Students in an electronics workshop that features Arduino microcontrollers collaborate to design a prototype. (Image courtesy of Andrew Ringler.)
By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director
You’ve got the month of January off from regular classes, and you want to do more than sleep in. It’s a good time to experiment, to do something unusual, maybe create a software project. But what if you don’t really have the background for this sort of thing?
Sign up for a workshop that requires no experience at all!
Two such workshops taught by the same instructor have just appeared on OCW site: Collaborative Design and Creative Expression with Arduino Microcontrollers and Learn to Build Your Own Videogame with the Unity Game Engine and Microsoft Kinect.
In the Arduino workshop, students in small teams create different projects using Arduino microcontrollers, including a hand-motion controlled “car,” dazzling light displays, and a punching glove that measures the intensity of its blows.
In the Videogame workshop, student teams create videogames in which the player moves and controls an object in space by body motions: animals try to escape from a zoo, cubes assemble to build and decorate houses, objects traverse landscapes full of obstacles.
The OCW workshop sites have videos of class activities and student-narrated projects, so you can see what the students did and how they thought about what they made.
Fostering Learner Self-Confidence
What these workshops have in common is an unconventional teaching methodology championed by Kyle Keane and Andrew Ringler, two of the instructors, and shared in their Instructor Insights for the Arduino and the Videogame workshop. Each set of Insights is tailored to the demands of that particular workshop.
The main goal for the workshops is to help students build confidence so they can gain independence from their instructors and learn on their own. To do this, they employ a variety of techniques to shake students out of their accustomed ways of thinking about learning and creativity, so they can move forward and be productive.
Building Productive Teams
To work with a team you first have to get on one, and to do that, it helps to know which people seem best suited as teammates. The workshop employs some techniques used in improv comedy to get people familiar with one another fast. Keane explains:
I use improv warm up exercises (games performers play to get ready for a show) to help participants explore how verbal and nonverbal communication impact their collaborative relationships in the workshop.
He encourages students to explore different possible teams and to not be afraid to move out of one and join another. With little or no experience, students are bound to make impractical suggestions and show a certain degree of ignorance.
To help defuse student’s fear of embarrassment, Keane shares his own, and in doing so he models vulnerability, which
…is not a very common post-secondary teaching strategy, but…it’s an important thing to do when building team dynamics, because, let’s face it, opening yourself up to critique is terrifying…So, as instructors…we stand in the front of the classroom and talk about how it feels to be vulnerable. We’re weirdly explicit about it, but we find it extremely effective.
Going hand in hand with this technique is showing (rather than telling) students that it’s OK to ask for help: “It’s better to coach them and to model how to bring in others to solve problems.”
Being Creative, Not Original
In a nine-day workshop, there is hardly time to reinvent the wheel, yet in conceiving a creative project, students often think that’s what they have to do. To defuse this dynamic, Keane reframes the creative process away from being completely original to building on existing ideas and taking them in new directions. So the workshop
…involves students mimicking, step-by-step, projects that have already been built and then deviating from them—to give students permission to build on existing work.
Failing on Purpose
At the same time, to get students comfortable with risk-taking Keane gives them “assignments that ask students to do the impossible (like build a video game in six hours as a team, for example).”
These present opportunities for learning how to work with people having very different skills:
Participants don’t truly understand they need to collaborate with people who bring different skill sets to the work until they fail at a project…[Failure] helps drive home the importance of working in groups of people with diverse interests and abilities.
In Keane’s view, if a project is “designed to fail,” it holds the potential for longer-term success:
If it’s a designed-to-fail project…you pick something that’s kind of kooky that you want to learn, because no one’s going to know that you overstretched your skill set and tried something that was outside of your range. In this workshop, we explicitly allow (and encourage) participants to take these risks.
Moreover, doomed projects
…free participants to do things they might consider ridiculous, crazy, or imaginative. If you know the project is not intended to be successful, why not stretch your perceived boundaries?
Indeed, why not?