Volunteer Skills

Volunteer Skills

An Overview

Volunteers are one of the main shapers of whether students enjoy their day or not: your “condemnation” of ideas may have the unintended consequence of quenching enthusiasm, but your constructive criticism may open their eyes to new scientific ideas; your praise for sophisticated ideas may inspire for life.

Use this page to understand standard practice, tools and tactics for aiding students at the UKSDC.

Standard Practice

The following professional practices should be followed on competition day, regardless of your role:

  1. Take responsibility – recognise that your ultimate goal is to deliver a fantastic event for the students; this should be considered a preeminent responsibility.
  2. Be punctual – aim to arrive before the agreed time; adhere to agreed break times (this can vary on the day)
  3. Communicate effectively – if you are running late, promptly communicate that with other volunteers  via the WhatsApp group-chat.
  4. Dress appropriately – wear UKSDC merchandise (if owned); the event is run for children, so while attire is at your own discretion, it should be sensible.
  5. Communicate respectfully – be polite and refrain from swearing or using sarcasm when speaking with students or teachers; you are representing the SSE²F and are responsible for upholding their image.
  6. Be helpful (positive attitude) – be willing to work with other volunteers to resolve issues; you can also offer your support in carrying out tasks if you find yourself excessively idle.
  7. Be reliable – all roles require significant dependability, so ensure that you are diligent and consistent when executing tasks.
  8. Inform yourself – be knowledgeable of what your role entails prior to the competition starting, and also of procedures and protocols that may occur on the day.

How to Engage with Students

As a volunteer, students may view you as someone from a position of authority. Therefore your words and actions will hold weight and you must act responsibly. The following tips address how one might approach scenarios where students ask for the opinions of volunteers on ideas, but the principles can be applied generally to all student interactions.

What to do

  • Introduce yourself
  • Be friendly – Smile 🙂 
  • Pay attention – Remember names and listen to questions carefully.
  • Use a feedback model  – TGROW/ C sandwich (see in ‘How to Give Feedback’ below).

What NOT to do

  • Appear unapproachable -This could entail laughing at ideas you see, being antisocial, spreading negativity (e.g. saying that a company is doomed) or being on your phone for extended periods of time.
  • Be sarcastic – This may make students feel belittled; Extreme negativity like this could cause students to stop asking questions out of fear or embarrassment.
  • Swear – The students in this setting aren’t your friends; uphold decorum.

How to Recognise Stress

Managing the stress levels of students is important for maintaining both their physical and mental health. Be on the lookout for both obvious and discrete stress signals.

Obvious stress signals

  • Outbursts (e.g., shouting, crying)
  • Shaking hands/excessive leg bouncing
  • Significant loss of energy
  • Short temper
  • Unexplained headaches

Discrete stress signals:

  • Refusal to take breaks
  • Reclusion from others
  • Refusal to eat/drink
  • Disproportionate reactions (strategic or emotional) to constructive criticism

Actively Giving Praise

Students will likely approach you with questions, but you shouldn’t be passive all day. Help actively motivate and earn the respect of students by observing interactions between students and giving unsought praise. Such compliments tend to hold higher value than sought compliments.

How to Help a Stressed Competitor

Gain their attention

If you talk without gaining the student’s focus, your words will only clutter their thoughts more. A strategy: ask the student to stop what they are doing and to maintain eye contact with you.


Praise work strategically – Good positive feedback acknowledges a student’s commitment, motivating them to continue behaviours that align with their goal, rather than just signalling they’ve made sufficient progress.

  • A good example of praise – “You’re doing amazingly well and working so hard, there’s no need to worry”.
  • A bad example of praise – “You have made so much progress, only a few more hours to go!”.
Offer help or advice

Help delegate work – Some competitors will take on too much responsibility which could lead to burnout or other dilapidating circumstances.

  • You could tackle this by saying something along the lines of – “You’re doing so much for your team! What I need you to do for me is to try and delegate some tasks. It could help more work get done concurrently as well as distribute the workload more evenly amongst the team.”
  • If stress is due to feelings of being ignored or disrespected, seek out department heads or SSE²F staff to mediate a discussion.

Get students to take a step back – Make it known that it is okay to dedicate time away from the competition. You could:

      • Suggest a time-out for 5-10 minutes to get air/refreshments with the friend. 
      • Orchestrate some off-topic regular conversation by asking questions such as “What do you do for fun?” 
      • Ask the student to stand up and walk with you to a quieter spot; they might not have moved for hours. 

Help pinpoint smaller details

It can be hard to think of all the small details when working, so try to help pinpoint areas the competitor might have missed. Present that to them gently in a way that reinforces the good work they have done.

If you need further help, talk to an SSEF staffer to come and have a chat (they can assess and intervene if necessary, freeing volunteers to continue offering technical advice).

How to Give Feedback

Positive reinforcement helps build confidence. When interacting with students who are presenting ideas, consider the following models.

T-GROW Model

Topic – The student may have already mentioned what they want from you, but summarising their idea aloud cements your understanding and allows the student to highlight any miscommunications before you give advice. Ask for them to walkthrough particular aspects of their design if necessary. 

Goals – When juggling ideas, having a goal in mind is crucial. Help the student solidify their ideas by asking them about relevance to the RfP and cohesion with external systems. Have the student say aloud the specific goals that they need to achieve in order to create a feasible design.

Reality – Now that they have this mental checklist, return the focus to their current design. Does the student understand the strong aspects of the design as well as their pitfalls? What needs to be done in order for this design to be improved?

Options – Explore several options for improving/revising the idea. If there are multiple students try to encourage everyone to participate in this brainstorming session.

Way forward – Get the student to say aloud their next steps. This could be more research, the assignment of roles, flagging an issue or meeting a client representative for additional clarification. 


Student: We have a problem. Structural have created a design based on an aluminium alloy that is not the same with what the other departments have been designing with. Everyone’s just doing their own thing! 

Volunteer: So there are design discrepancies based on the building materials of the settlement? 

Student: Yes, exactly!

Volunteer: Are they using a different variation of aluminium alloy or are the materials being mentioned completely different? 

Student: Completely different.

Volunteer: Were they part of a remnant/redundant design perhaps? Or do you feel like the issue at hand is more so a lack of communication? 

Student: Earlier we discussed using other materials… Overall, I think many people are confused.

Result: You now know that there is most likely poor communication amongst the company. The students have muddled parts of their design because of it, but most likely due to the issue discussed above – discontent or malicious compliance can be ruled out. Mutiny averted!

C-Sandwich Model

Compliment – Identify what the students are doing right (e.g., “Asking questions demonstrates a good designer’s attitude!”).

Critique (gently) – Point out a fault in a non-insulting manner (e.g., “{Idea} is a very innovative idea but it does not directly address an RfP point. How can you adapt it to fit {RfP point}?”).

Compliment – Identify a second positive (e.g., “You’re asking questions early, which shows good process management’ or ‘Your questions have identified errors quite late, but this means you will be well prepared to respond to any concerns raised in the Q&A”.).

Your Demeanour

It’s important to note that each student is unique and some may be more susceptible to a loss in confidence by your words and actions. At the beginning of working with a student, offer them your full attention and avoid sarcasm, satire and slang.  Your tone can be adjusted by using questions to gauge how the student is receiving your advice. Consider this scenario:

Student: Some of the company is suggesting we use concrete to make our Martian buildings, I’m worried that concrete cracks at extreme temperatures and could result in our buildings collapsing. Should I tell them to find a different material?

Volunteer response 1: Well, what do you think?

The volunteer in this scenario could have encouraged the student to work through the problem by first helping them to collate their thoughts, however their response is unhelpful due to the fact that the comment is vague and, depending on tone, could sound condescending. Also, imagining that the question was asked on the behalf of a department, the student returning to their group with nothing to report may leave students feeling patronised. 

Volunteer response 2: It’s a good idea to consider how temperature differentials can affect the structural integrity of a building. Have you already looked into newer concretes made specifically for Mars? Regardless, there are plenty materials choose from, what has been suggested/researched so far from the team?

This response references their previous comment which shows engagement in the conversation. It also compliments them on their initiative which can boost confidence while also preventing the interaction from being seen as interrogative. Additionally, it gives them a hint of the next steps they could carry out while simultaneously encouraging interaction with their company members. If they have already completed these steps, it still gives the volunteer more information to guide them further.

The right approach should always facilitate the production of ‘T-shaped students’. In the context of the UKSDC competition, these are students who engage with all the disciplines covered by the RfP but gain additional specialist knowledge in the RfP point they chose to investigate. Ideally, you would aim for an approach that encourages this deeper research as this type of learning is analogous to every engineering field. Remember: breadth with specialist depth.