Build Season is famous for taking lots of time and hurting grades. But, it doesn't have to hurt your academics. In this article, I will cover some tricks that have helped me contribute more to the team while maintaining or improving my grades. I also have some tips from a team culture and mentoring perspective to help make sure that grades are maintained.
The most important thing about grades is to make sure that you are working in a way that is comfortable for you, so make decisions accordingly. These are merely suggestions for what has worked well for me.
1. School is More Important Than FRC
If you are having significant trouble balancing school with FRC, don't read the rest of this post. The best piece of advice that I can give you is to take time off from FRC and focus on school. Your education will matter more than your FRC experience for the rest of your life. I know that you may want to participate in FRC, but if you can't make it work then don't.
2. Set Grade Boundaries and Stick to Them
One of the most valuable tools for maintaining grades is to set an acceptable range for your grades based on your previous semester and what you want, then stick to that.
I like having categories that define a threshold for how to treat each class:
- OK: Your grade is where you are happy. Keep on doing what you are doing.
- Warning: This is where you start getting worried about your grades. You should spend some extra time on this subject, make sure to study extra for tests, make sure to do all of the homework, but it may not warrant changing your FRC schedule
- Danger: This level is where your grades have started being significantly worse. It might be worth spending less time at FRC to focus on this subject. If other people (either on your team or other friends) are good at this subject, reach out for help.
- Critical: Stop going to FRC, or at least significantly reduce your participation. This is the point where your grades are suffering severely, and at this point you need to start focusing on this class.
If you have multiple classes that fall into any of these categories, it may be worth considering dedicating more time to studying.
3. Communicate with Teachers
I have found that teachers tend to be more accepting of cutting you some slack if they understand what FRC is, how it will be taking lots of time, and what you get out of it. While it is a bad idea to use this extra slack unless you absolutely need it, and they should not think that robotics is an excuse for laziness, many of the teachers that I have had and my friends have had have given extra time, allowed for digital turn in for assignments during tournaments, and more.
Send an Introductory Email
This is one of the most important ways to set expectations. I usually write a copy-and-paste email to all of my teachers before Build Season starts so that I can have the opportunity to explain what I will be doing. My emails tend to include
- This program is associated with the school
- Basics of what FIRST is (we have a very limited time to design, build, program, and compete a robot in a game)
- What my role is
- How much fun robotics is (to make them want to support your involvement)
- Past accomplishments (team or individual awards or something cool to make them more interested)
- How it can help in college (and if applicable how it made you want to pursue a carrer in STEM)
- It takes a lot of time (it may be a good idea to briefly summarize your schedule)
- If there are any problems with my involvement, please feel free to reach out to me or the team captain
Some things that I do not include are:
- Explicitly asking for more lenient application of class policies (this can make it seem like you will use robotics as an excuse for laziness)
- Team inside jokes
- A poorly written email (you always want to make a good impression)
This emails have proven to be one of the most effective ways to educate my teachers about FIRST and why they should care about me participating, which leads to better interactions later down the line. It also explains that I am going to be going through a lot of time spent at extracurricular activities so that they can have that understanding for if anything significantly changes with academic performance.
IMPORTANT: leniency should not be taken for granted. While some teachers may be willing to accommodate minor problems with FRC, don't expect all (or even any) to, and do not use this leniency too often. I have had some of my teachers say they are only being lenient because I rarely use FRC as an excuse, and they didn't offer the leniency on certain projects to other FRC students.
Regularly Talk to Them About FIRST
The initial email is a good way to introduce them to the program, but briefly mentioning FIRST throughout the season can help remind them of how much fun you are having and how much work it is. By reminding them about the program, it shows commitment to the program and that you are excited about your work. If you have video or photo of something, such as a video of your robot's practice match, showing them outside of class can be a good way to show the progress that is going on.
4. Plan Ahead for Competitions
Depending on your event schedule and team role, you may need to miss school to attend a competition. If this happens, early, explicit, and repetitive communication with your teachers is critical to make sure you don't miss any assignments and that your teachers understand that you will be missing some class.
Remind Your Teachers
Making sure that your teachers are aware that you are missing school and that it is for a school-related event is critical to making sure that you do not fall behind due to a competition. I usually remind my teachers three times:
I usually mention to my teachers that I will be missing school about a week before permission forms are available. This can easily be done verbally, since it is not super important. I usually mention that:
- I will be attending a robotics tournament
- We will compete with lots of teams from around the world
- Why it is important that I go
- When the event is and what days I will be missing
This reminder sets their expectations so that they are not surprised when they receive a permission slip, and it shows that you are serious about staying on track.
When your permission form is given, get it signed as soon as possible. My school runs on a block period, so I usually set myself a deadline of one set of class periods to get it signed. Getting a permission form signed reminds your teacher that you are going and (at least in my school) is required to go on a trip. By getting your form signed as quickly as possible, it means that there is little risk that you will miss the permission form deadline.
When you get your form signed, make sure to remind your teacher the basics from the previous section. This helps them remember that this is a school activity, and why it is important.
Last Minute Reminder
I usually remind my teachers one last time two blocks before I miss class. I remind them both over email and in person, so that everything has a record. During this reminder, I ask if there is anything I can do to prepare for missing class. If a teacher says something, I would highly recommend writing it down yourself or asking for an email. This makes it clear what you need to do, and offers proof if a disagreement arises.
In many cases, a teacher may say that they will email you later. If this happens, it can be a good idea to mention when you will be available, so that you can manage your expectations. This can be especially helpful in cases where near-real-time communication is important or when time zones play a factor.
Even if a teacher tells you what you should do, it also can be very helpful to ask a friend in your class to tell you what happened. I had a case where I was given a packet and told to do a certain set of pages, but the pages to do changed on the day of class. By having a friend in class tell me what I needed to do, I was able to make sure I had the work that I needed to have done when it needed to be done.
5. Focus - Don't Multitask
I am guilty of trying to multitask during robotics and during homework. One thing that I have learned is that during robotics, time is critical, and therefore making sure that you are making the best use of your time is critical. This encompasses two aspects:
Robotics at Robotics, Homework at Home
I have had a lot of success by very clearly separating robotics time from homework time. As far as I can recall, there were only two emergency after-hours Skype calls for leadership decisions, and I only reviewed code, improved code, or did leadership during school hours (mainly lunch), robotics hours, or after I had finished all homework that I could possibly finish. This meant that I was always on track and could focus on what matters.
At the same time, making sure that you are only doing robotics at robotics is important. I know from personal experience that trying to do homework during a work-session is distracting and nowhere near as efficient as doing homework at home. Even if code is compiling or Windows is updating, I try to avoid doing homework or studying for tests, because there are too many distractions at the lab. We have recently changed our team culture to a be there when you need to be there attitude rather than our previous be there all the time mentality, which makes it a lot easier for people to focus on homework away from everyone else.
I sometimes listen to Spotify while during homework. I know people who watch Netflix or Youtube while doing theirs. While it can often help reduce the monotonous feeling of a worksheet, I would highly caution against having distractions while doing homework. Last Build Season, I started doing homework away from my bedroom with no music, and while the work felt much more monotonous, I worked a lot more efficiently. As a result, I have started trying to move away from listening to Spotify during homework, and I am a lot more efficient overall. If you are struggling to finish your homework at a reasonable hour, I would highly recommend changing your environment and not consuming media.
6. Get Sleep
I am not going to lie, I need lots of sleep. During Build Season, it can be very easy to sacrifice sleep to try to spend more time at FRC or doing homework. Despite my attempts to sleep less for more time at FRC, I have actually found that it is more efficient for me to try to get to sleep at a time close to my off-season time, which makes me more awake during the day so I can get more done. Even if you think that you can be fully functional without getting a lot of sleep, your teammates probably notice, and potentially your grades as well. Many of the worst cases that I know of where a person's grades fall during Build Season is more closely related to a lack of sleep than anything else.
7. Don't Procrastinate
I wish that I could say "don't procrastinate" and have it stop me from procrastinating. It is so easy to fall into the trap of instant gratification at the expense of long-term gratification and grades. Despite this, deciding to get stuff done as early as possible, rather than as late as possible, has been a life-saver during Build Season. For me, the best way to prevent procrastination is treat assignments as if they are due the day after they are assigned. Since my school runs on a block schedule, and I will therefore never have the same class two days in a row, I am able to get work done and create a buffer if something goes wrong. That buffer was one of the best things that I had during FRC, where I could go to bed at midnight and get work done during school the next day if absolutely necessary.
Even worse than daily homework for my procrastination were long-term projects. I had one quarter-long project that occurred during Build Season and Comp Season, which opened the door for procrastination. Despite this, I decided to treat each section of the assignment as if it was due at the next block period and planned my schedule around that. Most of the times, I would have three or four block periods, but by getting it done early I was able to work better for the rest of that time period.
If you have gotten a lot assigned, I have sometimes decided to take a day off from robotics, since not procrastinating was more important to me than showing up for one day. At least for me, choosing to do assignments the day they were assigned saved me more time down the line and was completely worth it. It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be, so I highly recommend that if you are struggling with your school workload during Build Season, try to get on a path where you are doing assignments the day they are assigned.
8. You Have a Support Structure
I don't know a single person who is in FRC and gets through Build Season with good grades easily. If you are having trouble, talk to another student or mentor. If you are struggling in a class, form a study group with other robotics members. I have found FRC study groups to be very effective since people are all under the same scheduling constraints. I have also had other people who have taken classes that I am currently taking help me figure out certain problems.
Beyond content-based help, creating a system where your team-mates and you help keep each other on track can be very helpful. I have been kept on track with not procrastinating thanks to some of my FRC friends, and I return the favor to them.
We are very careful, and you should be too, to make sure that motivation does not become belittling or bullying, since then it does more harm than good.
My group and I are all have the same first period class, so we talk before school starts about whether we are staying on track and if we have everything done that we need to have done. That way, we all feel more obligated to get our work done, since we know that we will be asked, and we are all ready to offer support if it is needed to help people who fall behind get back on track.
9. Team Culture and Mentor Support
Team culture and mentor/teacher support can play a significant role in making sure that students stay on track academically.
Grades Tracking, Temporary Team Leave, and Study Sessions
My team is more aggressive than any other competitive team at our school about tracking grades and even kicking people off who are not meeting standards. Our culture is that students should prioritize school over robotics, and if robotics gets in the way of school, robotics will not be an option for the student. Students were evaluated based on whether they are meeting team standards (a C or above in every class), personal standards (grades not falling significantly from Semester 1), and teacher comments (many of our school's teachers talk to robotics teachers if there are academic problems). In general, our teachers and mentors try to encourage students to perform better and try to organize study sessions with other students so that kicking people off can be avoided. However, there were very clear expectations that students on our team should be meeting our school's academic standards.
Most schools likely have a set of guidelines for competitive teams or sports teams for kicking students off who don't meet academic standards, and my team's standards were based on our school's (but made slightly more intense).
I am very supportive our our process of offer support but have the threat of being temporarily removed from the team as an extra motivator. If my grades were suffering, I would want the team to threaten me with kicking me off, since it would be a very effective motivator. I do appreciate how our mentors make an effort to help students who need help, since that way we can try to avoid temporarily removing students.
Be There When You Need to Be There
In addition to offering a disincentive for failing to keep sufficient grades, mentors can help by creating a culture of be there when you need to be there. This means that students are more likely to study to improve their grades rather than show up on a day when they are not needed, which was a major problem for us in the past.
See Section 5 for more information.
Create an Open Dialog and Help Students in Any Way That You Can
Everyone has a different set of problems, some of which may be occurring outside of school and FRC. In my view, the best think that a mentor can do to help a student improve their grades is to try to understand all aspects of the problem and try to help that student in an individual way.
In addition to understanding the situation of the student, it may be a good idea to familiarize yourself with the support options available at school. If the team has a teacher (or staff member), they most likely are familiar with the options available through the school. At my school, there are many free support options available for struggling students, and students (including FRC students) are encouraged to use those resources.