisms to handle the most difficult or extreme aspects of the competition. Often, they are not able to finish assembling, programming, and testing these complicated subsystems in time for the competition, or the subsystem has many failure points making it unreliable so it breaks during a competition and cannot be repaired fast enough. “Baby Bot” is a live demo to show these principles in action.

Practice & Planning

Just like in real life, students often underestimate the amount of time things will take, setting themselves up to panic right before their deadlines (competitions)! I remind them that they are still learning and encourage them to leave enough time to troubleshoot, test, and improve their designs.

Feedback from Parents & Students

Brian came to our build sessions every week and gave advice to the teams that needed help. Brian brought lots of game experience, technical knowledge and creative ideas to our club’s teams. Our team especially benefited from his advice on how to tackle some challenging hardware problems, how to improve our robot’s reliability and efficiency, and how to innovate our robot design. We couldn’t have achieved [winning Innovate Award and 4th place overall] without his help. I would highly recommend Brian to any organization.

Thank you, Brian! You have been a huge part of the success for this team and it was a pleasure working with you. The team learned a lot from your guidance.

© 2024 Brian Woo-Shem

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