PiWars, A Mentor's Prologue

Around March of this year I volunteered at my first PiWars. This is a competition ran every year in Cambridge by the ever fantastic Mike Horne (@recantha) and Tim Richardson(@geeky_tim).

For anyone who doesn’t want to build a robot or feel as if they have enough time, but wants to be more involved than spectating, I really recommend volunteering. It’s a great way to contribute to Mike and Tim’s efforts, help people, learn some more about the competition and above all have fun. The requirements on you are fairly low - you’ll be given a timetable of when you’re needed before the event and some instruction on what to do when you get to your station.

Anyway, one particular little person I always enjoy hanging out with at these events is Amy, who I somehow persuaded to form her own robot team and let me join. I’ve done some volunteering with school groups before, but never anything on a recurring basis, so I’m expecting I’ll find this much more rewarding and hoping Amy will learn a lot from the experience.

This blogpost is essentially tips for mentoring I’ve picked up mostly from talking to her and thinking about our progress so far.

Gauge your starting point

We started off by having a Skype call, since we don’t live in the same cities. I came up with this list of questions for us to talk about, since I’ve met Amy a few times, but didn’t know for sure where she was at or what she wanted to do:

1. What’s your favourite thing about programming?
1. What do you think’s hardest about programming?
1. How many robots have you built?
1. What do you think needs to go into a robot?
1. What do you think’s the biggest challenge?
1. Which challenge from piwars did you really like?

The list you need to ask your little people probably varies on setting, and there may be more interactive ways for you to figure out what your starting level is. Regardless it’s important to start here so you know what to focus on and what interests your mentees.

Start early, and check in regularly

We started talking about this in March, and then maybe skyped around April.

However, I’m fairly…forgetful. Volunteering can be one of those things where fitting it fully into your timetable takes a bit of effort. Little people have school and homework to think about I presume, so as the adult I think I needed to take charge and put in a proper schedule so we’re both on top of what we need to do here.

At the March/April stage though, focussing on this was also tough because we had no list of challenges or application submitted yet, so it’s all rough ideas.

As of this month I’m going over to see her and then planning to put in a routine “let’s check where we’re at” call to make sure we both stay on track and there’s a medium for her to ask me any questions.

Make a plan

That initial conversation I decided this was what we needed to work out between us:

1. Decide whether it’s remote or autonomous
1. Decide what the specialty is 
1. Start working with electronics: mini tasks around different areas of the robot
1. Design the chassis
1. Pull together code from mini tasks

I stole elements of this plan from David Whale’s school group timetable. Honestly, we haven’t done all that much on any of it just yet. We discussed it during the call and we now have some more solid ideas on theme, decoration and specialty, but since all of them intermingle with each other it’s difficult to say “let’s do this, then this, then this”

Have fun!

Most importantly of all, have fun and don’t beat yourself up over how much or how little time you’re committing to mentoring. So long as it pulls together in the end and your little person or group of little people has a way of contacting you and you’re not being too ambitious about what you’re trying to achieve, it’ll work out fine.