I am one of the organizers of a robotics competition for high school students. We're entering our 14th year. Over the years, the students have amassed a fairly sophisticated level of technical knowledge, expertise and understanding, which has been passed down institutionally.

One of the keys to our competition is that all of the work on their robots must be performed directly by students. So, while adult expert 'mentors' are available, they only offer guidance and may not always have an answer to a particular question.

Not being new to the Stack, I wanted to check with this group to ensure that it would find it appropriate for us to actively direct students here as part of their resource pool.

I think it would be a great resource, and offer the young students a chance to engage with professionals and expert hobbyists alike. But I also understand that the context of Stack Exchange is not geared to this, specifically. Would it be worthwhile (for us) to ask students to provide some context if they chose to post here, such as their age bracket? I know I read a "silly" question on Stack Overflow from an identified high school student struggling with a jQuery selector differently than from someone I perceive to be a professional web developer.

I also fully accept and agree with the necessity to close and down-vote bad questions for the good of this community (which is essentially why I'm asking).

If relevant, we provide VEX-based base kits to student teams, and a few motors, but they are not limited to that. For example, some have interconnected Arduino boards and sensors to automate some tasks.

NOTE: I have posted a similar question to Robotics.SE Meta, as they are closely linked themes, but distinct communities.

EDIT: I'm sorry I can only accept one answer. Thank you, everyone, for your input!


5 Answers 5


Some of us at EE.SE can be pretty blunt when it comes to responding to questions that 'need work'. I think it is important for students to know how to ask questions. This skill is not specific for EE.SE but is of value in many places both online as in real (working) life. I believe the help pages explain a bit on that topic, but I guess there are a few best practices:

  • It is important to realize that the people answering questions here do it because they enjoy doing it, and they do so in their own spare time. Nobody gets payed for writing answers and there is a fine balance between enjoying to write an answer and dismissing a question for various reasons.
  • Nobody likes searching for duplicate questions, make sure to have checked the stack for similar questions. One may even link them in your question and explain why the answer didn't help.
  • Some basic electronics and programming knowledge is essential.
  • Don't drop homework and expect us to solve it. Often with homework questions people will try to give pointers and not directly the full answer.
  • I personally think it is good practice to state level of knowledge in the question (preferably at the end of the question, because it otherwise clutters the questions page with information that is not directly related to the question).
  • Questions must be specific and not too broad. Try to minimize code or hardware to the bare minimum to reproduce an issue. Nobody is going to analyse a page full of code or an huge circuit diagram where only a small function or subsystem is really of importance. Also many problems solve themselves by just minimizing it to reproduce the issue.
  • Explain what is done so far. Show some research has been done.
  • Include a diagram whenever possible. Most of us have an aversion for wiring diagrams because they quickly get extremely hard to analyze.
  • Explain what actually happens.
  • Explain what you expect to happen.
  • Explain what has been tried to solve it.

Good questions generally get good answers, no matter who asked them. Poor questions generally get poor answer, no matter who asked them.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ +1. [I could add one more to the list.] Keep participating after posting the question. Clarifying questions, questions for more information or context will be asked in the comments within an hour after the original question is posted. Providing additional information improves the quality and speed of the answer. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 3, 2014 at 19:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the first paragraph. Going as far as to have an adult adviser vet/pre-screen the students initial questions prior to posting may be beneficial as well to avoid making a bad first impression. From personal experience, when my then 8th (9th?) grade younger brother was given contact information from a local college professor as a potential adviser/mentor for a regional science fair competition, I had to provide a moderate amount of input to get his initial email to a level that wouldn't result in him looking like he didn't know what he was doing. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 10, 2014 at 20:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Excellent pointers. Thank you. Merely to clarify (reassure, perhaps): almost all of the students participate in a non-credit, extra curricular capacity. Additionally, they are more or less forbidden from asking someone else — including this community — to do their work for them. But it's definitely a legitimate concern. \$\endgroup\$
    – msanford
    Mar 27, 2014 at 19:45

What jippie said, plus have them fill out their profile properly. Each individual should have his own profile. Don't fill in silly cutesy stuff, put the real info there. Age is particularly important. A high school student is going to get more slack than a professional adult, but you want to come accross as serious about the question and serious about learning electronics. Flippant and cutesy stuff in a profile says "I'm not taking this seriously", which decreases the chance of getting serious answers.

There is nothing wrong with being ignorant, but plenty wrong with being stupid or lazy. Write properly, start sentences with upper case letters, capitalize "I", etc. Absolutely never use text-speak. Writing a question should get no less care than writing something you hand in as homework. If you write slop you insult everyone here by asking them to read it. That's not a smart thing to do when seeking a favor.

Another common mistake we see here is to assume a particular solution and then ask about it. Don't do that, which actually makes it simpler for you. Tell us the real problem you want to solve. For example "I'm at the side of the road with a flat tire, how do I get it off to put the spare on?" is much better than "How do I unscrew large bolts with this swiss army knife?". The latter is much more of a hassle to answer since you have to drill down to get the real question and disspell some religious myths along the way.

All this may sound more scary than it really is. None of the things I have said are hard to do, which is in part why there is no excuse for getting them wrong. Again, thinking of writing something that will be handed in as homework should go a long way to make a good question.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Good point about the profile, it is often such a shame that we can't get any information about someone's situation/knowledge. Also the paragraph about proper spelling is absolutely true, it makes reading the text a lot easier. Not all users here are native English speakers and poor spelling/interpunction doesn't help. \$\endgroup\$
    – jippie
    Feb 27, 2014 at 17:40


It's easier to get forgiveness than permission. But that is not to say that forgiveness is guaranteed.

If the question is good, it will be treated as a good question. If the question doesn't meet the standards, it will be dispatched indiscriminately just like any other substandard question that falls on this board.

Become more familiar with EE.SE yourself

You should get an idea for what the actual standards are out here. EE.SE is tougher than SO and your average stack. The customs are Spartan/Darwinian. There are good reasons for this. (I wrote more about this earlier.) Stick around, and invite your mentors to investigate the forum too. Post some questions yourself, perhaps they can be inspired by what your students are asking.

Consider moderating them yourself first

Since your team has mentors, you can add an extra layer of refinement, which would benefit everybody: your students, their immediate mentors, the EE.SE ecosystem.

  1. Students talk to you (or other mentors) and find out that mentors don't have the answer.
  2. The mentor directs the preliminary research, which is done by the student. Books, Teh Interwebs [sic].
  3. The student writes up the question, demonstrates preliminary research, sketches a diagrams, provides context, and so on [no need to repeat what @jippie wrote above]. But instead of posting it to the forum, he sends it to his mentor. By itself, that's almost guaranteed to spark a high quality conversation between the student and the mentor.
  4. Mentor edits the question. Then either the mentor posts it to EE.SE and sends a link to the student. Or, the student posts it himself.
  • \$\begingroup\$ Moderating myself first would be impossible (I'm an organizer of the competition itself, which has 30-40 participating schools). However, pre-moderation by team consensus or teacher intervention is an excellent idea. \$\endgroup\$
    – msanford
    Mar 27, 2014 at 19:41

Except in cases where it is obvious someone is dumping a homework question on us, it is not our place to judge whether a question asker is worthy/deserving of an answer. In other words, who is asking is much less important when compared to what and how they're asking.

If you feel your students can ask well-formed questions then by all means they should ask them. If a question borders on "acceptable", ask anyway - your students can learn from the community response to determine what is acceptable to ask and what is not.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I suppose I should take the -1 as someone who feels it is ok to judge the person and not the question. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 27, 2014 at 1:26
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ They might also disagree that dumping homework is the only time to judge whether the OP deserves a answer. A sloppily written question, one with text-speak, obscure abbreviations, obvious missing context, a whole paragraph one runon sentence, etc, are all reasons to send the OP home without a cookie. In fact, it would be useful to tar and feather or otherwise make the experience as unpleasant as possible, but we only have the tools we have. The best we can do is downvote to oblivion and close. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 27, 2014 at 13:22
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @OlinLathrop; Text-speak, poor grammar, abbreviations, etc. are all covered in "what and how they're asking". The main point I was trying to make is that just because they are high school students doesn't mean we should treat them differently from any other user. I guess I didn't communicate that effectively. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 27, 2014 at 18:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OlinLathrop Part of the point is perception: this particular competition is almost universally a not-for-credit extra-curricular, but I completely agree with the spirit of the comment. \$\endgroup\$
    – msanford
    Mar 27, 2014 at 19:39

All excellent points made by Jippie et al.

Avoid using multiple part questions. It is better to ask five separate questions than one question with five parts. This allows the answer to be short and specific and not end up as an essay.


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