Everyone else seems to have covered the team aspect of SO, but my experience was quite different. I wasn't on super competitive teams, I've never been to nats, and I never had a coach for my events.
What I got out of SO was experience, the experience
, and experiences. When I first joined scioly.org, which is not long after I started doing SO, I was of course very young. :) I joined so I could find out more about Wright Stuff. I posted dumb posts, I didn't always read or search before posting, and I even spammed
. It took a long time for me to really get straightened out, but now I'm admin (yo wtf? BTW, I bet DS regrets it). But the point is, spending time with my two terrific teams and a community like this actually helped me grow up.
I also learned a good 80% of what I know about building things, everything about electronics, and a lot about computers from SO work. For example, just on this forum there was a little incident where I tried to imitate relpats-eht
's avatar. It taught me a bunch about image compression, making animated GIFs, and image palettes. Now I'm working in and studying computer graphics; I might even make it my living.
It wasn't just technical stuff I learned. One of the more useful skills I learned was how to learn. More specifically, how to learn when you're not in school and you have no teacher. I never had a coach that knew my events better than I did, and in high school, I didn't have a coach at all; it was a wholly student-run team (another story :). Everything SO I learned I had to learn on my own from this site, books, and anything else I could get my hands on. This left me the question of summers.
I loved SO. But there were no rules out in the summer. One might think, naïvely, that he should spend the summer building to the previous season's rules. No. First off, it's important to take a vacation. Get some downtime, even if it's less appealing than SO because of your burning lust for winning next year (which you should definitely have).
Then, my project for the summer would have nothing to do with SO at all, and would be as difficult and time-consuming (and more!) than the summer or my experience could possibly afford. My three summer projects in high school were, in reverse order: (1) Put a vision-based guidance system for my robotics helicopter (2) Build a quadrotor helicopter while hacking OS X to run on PCs (3) Build a quadriped robot.
I almost never got the projects done by the time school started; we NYC kids got stuck with the same school schedule as upstate NY kids, minus the not insignificant snow days, having had perhaps two of those in my ten years of service under the NYCDOE. So we had very short summer vacations.
Still, whatever it was I did in the summer, I was guaranteed that I could successfully use it in the next season. If you spent the summer building a better battery-and-motor cart with wheels, you might learn how to make your next cart go straighter and truer. You spend the summer building a robotic helicopter, or even trying to
build a robotic helicopter, and you'll learn how to design your next cart in 3D parametric CAD, precision machine it from impact-resistant PETG, and code a proportional control loop for its C-programmed microcontroller so you can hit arbitrary run times, distances, and targets just by punching in numbers. And do it cheaply too; my parents are not wealthy and didn't really like me spending money on robots. :)
When you have off time, don't waste it on work; do something you absolutely never thought of doing, but that you might like. Sing, play Ultimate with your team, try to increase the definition of your abs. At some point, I was figuring out how to keep as accurate time as possible. It netted me a neat watch and knowledge I was proud of. Then it got turned into an event. bah got me to start playing with fountain pens. My first fountain pen ever will be in my hand in a few days.
And finally to cap this post, which has winded far too verbose already, I learned quality from SO. You know the real difference between a family-owned German company and a Chinese manufacturing mega-corporation? The German company tries to create a quality product and lets it attract the money. The Chinese corporation looks to the bottom line first—quality comes second (or even later than that). Quality needs to come first in SO, and the medals will follow naturally.
I built with more quality than was needed in the first place. My description of the aforementioned "cart" was of my 2009 EV. It was pretty overkill, to be honest, considering I didn't expect my team to make it beyond NY states (it didn't). However, it worked out pretty well. I beat FM with a gold medal and they got second in EV at Nats, so it was like I got second at Nats (I didn't).
Sometimes it doesn't work out. My WS planes in 2007 used rolled tubes and were biplane designs. I was really ambitious and didn't completely know what I was doing. Yet somehow, all the tubes I rolled that year had zero curvature. That is just f'ing magical, if you understand what I'm talking about. They really didn't end up flying all that well, though that may be because I was spending less time on WS that year than before, but they were pigeon impressive. I was proud of my planes even if they didn't net me the medal which I wasn't aiming for in the first place. Heck, my states plane from that year is still the example photo on the Wright Stuff Wiki
I won either way, because quality was on my side, because I knew I grew up on it all, and because I knew more than the suckers who didn't do SO. So if you're a senior this year, don't feel like you have to win and cap your career with a bang. Go to competition with open eyes and make some memories while you reminisce on the good times past. All my teammates know as well as I do I got that gold medal caring zero about it (mostly because of getting rejected from MIT days before, but also for all the reasons I mentioned above). Don't forget to wipe your tears when you take your bus home—or plane, car, train, boat...