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5 Lessons My Kids Have Taught Me About Coaching Robotics

Sep 12, 2017

by Frank Tappen

Recently, I had an opportunity to recruit some new kids to our community-based robotics team. As I was trying to explain to their parents what I do as a coach, it dawned on me that the most important skills I have to offer, I have learned from my children. You see, while I have been raising my kids and teaching them all about life, they have been teaching me how to be a better coach/mentor. What follows are the 5 lessons that my children have taught me about coaching robotics.

1. Playing Is Learning.

Somewhere along the way, people stop playing. The time spent playing is often when inspiration comes, when skills are honed, when interests are discovered, and when learning happens. My children remind me that, just as it’s important for them to have playtime, it’s important for me to play as well. Make your job fun! If you’re having fun, you’ll enjoy what you do and improve your team. I once worked at an ice cream shop and we posted cute cartoons on the machines as reminders of how to run the equipment. Instead of saying, “check the temperature of the freezer” we posted a picture of a melting polar bear. Instead of placing labels above the light switches that read “turn off the lights,” we drew a picture of all of our eyes in the dark. We made a game out of doing our job. And in the process, a whole new language was born. The employees started asking questions like “Why are we melting the polar bears?” which led to discovering better ways of keeping our ice cream cold. Make playtime a part of your robotics meetings. And as a coach, you need to play too!

2. Be the Hero.

When my child tells me a story about school or football, they are usually the heroes of their story. The world revolves around them. As we age, we don’t want to appear conceited or egotistical, so we downplay our accomplishments and achievements. We don’t want to brag. Modesty becomes an admirable quality and we start to convince ourselves of our own mediocrity. When forming a new robotics team, I always brag about my past team’s accomplishments! I love to share stories about how a girl saved the day by rewiring the robot. Or rewrote the code in the middle of competition to score a few more points. As a coach, it’s my job to be their hero; to be their role model; and to remind them that it’s OK to speak up and take risks. As a coach, my role is to cultivate a team of heroes. Take more selfies!

3. Listen Twice!

As my children began to speak and form sentences, I learned to listen to what they were saying. Really listen. I learned to pay attention to not only their words, but also their body language and the context we were communicating in. I remember a time when my 2-year-old son kept pointing at a bunch of bananas on our counter and repeating the words “nana, nana, nana.” At first I thought he was just bragging (being the hero) that he knew the word for banana. But then I quickly came to the conclusion he must be hungry, because he kept repeating “nana” and wouldn’t stop. So I cut up a few pieces for him. Turns out my son hates bananas! What he was really trying to tell me was that he wanted the yellow crayon. At the time, we were coloring together and I wasn’t paying attention. While coaching robotics teams, it’s important to know that the commonest of words can mean different things to different people. For example, what I call a Lego “5-bar,” other kids might call a “pole,” or “brick,” or “Lego piece.” By carefully listening to what the kids are saying in the context of the moment, we are able to communicate better. Adjust to their terminology. Listening is key. And then listen, again!

5. Try New Things.

My children are not afraid to play a new game. They will slide down a water slide, go down a zip line, or camp in the woods even though they have never done it before. As adults, we tend to fear the unknown. We stay safely in our comfort zones and rarely venture out. As a coach, I’m always trying to improve. I’m always searching for new things for my teams to try. And in doing so, we sometimes come up with new ideas. The ice cream making company that I mentioned earlier would, once a month, hold a contest to see who could come up with the wildest recipe for a batch of ice cream. All the employees were able to experiment and share samples of the “new” ice cream with their families. The company was not afraid to try new things. And in the process, we invented some new flavors! When coaching a robotics team, it’s important to try out new ideas. Let the kids build whatever they want to. Not everything will work, but once in a while, you’ll discover something cool. Go make some ice cream!

Teams from The Mentors Robot Shop won last year’s Wonder League Robotics Competition from Wonder Workshop. Join this year’s competition for free. Registration open through December 31st.

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About the author:

Frank Tappen currently resides in Hartland, Mich., with his wife and four kids. They own a small shop called The Mentors Robot Shop that offers robotics classes for kids in grades K-8. Frank has coached youth football, Science Olympiad, Jr. FLL, FLL, FRC, WRO, and Dash & Dot robotics teams. If you would like to share your experiences about coaching robotics teams, feel free to contact him via e-mail at ftappen@tmrshop.com or find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TheMentorsRobotShop/

Wonder League Robotics Competition FAQ | Year 8

Hello, robotics enthusiasts! If you’re here, you’re probably as excited as we are about the 8th Annual Wonder League Robotics Competition! To help you and your teams have the best possible experience competing this year, we wanted to share answers to some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).

Who Can Compete:

Any kid, anywhere in the world, ages 6-8 (Innovator Cup) and 9-12 (Pioneer Cup). There are two age brackets: 6-8 and 9-12 and team members have to fall within the age category at some point during the competition. Participants must be the qualifying age for their bracket on the last day of the competition, but if they gain a year during the competition, that’s OK. They won’t age out! 

Competition Brackets:

  • Innovator Cup (Age 6-8)
  • Pioneer Cup (Age 9-12)

What Makes a Team:

A team is made up of a supervising adult coach, and one or more children (up to 5). That’s right, kids can compete solo, but a coach who is 18+ is needed to help with the submission process. For multi-kid teams, each member must be in the same age bracket. Coaches may have multiple teams and can register all their teams after registering as a coach. Please keep in mind that each team will need a separate Class Connect registration.

Note: Younger students may participate in the 9-12 age category, but please be aware that the missions have been designed with older students and advanced coding skills in mind.

What a Team Needs to Compete:

Class Connect subscription

The team is made up of a supervising adult coach and one to five members

  1. Compatible device
  2. 5′ x 8′ mat of 30cm squares and basic prototyping materials
  3. Teams in 6-8 & 9-12 age brackets will need a Dash robot
  4. Internet access to download and upload materials

Teams will need one Dash robot: https://store.makewonder.com/products/dash

Check Device Compatibility here: https://www.makewonder.com/compatibility

We will be offering a mat image that you are welcome to use and print with your local printer, but teams are absolutely encouraged to make their own if they prefer. For more on how to make your own mat, check out this blog post.

Coaches will, of course, need internet access to download the apps and keep up with the competition as it progresses, and may want to print out some kid-facing materials that we will provide at each stage.

Class Connect Subscription:

To register for the 8th Wonder League Robotics Competition requires a subscription to Class Connect, providing additional resources like standards-aligned content assignable right inside a student’s Blockly app. Learn more about Class Connect here.

If you already have a Class Connect subscription, you have access to register a team, based on your student license amount. If you have more than one team of 5 students, you will need to purchase another Coach Success Pack or consider a larger subscription to accommodate more teams and students.

  1. A Coach Success Pack provides:
    Participation in the WLRC for up to 5 students
    Access to all Missions
    Full access to Class Connect, (including Math Activities and Dash’s Neighborhood), for 5 students and 1 teacher for 7 months
    A discount code for a Dash robot from our online store at https://store.makewonder.com

Please note: Teams will need a physical Dash robot to complete the Missions.
The Coaches’ Dashboard in Class Connect will help our coaches register and manage their team(s). The dashboard will be your one-stop shop for all Wonder League Robotics Competition management. You will be able to access the Coaches’ Corner–where all competition-related content and resources will be hosted–the Heartbeat community forum, and all the submission forms right there on the Dashboard.

Accessing Missions for the Innovator Cup and Pioneer Cup:

Once your purchase is completed for Class Connect, you will receive an email to activate your Class Connect license.

Once this license is activated, you will be able to register yourself as a coach and register your teams. This is done on your portal page under the Robotics Competition tab.

Once your team/teams are registered, you will get an additional email from CoAssemble, our partner hosting the missions this year. This email will state you have been registered for the “2022-2023 Coaches Corner Course”.

Click on the link to be redirected to the CoAssemble website, and you will see the course and can access the Coaches’ Corner Guide as well as the Missions (available November 3, 2022).

Still having trouble accessing all the resources in the Coaches’ Corner? If you have previously had a license to Class Connect and registered as a coach, and have not seen Coaches’ Corner added to your CoAssemble list of courses, please email us at support@makewonder.com, and we will provide assistance.

Last Year’s Missions:

Taking a peek at last year’s missions might help you get a sense of what the competition is like. Just sign in with your Class Connect subscription and register as a coach to take a peek at the previous years by going to the Coaches’ Corner and selecting the desired year.

2022-23 Wonder League Robotics Competition Milestone Dates:

Here are important milestone dates to keep in mind as coaches develop timelines for teams competing in the 2022-23 Wonder League Robotics Competition.


  1. October 21, 2022: Student Team Registration Opens
  2. November 3, 2022: Round One Opens + Five Mission Released
  3. January 13, 2023: Student Team Registration Closes
  4. January 27, 2023: Mission Evidence Submission Closes 
  5. January 28-March 5, 2023: Invitational Round Notification 
  6. February 6, 2023: Invitational Round Opens + Final Mission Released
  7. March 24, 2023: Invitational Round Submission Due 
  8. April 10, 2023: People’s Choice Voting Opens 
  9. April 21, 2023: People’s Choice Voting Closes 
  10. May 4, 2023: 2022-23 Wonder League Robotics Competition Winner Announcement

NEW Award Category: WLRC People’s Choice Award

Teams may opt in to participate in the WLRC People’s Choice Award category by creating a :30 second video explaining the Team’s Invitational Round Final Mission solution that will be shared with the community at www.makewonder.com/classroom/robotics-competition/ in an “online crowd vote” competition. The WLRC People’s Choice Award allows teams to share and celebrate their work in the WLRC and encourage community support in voting for their team. This is an optional category for teams to enter and will not impact scoring of the Invitational Round submission as they will be judged by STEM and Coding experts using a published rubric.

Children’s Privacy:

We take our participants’ privacy very seriously and comply with COPPA when collecting any information. In the invitational round we ask only for the students’ first names, and request parents’ permission. For those that make it into the Invitational Round, we ask for full names, again with permission. We are never marketing, selling to, or corresponding with children. All contact is through the proxy of the coach.