[hackerspaces] How To Teach a Hackerspace Class?

Angus Gratton gus at projectgus.com
Thu Nov 15 00:25:04 CET 2012

On Tue, 13 Nov 2012 22:32:52 -1000
Jerry Isdale <isdale at gmail.com> wrote:
> How have you prepared for teaching a class?
> Have you tried teaching when you were only a bit more advanced than the students? 
> Sometimes this is necessary when starting a space - bootstrapping member knowledge!

Hi Jerry,

At Make Hack Void we (myself and another member, Brenda) just ran a
series of 3x 3 hour "Arduino for Beginners" workshops, one a week, that
we advertised for anyone to come and join.[1]

We wanted to encourage some newcomers to get comfortable with Arduino,
but we also wanted to bring new people into the space who might
otherwise not have come, and make them feel welcome as members. We
reached our capacity of 25 attendees.

Neither of us are professional teachers. Brenda tutors some university
courses, and I part-ran one similar workshop last year as part of an
electronic arts festival.

Some thoughts, based on my limited experience with this:

* I think calling it a workshop not a class helped managed expectations
that sessions would be "everyone helps everyone" rather than
"eyes front to the teacher". We also said this at the beginning.

* We made it clear that we weren't charging for our time (only for
parts for the workshop and membership for the space.) If we were
paying ourselves I would have felt (and the attendees probably would
have felt) more expectation for professional-style teaching. Maybe
not, though.

* We also encouraged other MHV members to come and help out on the day.
This was really helpful and supported our workshop style.

* Nearly everything Michael said about the CryptoParty at MetaLab
rings true to me. We had a broad difference in skill levels, but
everyone started helping each other and working on things together.
The first session was relatively structured, and for the second and
third sessions we'd prepared some plans for things to all do together.
However in those later session we scrapped them - by the time everyone
had arrived, everyone else had already gotten out their bits and was
making things! I have to say this is a truly magical thing to watch,
everyone going off in their own direction and exploring together. It
seemed counter-productive to interrupt at this point and say "hey
everyone stop and watch this one thing", so we just circulated around
the space helping out people as they needed it, giving pointers to
online resources when we could.

* I think advertising it as a beginner "workshop" did help self-select
people who had a hands-on kind of attitude, even the ones with no
programming & electronics experience. However we also tried to
cultivate that attitude, because "hands on" and "let's try it" is how
both of us learned and also very compatible with hackerspace culture
and the "hacker way".

* That said, obviously different people do learn in different styles
and started from different levels. We did a couple of small group
things later on where we'd say something like "everyone who wants to
learn exactly how to choose a resistor for an LED, come and gather
around this whiteboard". These worked pretty well I think.

* The other part of "let's try it" is being prepared to be wrong. For
this reason I wouldn't worry too much about the "only a bit more
advanced than the students" part. Making mistakes openly, and then
finding and fixing those mistakes with input from others, is
a really valuable experience that people can learn from - for us it came
back to what we were really trying to teach, the method of discarding
your inhibitions about "breaking the machine" and just trying things
out. Getting back to the child-like exploration that mAcfreAk was
talking about.

* I do think this means swallowing your ego a bit though, being
prepared to embrace being publicly wrong in front of a group of
people. I think I'm personally getting more comfortable with this,
but I definitely became conscious of needing to get past it.

* Part of this is also creating a group atmosphere where everyone is
comfortable being wrong. I was really worried about this before we
started, even loosely contemplating adopting a social rule from NYC's
Hacker School "No saying 'well, actually'".[2] As it turned out I
didn't perceive that problem in the sessions, apart from people's
sometime natural reluctance to speak up and say "It doesn't work and
I don't know what to try." So maybe I was worried for no reason, but I'd
be interested to know what other people think about it.

* This isn't really a question that you asked, but finding lesson
materials online is a brilliant time saver and quality improver.
Arduino resources are particularly well-stocked, obviously. We
went through Jody Culkin's excellent Arduino comic[3] for the first
session and then encouraged people to fish through the Arduino website
tutorials & reference pages, as well as web searches, after that.

* I found this whole process extremely fun and rewarding. It was tiring
too, but it was definitely worthwhile. I can't recommend it enough.
Getting started on something like this can be hard though, my honest
suggestion is to just pick a date and send out an email/post saying
"I'm thinking of doing a little informal workshop on <thing> on <some
date>. Who's interested?" And then make it up from there if/when 
people show interest. :).

Wow, long reply. I guess I have a lot of thoughts on this! Maybe I'll
cultivate them some more and write a blog post. I'd be really
interested to know other people's experiences with this stuff as well.

- Angus

[1] http://www.makehackvoid.com/news/arduino-beginners-workshop-series

[2] http://marthakelly.github.com/blog/2012/06/04/hacker-school-day-one/

[3] http://www.jodyculkin.com/comics-2/introduction-to-arduino 

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