Chad Houck
Couch Bananas
Idaho, USA


Why Chemistry Matters in Robotics

Several coaches and parents have asked one version or another of a question over the past two years that basically boils down to this – How did you pick the kids that would be on your team? Now in our third season with the High Voltage Couch Bananas, we have a single and simple answer – CHEMISTRY.

Granted, as a non-school based team, we had some flexibility that some coaches or programs may not. We got to choose who we were going to invite when we founded the team. That meant we could start with some criteria, but what criteria should we look at? It’s not exactly like we could get math test scores or look at report cards! Instead, we decided to start somewhere that made sense. We looked for a group of kids that already got along… really, really well. We figured that if we could find kids that already had natural chemistry, they stood a better chance to survive the stress that would be added by having to learn something entirely foreign… like robotics… from some people that had never done this before! (Namely my wife and I.)

It so happened that we found this entire group on the soccer field. Half boys, half girls, they were already playing soccer together 2-3 days a week. They were friends on and off the field. They WANTED to hang out together. WE just added a new hobby to the mix. They took their natural chemistry, added some curiosity and their natural competitive spirit, and we guided them along the way.

Two years, multiple tournaments, a ton of learning, and several awesome experiences later, we found ourselves standing alongside Amman, Jordan and Sao Paulo, Brazil as one of only three Champions Award Finalists at the Houston World Festival. All things considered, the experiment seems to have worked out pretty well.

So how does that translate to any coach, from any team, in a situation where they don’t get to “pick” who joins and who doesn’t? Well, you can still apply a couple of rules that we apply any time friction starts to play out at Banana Headquarters…

  1. Pause, Talk, Resolve – This simple 3 step rule is a foundation of our team. WHENEVER there is conflict amongst team members, coaches, anyone, we PAUSE to make sure everyone necessary is connected to the discussion, TALK through the concern to be sure everyone is heard, and RESOLVE the issue before moving on. Yes, it takes a bit of time some days, but the payoff of not allowing small issues to take root and grow to bigger ones is immense.

  2. LEARN at all costs, WIN by accident – It may sound like a re-write of a FIRST Core Value, but it’s OUR rewrite. We know how to OWN it. In our rookie year, our goal was to learn as much as we could. When we qualified for the State championship, we said that our goal was to GO and to GROW. If that meant we actually WON something, it would have to be by accident. It was a result OF our goals, not the goal itself. We took that same approach to the 2017 World Festival. How can you set a goal of winning when you don’t know what other teams are doing? When you focus on being the best team YOU can be, the outcomes will take care of themselves, and you’ll probably be pleased with them.

  3. CHOOSE Involvement over Efficiency – We specifically use this measurement to make decisions. Example – During the Trash Trek season, in preparing for the LegoLand Open, we discussed cutting back to 2 technicians during the robot game because of the distance the techs needed to cover to switch. We decided against that approach, because it meant fewer people got involved during the match. We CHOSE participation over points. As a result, the TEAM had a greater ownership of the game, each person (in my opinion) worked HARDER to be sure they were pulling their weight, and most importantly, it reinforced the CHEMISTRY of the team.

I truly believe that if you apply these principles to ANY group of young people, and convince them to apply them to one another, you will BUILD chemistry into your team. While we do have team members that are stronger in specific areas of FLL, we don’t have specialists. Nobody is our “programmer” or our “builder”. We’ve realized that those create isolation in our particular group. Instead, we try to let each person recognize (and celebrate) who may need to lead a particular activity due to their specific love of math, mechanics, or programming, and then we ALL try to participate and learn. That’s Chemistry, and when you put CHEMISTRY in robotics, you get some really COOL outcomes.

Be sure to check out the Bananas’ Boot Camp to learn more about their new FIRST LEGO League video series.