The MARS Plan
In 2008, MARS created the “West Virginia Plan,” which was their strategy for beginning new FIRST teams around the state. In 2013, this was renamed the “MARS Plan,” as the team began to reach beyond state borders to share their vision of FIRST growth. The plan had four main areas of focus when building a new team: community, partnerships, barriers, and sustainability. In 2016, the MARS Plan was remodeled to be a more detailed and accurate description of the totality of strategies that MARS implements when building new teams and taking part in general STEM outreach.
1. Engage: Community Presence and Visibility
The first step in this plan is to engage individuals, groups and even communities within our state through visibility. Sometimes our strategy is simply to appear at public events such as baseball games and parades to increase our visibility and familiarity in our community. Through the years we have found that it often takes only one interaction with our team members or our robots to spark an interest large enough to create the start of an entire robotics program.
More often, however, we partner with local organizations as part of more organized STEM initiatives. STEM nights at schools, summer camps, Museum Science Days, and festivals comprise the majority of our outreach events. In these settings it’s easier to talk face-to-face with both youth and adults and help them discover that with a little help, everyone can follow their passions. For example, we partnered with the Children’s Museum of West Virginia in the fall of 2015 which took us to approximately ten new STEM nights around the area.
At every event, MARS provides general FIRST information (flyers, brochures, etc.) for the public, as well as stickers, buttons, and patches to increase visibility even more. To keep consistency and a uniform image at these events, MARS students always wear MARS gear and act in an organized and professional manner.
At these outreach events, there are two levels of involvement that MARS often takes. The first type is to demonstrate and explain the capabilities of our competition robots and of a special robot called Parade Bot which we use exclusively for outreach. We usually encourage students to drive at least one of the robots and make efforts to explain design decisions and systems.
The second type includes robot demonstrations and driving but also includes an interactive activity. For the 2015 and 2016 season, our activity was to have youth make “Doodle Bots.” It combined a craft/art activity with the creation of a small “robot” which drew with markers. We will be moving towards a “Brush Bot” activity for this coming outreach season which has similar components.
During the year, our team runs or assists around 20 outreach community events and over 20 FIRST robotic competition events.
2. Inspire: Starting FIRST/STEM Teams
From this point, if parties show interest in starting a robotics program, MARS keeps in contact with them through a delegated student or mentor of the team. One of the first steps in forming a new team is to provide both local and national resources. We provide informational documents as well as contact information to interested individuals.
We also provide instruction for coaches along with our partners at NASA. Our partnership began in 2012 when MARS approached NASA’s IV&V Facility and convinced their educational outreach program to use FIRST and robotics teams to promote STEM education. Since then, MARS has worked with them to create ~250 robotics programs around the state.
We work with NASA and other partners such at the United Way of Monongalia and Preston Counties to provide as much funding as possible to aid interested groups and get them going. This includes MARS providing direct funding as well as locating other more local sources of funding to potentially sponsor these teams.
3. Sustain: Mentoring and Supporting the Continuation of Teams and Programs
One of our most important initiatives is to work as closely as possible with other nearby FIRST teams. In order to help sustain these teams, we stay in constant contact with them. The main thrust of this goal is a mentorship program, which consists of three main parts: bi-weekly practices, MARS student point of contact, and a large e-mail network.
A bi-weekly practice day at our facilities is one the mainstays of our sustainability plan. At these practices, teams can ask questions of our FLL veteran team members and coaches. They can use practice tables and get help with programming issues. These practices are also important in the development of networks within our local FLL community. By forging relationships with other teams in a large group “practice” setting, the concept of gracious professionalism becomes a standard method of operation. MARS students then become the FLL referees and judges for competitions around the state, so this benefits both the teams and MARS students.
MARS student points of contact also help us to stay connected to teams who need more personalized assistance or just have questions that they need answered before the next large group practice. Sometimes our students communicate only through e-mail, but many times MARS students become integral parts of their FLL team and attend their regular practices.
Finally, because of the often large distances between teams, our e-mail “blasts” to teams has become a key way to keep everyone connected and engaged.
We also focus on team sustainability by ensuring FIRST events are well run by volunteering as referees, event coordinators, and judges. We help to staff FLL, FTC, and VEX competitions all over our state so that teams in more remote areas are able to enjoy the thrill of competition without the burden of long distance travel.
Another key component of our sustainability plan is to encourage teams to forge partnerships with local resources such as businesses, schools and state/local governments. When a community’s youth begin demonstrating their capabilities, it is not hard to convince these potential sponsors that this is a program worth investment. Many new teams that MARS supports come about through connections developed over the last decade with other local organizations. These organizations often make FIRST part of their own outreach initiatives. Our partnerships with NASA’s IV&V Facility and school administrations are good examples.
We provide travel funds for FLL/FTC students so that the expense of travel to the FIRST championship is not overbearing. This encourage students to return.
4. Progression of Programs: Encouraging Teams to Stay Involved in Robotics Programs
Along with our partners, MARS works hard to identify and support as many types of youth robotics programs as possible to engage West Virginia students in STEM education (13 programs to date). We actively help groups evaluate their resources to identify programs which can succeed in their unique situation, but we also encourage students to progress to higher programs.
To do this, we encourage higher level teams such as our fellow FRC competitors to have active and supportive relationships with younger teams. Additionally, we communicate with groups’ local government officials to find financial support. MARS also offers funding and information about grants to help these teams move from one level of FIRST to another.
We also commit a large part of our time and personnel to organizing, hosting, running, and assisting as many local, regional, and state events and competitions as possible for FLL Jr., FLL, FTC, VEX, and FRC. The MARS-run FLL and FTC state championships run back to back at Fairmont State University to make higher level robotics teams visible to FLL participants and encourage this transition.
5. Creating Leaders and Innovators: Inspiring Students and Alumni
The final goal of our plan is to help students gain valuable life skills which will aid them as they head toward high school graduation and beyond. To support this continuation to higher education, along with our partners we hold our events at universities around the state such as West Virginia University, Fairmont State University, and Shepherd University, which helps to create a sense of familiarity with post-secondary education institutions. Having information about the importance and access to education on a personal, immediate level for our team members as well other FIRST teams is the key to our students’ success.
Through outreach initiatives, our own team members become role models for younger students. The power of youth leading STEM events, helping others, enjoying the work of creating something with a team, and volunteering their time for others is incredible.
This year, through a long standing partnership with our county Board of Education, FLL teams are now being incorporated into three middle schools in a pilot program for retention . This is a milestone towards helping youth gain access FIRST programs in our communities, and thus the skills gained by participation in STEM organizations.
Finally, MARS provides information and advocacy for college attendance. We share information (both to our students and other teams) about scholarship opportunities and partnered with WVU and FSU help students obtain scholarships at these institutions.