“Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn, and you will.” That quote from Vernon Howard sums up why I love being around students. They are so damn smart, engaging and not as jaded as the rest of us older folks. They are open to new ideas, quick to embrace innovative thinking and fast to adapt and explore new approaches. During their high school years in particular, what emerges from their minds and behaviors is an explosion of growth that is truly intoxicating to watch.

I’ve been a direct witness to this as a founding member of a high school robotics team located where I live. Since 2012, I have been involved in FIRST Robotics, and since 2013, with Spartronics, a high school FIRST Robotics Competition Team 4915. FIRST is a worldwide student-centric robotics nonprofit organization whose namesake means For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. I’m a professional mentor for the Spartronics Marketing subteam, which includes all community outreach and communications activities, as well as sponsorships, budgeting, and Robotics Teamfundraising.

Working with the robotics team for the last four years has been in many ways, like working with a new technology startup each year. The clock resets each fall, and there’s a whole new group of students that come in and go through training and orientation; a new game is revealed at the beginning of the year and in six weeks, a new robot must be built from scratch, created from a team strategy of how they decide they will want to compete once the competitions begin a couple of weeks after the robot is complete. Throughout this process, we market the team, raise the funds and promote the new robot and game we play each year throughout our community and to our supporters and sponsors.

Each year, I learn a lot from the kids, and I hope they learn a few things from me, but these four lessons stand out that my robotics students have taught me.

  1. At first, technology-centric people have no clue how valuable marketing is, but once it positively impacts their work, they embrace it. I had to watch this happen a couple of years in a row to truly appreciate how this cycle totally repeats itself. It’s predictable in business as well. Programmers could care less about what Marketing students were doing, until they realized that the team dinners, travel to the competitions, the computer software they were using that was donated, the articles in the paper their parents read, the Instagram posts their friends saw, and the extra points the team got from the judges for awards, were all contributions directly from the work of the Marketing subteam. At the beginning of the year, Marketing students are invisible. By the end of the year, Marketing students are getting the biggest kudos.
  2. The greatest creativity comes when the boss leaves. Three years ago, I was going on a business trip and had to leave my robotics Marketing group early, so as I was leaving, I said, “Hey, while I am gone, do something really creative and impress me.” I came back the next week after missing a couple of meetings and when I walked into the room, I was surprised. They had a laptop connected to the big screen in the classroom, hit a button and I watched a dance video they had put together that blew me away. The creativity was off the charts. One student, that was having a hard time connecting to the group, was front-in-center in the music video dancing on top of the table! I never would have guessed. Now it’s become a tradition and has morphed into an annual “Dance Challenge” video that we send out to other robotics teams to break the stress during the hectic build season. While we are now a 100% student-led team and so as a Mentor, I am not the “boss,” I still benefit from coming back from business trips to find some highly creative wonder waiting for me.
  3. Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone to try something you’ve never done before. We try new Marketing and Communication stuff all the time. A student wanted to build a mobile app. Had he ever built an app? No, but he had the desire. Guess what? With the help of an Adobe mentor and some new tech she was in charge of, he built a cool app for the team. That made him brave enough to ask if he could shoot drone footage for the team. Sure, I said, if he got his license. So he did, and we’ll have some cool new video footage for next year’s new website home page. (And I got him a gig with a real estate agent after school as a bonus.) Another student wanted to do a 3D video rending of our students building robotlogo. That, I suggested, would be a great signature opening for all of our videos, so why not do a signature closing as well? He did several and also ended up with a freelance gig. Last year, we tested YouTube live for our Community Open House. This year, we strapped my iPhone to a student’s head and did Facebook Live. The student was shy and had never done interviews before, much less live video interviews. What he did live was amazing – why he was pushed beyond his comfort zone and what he achieved was spectacular. This year, we added Snapchat to our social media mix. But my favorite story is a young artist name Rose. She came to the first Marketing meeting and looked lost. I asked her afterwards what was missing. She said she was an artist and couldn’t see how she would fit in. I asked, “What kind of art?” She said she drew, but “not Photoshop, by hand.” “Do you have a tablet?“ I asked. “Oh, sure, a really good one,” she said. I told her, “Rose, you will become one of the most valuable people we have ever had in Marketing, there are a million things you can do.” By the end of the year, she had amassed a portfolio that would be the envy of any creative artist. Last year, her confidence grew so strong, she joined the mechanics subteam – and she had never picked up a tool before. Now that’s what going beyond one’s comfort zone is all about.
  4. Never underestimate the power of social media. This statement may seem obvious, but my robotics kids have taught me more about the power of social media than all the online webinars and conferences I’ve attended. Spartronics has one of the largest and most powerful social footprints of any robotics team in the country: we engage thousands on our Facebook page each month, have more than 2,234 (real, bot-free) followers on Instagram, including most of the major robotics teams in the U.S. and more than 1,150 real followers on Twitter. Three years ago, when we needed to raise $4,000 for the registration fee to pay for the team to go to our first District Championships, we only had 12 days to raise the funds. Using only Facebook and email, we raised the funds in four days. Last fall, we did a Webinar for another robotics team that missed a deadline for a grant that got every year to pay for their robot to teach them how to use social media to raise the money they needed; they raised the $10,000 in just two weeks. Last week, a robotics team in Idaho had an irreplaceable scrapbook documenting 15 years of their community outreach stolen. Our team helped leverage our social media channels and just the other day, we learned the priceless book was returned.

I’ve been volunteering since I was 13 years old, and I’ve been blessed to be involved with a number of incredibly worthy causes, and served on a number of boards, from homeless and housing nonprofits, to hunger relief organizations. But I have never found any organization that has so immediately and positively changed young people’s lives – including both my son’s – in such a profoundly way as FIRST robotics. And my learning is just beginning.

Final note: Our robotics high school team qualified for the FIRST Robotics World Championship and will be heading to Houston April 18-22. During the event, I have the remarkable honor and privileged of attending the Dean’s List luncheon hosted by co-founder of FIRST Dean Kamen as one of our students, Jon Coonan, a Spartronics team Co-Captain and student Marketing leader invited me, his professional mentor, as his guest.