Mentorship Lessons learnt from being part of Bumblebee, a student-driven engineering project from the National University of Singapore

EarthzineAutonomous Underwater Vehicles, Mentorship, Student Competitions, Themed Articles

Team Bumblebee is a student-driven engineering project from the National University of Singapore, building Autonomous Marine Vehicles for international robotics competitions. This article discusses mentorship lessons learnt while being involved with Bumblebee.

Grace Chia

8th August 2019

Michelangelo approached the craft of sculpting with the humble conviction that a unique and beautiful piece of art already existed within the stone, and his job was only to release it. We think the best mentors approach their art in the same way. Thoughtful sculptors use the tools of patient listening, Socratic questioning, unconditional acceptance, and generous affirmation to help draw forth the dream, name it out loud, and then set about championing mentees’ efforts to get there. (quote HBR 1).

Team Bumblebee is a student-driven engineering project from the National University of Singapore (NUS), building Autonomous Marine Vehicles for international robotics competitions. Writing about mentorship and what I learnt about it through my experience with Bumblebee is more difficult than I thought. It would have been relatively easy for me to recount the years of being with Bumblebee, but I felt that this would not help the readers learn from our experiences. Instead, in this article I would like to talk about the challenges and lessons from the past, citing examples in the growth journey that I have experienced myself, and with Bumblebee. Writing this article about mentorship has enabled me to learn more about how I myself can grow to become a better mentor. I do not yet have all the answers to these questions, but writing them down has presented an opportunity for us to discuss the way forward. This is not a blueprint yet, as I find it still in its infancy.

Team Bumblebee at the Bi-annual RobotX Challenge. We were the only fully undergraduate team without any technical guidance from Master’s students, PhD graduates or Professors. While we take pride in this, is this model truly sustainable?

Let me first talk about what the team has achieved to date. Team Bumblebee was started in 2012 by a bunch of third-year undergraduate students who wanted to build a cool Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) for the Singapore AUV Challenge (SAUVC). Here, I need to thank the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society (OES) for sponsoring SAUVC, as without it, seven years ago there would be no Bumblebee. With a lot of hard work, Bumblebee have managed to secure industry buy-in and university support to continue competing internationally. We do this by designing advanced autonomous maritime vehicles capable of achieving highly complex tasks without being remote controlled. Bumblebee’s tagline aptly reads ‘I have no control but it’s okay.’

Story Index
  • Intro - Team Bumblebee
  • Factors that enabled our growth
  • Questions faced and lessons learnt
    • Championing the mentee's self
    • Establishing mentor-mentee relations based on values
    • Senior team members as advisors without a group mentorship structure
    • What happens next after students graduate?
Contributors

Grace Chia is currently working as a Sales Engineer with Seatronics Group, working on bespoke projects revolving around marine electronics equipment, used by oil and gas, defense, and maritime companies. She is passionate about education, leadership, and engineering innovation.

www.linkedin.com/in/gracechia | She tweets at @graceccl and @BumblebeeAS.

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Quote: "The ‘feature’ of championing the mentee’s self of who they want to grow into, is the biggest difference between being a mentor and an advisor."

In 2015, Bumblebee secured additional funding to work towards a three-year plan of delivering an autonomous launch and recovery of an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) from an Autonomous Surface Vessel. With an informal mentorship structure where the senior team members guide the younger freshmen (on which I will share more details later), we have achieved the title of Global Champions at the bi-annual RobotX Challenge organized jointly by the 5 Pacific countries including the US Office of Naval Research, Singapore, Australia, Japan and South Korea. We have also placed in the podium finish for Robosub almost every year since 2012.  This is the outcome of numerous hours of hard work carrying out real work testing to prepare for the competitions. Sounds cool, right? I sincerely thank all my students and our supporters for helping the brand Bumblebee get to where it is today. Without them, it would be impossible.

Here, I will summarize some of the factors that enabled our growth over the past seven years:

  1. Some very dedicated students – it actually only takes a few people to drive progress, and some of our students have sacrificed grades, sleep, and rest to take up enormous responsibility of driving the project forward. This is especially valuable and increasingly rare in our world today, where there is only taking, but not so much giving back.
  2. Academic Integration - From 2014, an informal four-year plan for undergraduates to map different parts of their curriculum to the work they were doing in the project. (Year 1 – Hornet, Year 2-3 – Robosub/RobotX, Year 4 – R&D/Industry projects).
  3. Robust External and University Support - From 2015, the support of NUS, our sponsors and partners to fund a three-year vision.
  4. Recruitment Process - From 2016, we started selecting students who enter the core team via experiential elimination, instead of interviews. The commitment and sacrifice of these select students today is a very big reason why we were able to grow to this level.
  5. Strong Alumni support - From 2013, the efforts of a crazy alumnus who works seven days a week to see through the vision of the organization, independent of what students think of him

Now let me discuss the questions we have faced along the way, and the lessons we learnt…

Questions faced and Lessons learnt

Almost all mentors have an inclination to clone themselves in their mentees. They — often unconsciously — push mentees to pursue career trajectories and make life or career decisions that mirror their own. (quote HBR 1).

1. The ‘feature’ of championing the mentee’s self of who they want to grow into, is the biggest difference between being a mentor and an advisor. This skill is one that I unfortunately might not have been able to achieve, as I am biasedly eager to advance the interests of the team over helping my mentee grow. When I started on the journey with my mentor two years ago, I asked whether my goals of growing an autonomous maritime vehicles company would interfere with his goal as an advisor to other established companies operating in the same space. He highlighted then that mentors truly succeed when they can manage competing and sometimes conflicting interests. There are steps that can be taken to resolve these, and as long as everyone wins, we all grow together.

I believe that being a good mentor requires me to take on a personal interest and active listening to what the mentee wants to achieve, while they are still figuring out their own lives. It has also made me realize that Mentorship must be personal; while we can guide the team forward in the big picture vision, we cannot afford to mentor every single person in the team, given that the team is so big. We need to understand our mentees more.

2. It is difficult to establish a mentor-mentee relationship that inculcates values instead of just technical competency, especially with students of a different generation. My students come into NUS as 18- to 20-year-old teens who have succeeded in almost everything they have done until then. A quarter of them are scholars or will pursue scholarships very shortly after entering NUS. In the earlier years of their lives, the society or educational system has taught them the most efficient methods to get things done. They have all the answers from answering exam questions to practicing ten-year series practice papers, or even how to answer interview questions by just googling ‘how to excel in an interview’. Information on how to present their best sides is easily available, but how do students truly learn values like empathy, humility and perseverance? Further, we sometimes have conflicting view of various issues such as time-management and allocation between projects and academic test scores and other competing things. A sustainable project needs to consider other personnel-related issues deeply.  How do we find the time to discuss all these on top of the crazy amount of technical deliverables to achieve? We should provide our mentors with a healthier work-life balance, which may require scaling back technical goals.

A lesson on Solidworks for Mechanical Students by Niu Xinyuan (expert on the mechanical side of things) – Bumblebee freshmen take this lesson up at least one semester prior to their peers.

Lesson for Software Team in progress, taken by Arjo (a software member of Team Bumblebee). Our freshmen get exposure to Robot Operating System (ROS) and other cool stuff that even I don’t know !

Electrical Lesson on Signal Processing by Low Weng Fei (our in-house acoustics expert).

On top of technical deliverables in the team and guidance to juniors, my senior team also tries to increase the publicity of the team by participating in events and TV shows. Special thanks also to Zhihao, Zhijie, EngWei, Renjie, Ruth, Luke, Xinyuan, plus Samuel Ong, Weihong, Weihan, Quanjie, JonColim, Waiheng (not in photo).

3. To expect my senior team members to be advisors when they are still growing, and without a structure to support them, might fail from within. - We do not actively talk about mentorship per se in the team, though we have a senior-guides-the-junior model. Since 2016, the core team has organized a series of four lessons to orient all freshmen who have expressed interest in joining the Bumblebee team. This happens at the beginning of each semester in August, and the lessons expose them to the mechanical, electrical and software aspects of building an AUV. On average, we have about 80-100 students joining these classes. At the recommendation of our second-year students in 2016, we scrapped the idea of selecting students at the very beginning based on written and spoken interviews, as we have realized that all students will not be able to truly grasp the depth of commitment and sacrifice required to excel in BumbleBee. It is an experience they have to go through. At the end of these four lessons, we pick about 10-12 students, and they form the Hornet Team. The goal set for the Hornet Team is to build a vehicle to compete in the Singapore AUV Challenge in March the following year.

It is our hope that the guidance from the senior team will help the junior team integrate better into the competitive workflow, when we compete in the annual Robosub in San Diego, and the bi-annual RobotX Challenge.  This model has resulted in significant strain on our senior members, who on top of their project deliverables, have to concurrently juggle this duty. They provide advice to the younger members, and also to the frequent outreach from other competing teams who ask for our help in terms of sensor selection and competition preparation. By doing this, I end up putting on my senior team members the additional expectation of becoming advisors, when they themselves might not even be sure about what is the best way to be one. We need some structure, to manage this juggling of both mentorship and participative duties with good balance.

4. What happens next after students graduate? – We have a high turnover rate that is natural, since every four years the undergraduate member moves on to pursue work, etc. In Singapore, we have an extremely low rate of undergraduates moving on to further their studies in NUS itself. Our retention rate of alumni coming back to the university remains at a hit rate of two to three per year, over the past six years. We need to think of how to engage the alumni to come back to the lab, even when they get busier with work. We need a future.

Welcome tea for Freshmen, organized by Public Relations Team, with the 2018 version of the Hornet AUV.

I personally believe that mentorship can truly transform people’s lives, both the mentor and the mentee. I have been both the recipient of amazing mentorship (Special thanks to Mr. Derek Donaldson and Mr. Kum Chee Meng, and many before them now like Mr. Boaz Rottenberg) and am in the process of trying to be a good mentor.  We have started to outline the initial baby ideas on how to improve the BumbleBee Advisor / Mentorship model that addresses the challenges discussed above. I take pride in what we have right now, but we need to improve it. I have also started speaking to friends from other educational groups, because I truly believe in cross-university collaboration and growth over a bigger group. Hopefully, maybe I can write another article next year about this !

Finally, I conclude by sharing that it is my lifelong dream to see engineering projects fly, and to inculcate the sense of pride and purpose in engineering students which I personally feel we have somehow lost along the way. Seven years ago, this was the reason why I started Bumblebee. I didn’t understand why there was literally no hype about the cool stuff we were building in Engineering. Didn’t people understand how difficult it is? Then I realized that it didn’t matter how difficult it was. How we communicated our achievements mattered more. And personally, I feel that the art of communications is refined through mentorship, because any good relationship requires good communication skills.

We need to celebrate every small victory, because engineering is tough and it takes time. No matter how much machine learning and artificial intelligence we can introduce into the world, we still (to date) cannot totally replicate the ingenuity of the human mind. We cannot auto-approve engineering drawings nor scale as fast as app companies. For engineering projects, we cannot expect instant gratification. We must remember that it is the blood, sweat and tears of engineers who have first dreamt up (and then slowly executed on) bridges, houses, transport systems, sanitary systems, computer systems, and other great fundamental hardware that is the basis of our lives. More than ever, inspiring mentorship in the engineering ecosystem is necessary. If you are a student, I hope you will start finding your own mentor and discussing your growth. If you are an experienced professional, I hope you can contact me to help continue the growth of this eco-system.

You can find out more about us at www.bumblebee.sg, or contact me at grace@beex.sg if you are interested to become a mentor to our students.

All photographs are credited to the author.