We've worked with FIRST K-12 STEM programs for 10 years now, starting with our son's FIRST LEGO League (FLL) robotics team in 2005, and then starting a FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) high school level robotics team in our garage in 2008. Before that, we'd volunteered in various capacities in various youth and community programs, from the Civil Air Patrol to Earth Scouts to local nature centers.
Of all the time we've spent working with youth, though, our volunteer time with FIRST has given us the most personal enjoyment and the greatest sense of making a meaningful impact. Maybe it's because, with FIRST, we're not just making things together, but instead engaged in a whole brain experience with kids that includes a whole lot more than the robot. Building robots is pretty awesome, but there's also a lot of "soft skills" exercise in things like critical thinking for problem solving and interpersonal skills improvement through learning to work as a team, and the intergenerational experience of working one on one with a lot of different adults.
In fact, it's the heavy reliance on adult mentors that makes FIRST so successful.
FIRST is a STEM education program that uses robot challenges to build science and technology skills and interests for youth ages 6 to 18, in a character driven program designed to inspire self-confidence, leadership, and life skills . With support from a bunch of generous Fortune 500 corporations, educational and professional institutions, foundations, and individuals, FIRST provides more than $22 million in college scholarships to high school kids in the program, and serves over 400,000 students in 80 countries. The suite of programs includes FIRST® Robotics Competition (FRC® ) for students in Grades 9-12; FIRST® Tech Challenge (FTC® ) for Grades 7-12; FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL® ) for Grades 4-8; and Junior FIRST® LEGO®League (Jr.FLL®) for Grades K-3. Visit USFIRST.org for more information nationally.
- How to Start a FIRST Team
- Community Networking for FIRST Teams
- Competition Readiness for FIRST Teams
- FIRST Teams Guide to Effective Outreach
Step 1: The Value of Mentoring
The National Mentoring Partnership notes that "40% of a teenager's waking hours are spent without companionship or supervision", and identifies several powerful benefits of mentoring youth, including:
- Students who meet regularly with their mentors are 52% less likely than their peers to skip a day of school and 37% less likely to skip a class
- Youth who meet regularly with their mentors are 46% less likely to use drugs and 27% less likely to start drinking
- Mentors teach young people how to relate well to all kinds of people
- Mentors help youth strengthen communication skills.
- Mentors help youth identify career goals and start taking steps to realize them.
- Mentors can be key in helping youth find apprenticeships and internships.
For mentors, sharing your time and expertise serves to:
- Provide that sense of well being that comes from giving back in a personal and meaningful way
- Improves your own professional skills; the teacher always learns and often relearns
- Improves communications and interpersonal skills, which go hand in hand with teaching
- Broadens both your professional network and your social network and
- May directly result in skilled employees you helped train.
Step 2: Skills Needed for FIRST Mentoring
Here's a checklist for mentoring readiness:
__ Are you alive?
Whew, you passed the test!
Honestly, that's it; if you're a living breathing person, you've probably got what it takes to be a FIRST mentor - or to mentor youth in any other program, for that matter.
Notice I didn't ask if you were a skilled roboticist or a mechanical or electrical engineer. All those things are valuable, but not the only valued skills. In addition to learning basic technical and mechanical best practices, FIRST teams employ a lot of skill sets, from marketing and fundraising, to writing and communications, to project planning and design.
I also didn't ask if you were an adult, because you can be a mentor at any age, although for our purposes here, we're usually talking about volunteers who are aged 18 and older. But an articulate and skilled 15 or 16 year old can certainly mentor a FIRST LEGO League team in his or her community, with appropriate supervision.
Step 3: Register As a Volunteer
Volunteers make up over 99% of the FIRST workforce, and over 150,000 volunteers worldwide gave over 10 million hours to youth in over 80 countries.That's a pretty significant volunteer support base!
.To be a FIRST mentor or volunteer in any capacity, you need to register at the FIRST Volunteer Portal, which includes Youth Protection Program education and screening, a short but important process to help ensure the safety and well being of both mentors and youth.
After that, you can find teams or events at which to volunteer via the FIRST website or local contacts.
Step 4: Set Expectations Early
Once you've gotten approved as a FIRST volunteer and connected with a team, then it's a matter of matching what you do to what your adopted team needs.
Identify Time Availability: As a volunteer mentor, you decide the amount of time you want to dedicate to your mentees: it might be once a week, once a month, once a quarter, depending on your availability and interest.
Set Limits as Needed: Work with the team's coaches to identify areas of need and establish expectations clearly - what you're willing to do, as well as what you'd prefer not to do. Maybe you're willing to come to every meeting, but you don't want to be responsible for driving students around. The earlier expectations are articulated, the better the experience for everyone.
Be Clear on Skill Sets: If your strengths are communications, ways you can help teams of all levels includes Interview teaching skills for speaking with judges, creating good team and process documentation, or guidance on content development for team website. If you're of a more technical or mechanical nature, teams benefit from learning best practices in the design and build process.
Step 5: Listen and Guide
Your two most valuable contributions to any team will be to Listen and to Guide. It can be really tempting (really, really tempting) to get overly involved, to over correct, to become overly hands on, while working with a team. First of all, it's just fun! And that makes it easy to get carried away with helping kids build the "perfect robot" and to get too caught up in winning.
FIRST is not about "the best robot" though. It's about building great teams of well rounded, articulate, capable and professional young people. Teams can learn a great deal more from building a flawed robot on their own, than a perfect robot designed and built by an adult. There's a difference between winning and succeeding. You want the kids you mentor to succeed!
The best way to do that is to be an active listener to the youth you work with, and to be, as much as possible, a hands off guide.
Actively listening adults is something many kids rarely experience. Giving kids an opportunity to be heard teaches them how to identify and articulate real problems - mechanically, technically, interpersonally - and models active listening for them, so they can do it to and better work together to solve those problems. Sure, you can chime in with the benefits of your experiences, but help lead them to their own answers and solutions rather than telling them what you think they need to do.
Hands off Guiding is key to helping kids gain real skills. You can show students how to do things - design a website, complete an Engineering Notebook, comment code, learn CAD, work with tools properly - but the most effective mentors know when to go hands off and get out of the way, so real learning can happen.
One of the best descriptions of good mentoring I ever heard came from Team Duct Tape's mentor, Paul Markun, who said that after mentoring the team for a couple of years, he finally understood that the best way for them to learn was to not interfere in their design choices. If he saw that their ultimate build choices weren't the best, he simply committed to helping them build the best bad robot possible.
By that he meant he'd guide them in proper tool use, correct application of fasteners, and safe and efficient electrical processes, but they'd have to find out for themselves if their design was ultimately a good one. Sometimes, it actually is, even when an experienced eye might suggest otherwise. Sometimes it's not, and if students know they can come back to the drawing board without ridicule or I-told-you-so's, they're far more likely to listen, trust and make good choices in the future.
Step 6: Don't Be Afraid to Play
FIRST is learning through play. The robot games are - Games!!
It's easy to get wrapped up in scores and awards, but the games are just a way to showcase learning. Keep the emphasis where it belongs - on learning through play - and you and the youth you mentor will have a great experience.
The best mentors are consummate professionals, but also laugh with the students they work with. Join in team dinners and parties, wear the silly hats, sing and dance.
Step 7: Be a Role Model, Make a Role Model
Youth who have strong adult role models - mentors - learn how to be role models themselves. They learn to speak with other adults in a professional way, and to share their knowledge and skills with those younger than themselves. In short, they become mentors, too, and your kindness and teaching get paid forward.
Step 8: Congratulate Yourself!
Being a Mentor is an important and valuable gift, not just to the youth you mentor, but to society as a whole. It does take a village, and being a Village Mentor is priceless in any community. FIRST gives teams an opportunity to recognize outstanding mentors with the Compass Award for FTC and FRC teams. The Compass Award recognizes an adult coach or mentor who has provided outstanding guidance and support for a team throughout the year, and demonstrates to the team what it means to be a Gracious Professional.
The joy visible on the faces of teams and mentors during this recognition ceremony at events clearly speaks to the importance of the mentor experience for both.
Step 9: Celebrate Achievements Together!
Sure, celebrate robot tournament achievements, but more than that, celebrate team member achievements. When a student gets a scholarship, or a first job, celebrate. When a student who wouldn't have stayed in school without FIRST graduates, be there - and see first hand the impact of your time, experience, and compassion.
For more information on FIRST Team Mentoring, visit