If you’re starting your Starstruck robot already, congratulations! You’re ahead of the pack, and you’ve got plenty of time to do things the right way.

What is the “right way”? Well, obviously there is no one “right way” to go through the engineering design process, but there are some roads that are less helpful to travel down. One mistake we made last year (Nothing But Net) was zeroing in on a double-flywheel ball-launching design almost immediately. We did not take the time to prototype catapult or puncher devices, or even other flywheel types. In our defense, (a) we were a brand new rookie team, (b) we are parent-funded, and in our first year did not have a big cabinet full of metal parts sitting around to tinker with, and (c) both students and coaches at the time had limited engineering/VEX experience and knowledge.

Think About Individual Tasks

This year in our brainstorming process, the girls were getting caught up in thinking about the design of the entire system of dealing with stars, including both picking up stars and getting them over the fence. So we’ve broken the task down further to just getting stars over the fence, ignoring for now how the robot will pick them up or deliver them to the launcher.

Their ideas at this stage don’t have to be practical, don’t have to be pretty, don’t have to fit together with any other system, and don’t have to even be made out of VEX parts (one of our girls is using a clipboard & duct tape to simulate a tray to hold a star). It’s important to keep a very open mind at this stage, and not to kill any ideas before you’ve had a chance to investigate them at some level that’s deeper than just talking or drawing.

Breaking down the design process into this one very specific component has allowed my girls to get un-stuck in their thinking, and not be caught up in trying to figure out the whole system all at once (which led to them mentally killing off many ideas as “wouldn’t work”).

Document the Road Not Taken

If you’re interested in competing for the Design Award this year, it’s important to document the ideas that didn’t work, as well as the ideas that you choose to keep and move forward with. The team should include a small, basic diagram of each thing they are prototyping, explain what happens when they test it, and why it is a dead-end. Or, an idea might be a dead-end in itself, but parts of the concept might still be useful and can be borrowed or modified for use in other prototype ideas.

The judges want to see that the team did look at and test a lot of different ideas, and the only way that they will know that is if there is documentation of it in the team’s design notebook.