Tagged: workshops

Learn To Teach Programming – Software Carpentry

Today, post PyCon conference, I spent the entire day immersed in an incredibly dynamic and educational workshop by Software CarpentryLearn to Teach Programming“.  I’m going to do a mix of dumping my notes in a play-by-play fashion with possible sidebars for commenting on what I experienced personally so that I have a record of this to look back on as I move forward with Ascend Project planning and execution.

Meet Your Neighbours

The event started off, as they always do, with a go-round of people introducing themselves in short form.  As we started taking turns our teacher, Greg Wilson, asked for the person who just spoke to tap the next person to speak before sitting down.  This proved to be our first of many small applications of the science behind learning and how it can play out in real life.  While it apparently takes a room of kindergarten children 3 reminders to do this extra step during intros, it took this room of ~25 adults 14 requests before we mostly started doing so without prompting from Greg.  By the way, during the intros I learned about Dames Making Games which I can now add to my mental list of awesome women-in-tech groups and if you’re reading this and are in Toronto, check them out!

Teaching Is Performance

It raises your adrenaline, brings out your nervousness, and it’s something you need to work at. A few quick tips from Greg on preparing for your ‘performance’ as teacher: always bring cough drops, and figure out what your ‘tell’ is.  Like with poker, everyone has at least on thing they do when they are nervous.  I suspect for me its likely that my ‘tell’ is talking fast and/or having trouble not smiling too much (at least in poker, it is).  This was our first introduction to how we should be reflective about our teaching – even go so far as to record yourself if you can’t get honest feedback from people around you – so that you can spot these things about your manner and work on adjusting them to ‘perform’ teaching in a more confident and reliable manner.

Improv came up as a way to work on this where you can get feedback on how you perform and also learn to keep other people engaged.  I used to do improv when I was an awkward teenager and didn’t feel like I was a superstar at it but I wonder what it could be like now that I have more confidence.  I’ll be looking for classes in SF to try it out.  What’s there to lose?

Why Don’t We Teach In Teams?

Greg pointed out how teaching, unlike music and comedy, is such a solo activity.  Musicians typically build up their experience and skills by playing with others.  The best comedians by and large spent a significant amount of time in some sort of comedy troupe before striking out on their own as a stand-up or as major film stars.  Teachers though?  Often alone in their classrooms and if my partner is an example of the ‘norm’, definitely alone while grading and preparing lessons.  This is something worth exploring: what could teaching be like for the teacher if there was team teaching?  What could we do with more feedback, more often, and with someone helping us track measurable progress towards our goals as agents inspiring learning?  Finland has an excellent system of teacher feedback and peer/mentoring for their educators.  Teacher’s college is harder to get into there than medical school (not sure that’s a good thing, but it’s what Greg told us).

Key Points About Teaching & Learning

  • People have two kinds of memory layers – short and long term – and short term memory (which is what we are working with in classroom environments) can hold ~7 items +/- 2 so really we should aim for 5 in order to teach to our students’ capacity

 

  • We have to balance on/off time – we lose some time switching between tasks or concepts in the teaching but working with memory limitations as mentioned above, we must let people take breaks to reset & refresh

 

  • Avg person can take in info for about 45 minutes before their attention wanes from exhaustion.  For me, this is more like 30 minutes. Hearing this from Greg reminds me that I want to propose that all meetings I’m involved with at work move the default length to 30 minutes and that we have a set of rules for how to deal with ‘overage’.  Either email or mailing list post, etherpad, set up a follow-up meeting, or make a proposal and request feedback so that we are not taking an hour because we *have* an hour.

 

  • Apparently the military has a lot of research and effective solutions for human performance.  Greg mentioned being at a naval academy and the grad students he was lecturing to dropped into doing pushups when a bell sounded on the hour.  This sounds like a great practice for anyone trying to learn and be engaged with others – get your blood pumping and change your position.  Reminds me to get that automated rest-taking app running on my laptop again and to actually pay attention to it for a while instead of dismissing over and over.

 

  • Continuous ‘flow’ – oh that elusive state for programmers.  There was some sort of quote about coffee but I missed the first part, the gist was that when we are immersed in something and truly engaged we can override that 45 minute intake limitation from before but if we do more than pause (without switching contexts) we could end up breaking flow and it takes at least 5-10 minutes to get back into it. This is key for people who work in environments full of distractions and interruptions. I’ve been thinking a lot about this one lately as I’d like to work on breaking my very unproductive cycle of checking IRC and email in a loop as though I am event-driven.  I need to make times to get into ‘flow’ and do bigger tasks with more focus.

 

  • A sidebar of the distraction mention was the fact that, in programming, syntax can be the distraction. That is, errors in.  When you get stuck trying to figure out where your semi-colon or indentation is off you break out of ‘flow’. In a language/framework like Scratch this is not possible as the blocks cannot be dragged and dropped into any order that creates errors except in ways that are related to logic and program flow – worth stopping to think about (and keeping you in your engagement ‘flow’)

 

  • There are roughly three types of minds out there to work with in teaching: a) Novice b) Competent c) Expert.  The Novice doesn’t know what they don’t know so the most important thing to do when trying to teach a Novice is to make sure their mental model of the concept you are teaching is correct.  This is to become a lot of the focus in the rest of the day – methods of determining if our concept is getting across correctly.  The Expert is such because they have more connections between all the facts they know about the concept/skill and so they can leap from point A to point J in one move where it takes a Competent mind all the dots in between – executed well, but with thought and intention – to complete them.  It is *as hard* to get Novices to become Competent as it is to get Experts to see the concept they are trying to teach as a Competent person does.  Think about something you might be and Expert at and see if you can tell what steps you assume other people will know.

 

  • Another key point about the Expert is the idea of reflection. Being able to reflect on your skill is huge for honing it.  An example would be how I went to a hockey skating workshop where they video taped us skating our fastest and when I saw that video, saw how knock-kneed I was and how my internal map that I was using wide leg strokes did not actually look like that in the tape I was a) horrified but also b) it’s a reminder of how far I have to go and how much more work I need to do in order to reach a higher level of expertise, such as that reflected to me by the instructors.

Accepting Feedback and Critique

We spent some time talking about critique. In architecture, art, music, and many other disciplines there is a built-in system for critique.  It helps the student to build up their sense of self, to know their strengths and weaknesses.  We do not always have this in teaching.  In our workshop, Greg had people write down one piece of positive and one negative feedback on two sticky notes (yellow for positive, pink for negative) and he asked us to put them on a piece of paper at the front of the room before we headed out on our first break (just over an hour of instruction had occurred).  When we returned we discussed what the anonymous feedback had provided Greg with and what he could actually work on in the moment vs. what was useful for later.  He mentioned doing this, and letting it be anonymous, was a great way to build trust with your students. Also we talked about how to get better at accepting feedback, working with it, not letting it paralyze you or derail your lesson.

One of the key takeaways for me here was the idea that the most senior leader/teacher should model this for others.  Show that you can hear feedback, both good and negative (hopefully constructive), and be able to move forward without crumbling under the pressure.  While I’m nervous about feedback, I will do my best to ‘fake it till I make it’ on this point because it’s definitely more important to correct course and create a better experience for students than to be proud and lose their interest and especially, trust.

Concept Maps

Our next major concept was the concept map.  This is a way to help yourself understand what you are trying to teach. It’s also a way to check yourself for the 7 items +/- 2 factor. If you have more than 5 main concepts in the concept map, it’s time to evaluate it for what can be put aside for now or what can become the next lesson.  The concept map can also be shared with students as a way to make sure everyone is on the same page or at least starting with the same page.  Greg recommended handing out a printout of the concept map so that students could doodle and expand it in ways he might not have thought of.

We learned how the concept map should never be used for grading.  It’s mostly a tool for the teacher to know if they have managed to get across the mental model well enough for the novice to reflect back a matching map and feel comfortable moving on to the next concept. It’s also a way of preventing the “blank screen” where students can be frozen trying to come up with what to put down (in programming or in writing) and having a scaffolding there in the form of map, or hints, any form of guidance can basically jump start the student and hold their hand until they need less and less of it to self-start, self-direct, and truly *learn* autonomously.

We did an exercise where we drew up concept maps for how to teach a for loop.  This was my first time doing a concept map and it was hard.  Definitely will take practice and likely some more reading/looking at other concept maps to drive home the concept for myself.

concept map explaining a for loop
This is an attempt to map out the concepts required to understand a for loop – note we went over 5 items

Key points from Greg:

  • Make your concept map look ‘cheap’ so that people aren’t afraid to give you honest feedback
  • Write and share maps with each other – try this with your team at work on a project you’re starting – you might see that others have a *very* different sense of what is being attempted
  • Try not to need things in your concept map that you will “explain later” – if you can’t explain it now you’re going to disrupt the ‘flow’ of maximizing the short term memory limits
  • Transfer your map into a list of bullet points as it will help you put the most important concepts first
  • Think of concept mapping like couples dances. You both want to be doing the same dance or there will be a lot of bruised shins :)

Sticky Notes as Invaluable Teaching Tool

We used sticky notes at several points in this workshop.  While we only had two colours today, Greg recommends three colours to be used as follows:

  • Green:  Students can put this up in a visible place when they have completed the exercise currently being done
  • Yellow: Students can put this up when they have a question.  Also this is a great tool for ensuring more participation in the classroom setting.  Some people talk more than others, there are definitely certain types of people who take up more space, and the deal with the yellow stickies was: You get two, when you ask a question put one aside.  Another question?  Put the other aside.  Now you have no more questions until EVERYONE in the class has used at least one of their yellow stickies.
  • Red:  Students can pop this up in a visible place when they need help on something.  This is great for two reasons: 1) the student can keep *trying* instead of worrying about holding a hand up and waiting for eye contact with a teacher and 2) the student can request help without drawing too much attention to themselves.  This is great for classes with people who might have learned it’s best not to speak up, ask questions, or draw attention to themselves out of fear and/or shame.

Know Your End Goal

This probably shouldn’t have *blown my mind* but it did.  It’s so obvious yet I’ve never once designed curriculum with this approach. You can bet that’s all changed now.  Here’s the key point:

DESIGN YOUR LESSON BY WRITING THE ‘EXAM’ FIRST

Ya.  It’s maybe obvious.  You want to make sure the students leave knowing what you intended to teach them?  Well, figure out how you’re going to measure that success *first*, then build your lesson up to that.  “They understand the for loop” is not enough.  Be specific.  Have a multiple choice question that tests the output of a for loop and gives 3 plausible answers and one right answer.  Use this to check if you are teaching well – their failure to choose the right question is your failure to teach the concept correctly.  This doesn’t have to be for actual grading (unless you want to grade yourself). Think of this like Test Driven Development for curriculum.  Teach to the goal.  You will develop lessons faster and more efficiently.  Your learners will appreciate it.  They can tell when they are learning vs. having a lecturer do a brain dump on them that goes nowhere in particular.  Backwards design works.  Greg’s book plug related to this section:  “Seeing Like a State

Another tip?  Create one or more user profiles for your lesson.  In our workshop we created Dawn: 15 year old girl who is good at science and math, learning programming in a one-day workshop. Then we did an exercise in crafting a question that would confirm if we had successfully taught how functions work to her.

We learned about Allison Elliott Tew‘s work and about “Concept Inventory” which is a way to use common mistakes in mental modeling to create multiple choice questions where the incorrect answers can help you understand *how* someone has misunderstood the concept you are trying to teach.  Multiple choice is great because it’s quick to get you an assessment (teacher grading time).

Peer Instruction

Related to multiple-choice as test of understanding is Peer Instruction.  This is a method that uses a multiple choice question in a really interesting, and engaging fashion.

Developed by Eric Mazur in the 1990’s this method expects students to have done some pre-work on the material before coming to class so that the entirety of the lesson can be used to compare and correct conceptual maps and understanding of the material.  It goes like this (at least Greg’s interpretation – it differs in Wikipedia as to how Eric designed it):

  1. Provide a multiple choice question based on the pre-work content.  Ensure 3 plausible answers and one correct
  2. Students select and *commit* to an answer (there is not yet software for this, though there are clickers) – you can also ask people to hold up the number of fingers for their choice and have classroom helpers count
  3. If everyone picks the right answer you can move on but otherwise you ask people to talk in groups with their neighbours to examine each other’s choices and what the correct answer might be and why.  This is great for having people explain their mental model/map
  4. Vote again and have students commit to the answer
  5. Instruction reveals the answer as well as perhaps a single sentence explaining why
  6. Groups discuss again, this time they can explore their understanding with the correct answer alongside people who, likely, had the correct model

This teaching technique was proven in 1989 but is still widely unused (esp. in MOOCs). Greg told us that he can usually do about 10 of these types of questions in a 1 hour class.  We did an example of one in the workshop to test out the method and it was a lively exercise.  This was also an opportunity for Greg to help us notice how noise in the room helps a teacher determine when a good time is to check in, continue the lesson, or make sure people aren’t stuck.  Active, engaged learning is boisterous and noticeably relaxed.  Quiet can mean focus, and then as people complete the exercise you can hear some discussions start up as those who are done talk with each other about the exercise.  I look forward to getting a bit of expertise at this level of listening and was impressed by Greg’s skills in classroom energy level reading.

F*ck It, I’m Outta Here

I have several more pages of notes but it’s getting late and this is a long post. There’s one more part of the workshop that I’d like to write about:  The moment when you decided you didn’t want to learn something anymore.

This is a really great piece of advice for teachers.  Greg started by saying that he used to ask students what motivated them to learn, what great experience in learning they had so he could tap into that motivation as a teacher.  Now?  He asks people what DE-motivated them.  You get a lot out of people this way.  Ask someone (or think of your own experiences): “What was something you were curious about, working on, getting into, and what happened that made you say ‘f*ck it’ and drop it? If you could go back in time what would you change?”.

For my example I spoke about returning to gym class at 12 years of age after recovering for many months from a very physically traumatic incident where I was hit by a car while on my bike (15 bones broken, 6 months in a wheelchair).  Being immobilized *and* being a pre-teen caused me to put on a fair amount of weight and I was no longer very physically active or able.  I also had yet-to-be-diagnosed asthma.  Not only did I have to endure a gym class where those with natural talents were help up while the rest of us were discarded but I also continued to fail tremendously at getting more than a “Participation” certificate(! Every other result got a very nice badge) for the Canada Fitness Test.

My “F*ck it” moment was when I got so frustrated with never getting a badge that I stole someone’s gold badge when no one was watching.  I also ended up eschewing all sports and athletic pursuits for many years if there was any hint of tryouts or actual talent needed.  Years later, at 29, I taught myself how to run by using a couch-to-10K program that did repetitions of running and walking in order to build up endurance.  Not only did I succeed at that but I learned to *love* running and feeling healthier in my body.  If I could go back in time I would become a Physical Education teacher and make sure every kid in my class knew that it’s not about natural talent at anything. It’s about setting achievable goals for yourself and comparing your results against your OWN RESULTS.  Never mind some test, and other kids. We’re all very different but no one should be denied a sense of accomplishment.  It’s what keeps you coming back to learn & build on what you’ve learned.

Badges awarded to Canada Fitness Test Participants
The coveted badges.

 

Now Go Read More: Keep Learning How to Teach

It was an amazing day.  I have more notes to transcribe for myself but I think I’ve managed to capture the major concepts I learned today that will all be invaluable in my work on Ascend and beyond. Greg is an experienced, passionate, driven teacher and his enthusiasm for *knowing* what works in education is contagious.  I want to be a better scientist and educator too. The Software Carpentry movement is picking up momentum.  Look for workshops, blog posts, and opportunities to participate in a town near you.   See their site for up to date information and also check out their materials page for additional resources.  I’ve got a few new books to read on the plane home tomorrow.

Creating a Mozilla workshop for beginner Hacking of Mobile HTML5 Games

Participants in the Mozilla Hacking HTML5 Mobile Games workshop at the 2013 Dare 2B Digital conference.

Dare 2B Digital is an annual South Bay conference that brings 300 young women ages 12-16 together to encourage them to consider STEM fields in college by coming together for a full day of inspiring talks and workshops showcasing women’s work and relevance in technology.  For the past three conferences I have signed Mozilla up as a sponsor and created a workshop that is run 3 times that day and reaches about 80-100 attendees.  Last year I created kits for participants to learn about soft circuit hacking and lighting up felt foxes, the year before I taught Universal Subtitles and Popcorn before it was even a 1.0 product yet. I’m always trying to keep our workshops current and, if possible, on the bleeding edge of whatever Mozilla is working on. The participants get a taste of one exciting aspect of what is happening RIGHT NOW in open technology.

In the past year I’ve been really inspired by Mozilla’s outreach around web literacy and at the same time there’s been all this work done around our upcoming Firefox OS for mobile devices that will allow apps to be built entirely of the web and installed/sold/shared outside of the silo-structures such as Apple’s App Store and Google Play.  At MozCamp Asia in November of 2012 I watched the Mozilla Taiwan reps showcase a fairly simple card matching game they had made of browser icons and they turned it into a Firefox OS installable app in only a couple of hours.  All of these snippets and ideas led to my proposed workshop for the girls being about hacking their own version of the browser-pairs game and installing/playing it on a Firefox OS device.

Now this was all before the Firefox OS phones even existed, and it was also before I went away on a 3 week vacation to Vietnam over the holidays.  I mentioned it to my co-worker Margaret before leaving and she said she’d be up for working on it with me but when I returned from vacation I lost about a week just on jetlag & minor flu-like symptoms then another on my birthday and having my family in from out of town.  Next thing I knew it was February 1st, the workshop was on February 9th, and I had NOTHING ready and there was no public Firefox OS device yet, either.

So I called up Ruth who organizes the conference and tried to beg off this year.  Would it be so bad if Mozilla didn’t do a workshop this one time?  Thankfully Ruth very calmly returned my panicked email with a phone call and asked me what I needed to get this workshop on track.  What did I need? Mostly just to buck up and finish what I started, me with my big mouth. The pieces were all out there.  I had code (thank you Mozilla Taiwan!), Chris Heilmann had recently posted some inspiring slides about HTML5 and mobile for Firefox OS App Days, and Hackasaurus has plenty of youth-focused resources.

Hastily, I organized a couple of lunch time meetings during the week leading up to the workshop with Margaret and we hashed out who would do what.  We made an exciting discovery in our first meeting, which was that we could host the game from a github page and this meant every girl in the workshop could hack on her own customizations of the game in github’s web interface code editor and see their changes reflected on a mobile device immediately.  No need to deal with the minutia of web hosting, no server-side code, and minimal development setup – the freshly imaged laptops we borrowed from Mozilla IT would be good to go in minutes!

I drove to Redwood City on the day of the conference with: 20 laptops, 15 Firefox OS test driver devices (thanks to my co-workers who let me borrow their phones!), and some slides about why hacking HTML5 is the future of mobile apps. One thing we realized as we were setting up was that there would be some delay between when the participants created their GitHub accounts and when they would see their github pages live with our demo code.  We ended up front-loading that and having them start right away as they arrived at the top of each time slot then going into the presentation after they had forked the repo which had the gh-pages branch set to default.  We later learned (through Margaret’s chatting with GitHub support) that it was likely the delay could be caused by not having edited anything yet on the gh-pages branch so in later workshops we had the girls follow along with Margaret and change the <title> of their index.html and commit the change.

Getting paired up, creating GitHub accounts and FORKING!

The presentation portion was about 10-15 minutes and started out with asking the girls to shout out what comes to mind when I say the word “HACK”.  Answers included “death row” and things along the lines of breaking or sneaking into someone’s computer, mostly things associated with dark or criminal activities.  A few did mention things like ‘nerd’ or ‘creative’ too.  When I showed them my examples for the talk we had a brief discussion about not asking for permission, being curious, creative, and taking ownership. After that we talked about Apple/iPhone and Google/Android.  Most of the girls had one or the other we explored how non-interchangeable they are, how much it might cost to be a developer for one or the other, the need to play by someone else’s rules in order to get your ideas out there.  My favourite part of this talk is repeating over and over how using open web technologies and the web itself is all about NOT ASKING PERMISSION.  You put your stuff up, tell people where it is, and they can go use it.  It can (and should) be that easy.

After the talking was done the young women had about 45 minutes to hack on their github sandboxes and test out making customizations to their matching game. We modeled it after Mozilla’s Thimble project which uses comments in the code to explain various areas of the code and gives ideas on what to change. Our take was to suggest they try (in increasing levels of difficulty):

  1. changing the background color/images (of the page, game box, card backs)
  2. changing the images on the cards when flipped
  3. change the music (few got to this part in the allotted time)

We saved 15 minutes at the end to do demos of what people did to their code and to come up and tell us what they did to achieve their end results.  Some of the customizations led to a newly themed game like pigs, magic, twilight, book covers, and other things the designers liked. A few girls went further and took snapshots of themselves on the laptop camera and used their own action shots in the match game, one girl had her own laptop and drawing tablet so she drew her own card faces and intro screen background, and another girl removed the card backs to make it look like the game box was all black – when I started to click during her demo and cards flipped I was surprised since I had thought the game was broken but she laughed and said it was on purpose.  It’s hilarious to me that she made a simple match game into a much harder challenge by hiding the discover-ability of the game.

LOTS of hacking going on here. Margaret and Larissa help out with question.

All in all the three workshops went smoothly, everyone got to do some hacking and see their results during the time we had allotted, and all the girls left with a new github account and code they can keep hacking and learning on over time.  During the course of the workshop we went around helping and answering questions and taught them about commit history, rolling back changes, and also using “Inspect Element” to figure out where to look in the code to make changes.  I should mention that at the beginning of every workshop I asked “Who here has touched HTML/CSS before?” and there were never more than half the hands in the room raised.  This comes up every year in the workshops I run. Some girls are getting this knowledge from parents, friends, self-teaching, and now things like CoderDojo (as one participant bragged) but there’s no indication that any of them are learning this in school where they spend a majority of their time. The thought that some girls are being left behind on this is sad to me, and I want to do all I can to help change that. Every single one of these young women left our workshop with a new spark in their eyes having now had first-hand experience with the power of creating web apps that can run on ANY WEB-ENABLED DEVICE. It was powerful to see.

So many new hackers of open source, mobile games.

So, what’s next?  I think this workshop should become another Webmaker and/or Hackasaurus project that can be taught anywhere, to anyone who wants to have a first-time experience with mobile app development.  We’re 80% of the way there, I’d say what’s left to do is:

* Code clean up (especially CSS) so that everything in the repo is clearly marked for its purpose and with comments on how to mess around with it. Specifically comments in the Javascript and exploration of that code – we didn’t touch this at all in our 1:15 hr workshops.

* Spend a bit more time, if you have it on basic HTML/CSS editing, using Inspect Element, and having cheat sheets printed up for participants.

* Have options for what to do next – getting off of github pages and hosting your own app, possibly with some server-side code.

It won’t take much to turn this into something more generic and useful for introducing people to the power of Firefox OS and HTML5 app creation and I look forward to continuing to develop this sort of material whenever I can. Thanks to the Desktop Support staff who prepped laptops for the conference, SF co-workers who lent their phones, and most of all to my coworkers who lent their time and their expertise: Margaret, Larissa, and Amy*.  Without all of you this would not have gone smoothly and because of you it was the best day of 2013 so far.

 

* At lunch we had a little Q&A with the 30 or so girls from the first workshop. They got to ask all of us questions about what we do and how we got there.  The four of us had such different paths & connections to technology. I love that we got to show these young women a variety of ways to engage with tech and to be in open source.

Isn’t “hack” a bad word?

This past weekend I led another soft circuits 101 workshop as a Mozilla Rep at a women’s music festival near SF called Fabulosa. I had one hour to teach people really basic electricity, circuits, and how to ‘hack’ their clothes/sculptures/lives with a 3V battery and some LEDs.

The reason I love to do this workshop is because I find it gives participants a physical representation of the hacker spirit Mozilla aims to embody for the web.  Learning soft circuits is just the tip of the iceberg and I always stress that the web has much more info for them to continue exploring, learning, being curious about how to create and modify technology in their lives.  In one hour, I just show them how to make light.

This workshop was smaller than the ~80 girls who came through at Dare 2B Digital.  The festival setting meant there were more conflicts of interest so I had 6 participants instead of the 20-25 I had planned for. The 6 participants were all very enthusiastic though, and we started off with a go-around to hear why people were interested in learning soft circuitry.  One person was hoping to learn how to light up her clay sculptures, another wanted to make art for Burning Man, and a few had costume ideas in mind.

I spent the first 10-15 minutes explaining electricity, how a circuit works, and what kind of circuit they would be creating with their 3V batteries and LEDs – their circuits would be made using conductive thread sewn into felt (or some other material if they brought it).  With only 40 minutes left, we got to work – everyone started in on their first circuit.

While we were casually chatting during the building time, one woman said “I thought ‘hack’ was a bad word” (I had written a large “HACK” on the whiteboard to inspire).  I’m so glad she brought this up and we had a chance to discuss the very reason for workshops like these, and for Mozilla. I explained to her that while it might once have been a vilified term, it has now been largely reclaimed as people work to make sure that they have full ownership of the things they buy, or make.  Encouraging people to open their minds up to the potential of hacking their lives – whether on the web or in the physical world – always feels great.  I was happy that even in this small gathering, we got to discuss this very key issue for technology going into the future, and that there are now 6 new hackers in the world.

Dare 2B Digital 2012 – Wrap up post

Fox with firefox logo

Better late than never, I will recount Mozilla’s participation in the 2012 Dare 2B Digital conference back in February down in San Jose.  This year we were hosted at the eBay campus and instead of being out in a hallway demoing and playing with open video and universal subtitles (2011) this year Mozilla was all about making, in a large space shared with Microsoft, encouraging the girls to work with a variety of hardware, circuitry, robotics, and creating 3D printer designs for a MakerBot.

Before I go into the details of the kits and the day of the event, there are some very important people to thank:

Tremendous amounts of props must be first given to Emily Lovell whose soft circuits teaching guide I discovered at the 2011 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.  Her exercises, diagrams, and lists of resources were at the core the kit I designed to teach the girls about parallel circuits through assembling a felt fox and attaching LEDs to the eyes that are powered by conductive thread and a watch battery.  Thank you to Mozilla for sponsoring the Dare 2B Digital conference again this year, it is such an important space for us to be in as it gives us a chance to promote open source to a young audience that is still undecided about college majors and it’s our chance to encourage them to at least consider a technical career path. I hope that having an early, positive, creative experience with Mozilla and open source technologies provides the girls with an awareness of alternative ways of engaging with technology. Mozilla Reps provided the budget for these kits to be made – not only for the workshop attendees, but also enough kits to put one in every take-home bag for all conference participants.  It is certainly my hope that many girls who couldn’t make it to the workshop due to lack of space will still attempt to make their foxes at home with a parent or sibling.  Finally, I cannot thank enough the various Mozilla employees and other friends who helped me assemble 350 kits for the actual event – my vision for this event could NOT have been done without their generous donations of time and their assistance on the day of the event helping the girls complete their kits. Thank you especially to day-of volunteers: Kate, Vicky, Alex, Christina, the Super Awesome Sylvia and her parents James and Christina,  and the add-hoc assembling factory workers: Mariko, Heather, William, and the entire UX team at Mozilla.  My girlfriend Jenny also helped me assemble some of the first kits at home while I cut all the felt sheets into smaller sizes for the foxes. My most sincere gratitude to you all, it went off without a hitch…except for the handful of batteries that exploded…but that was my fault :)

Now for some detail about what was involved in this project in case you want to replicate or improve on it.

A lot of felt foxes

The idea was pretty simple. The kit would be a takeout food box that contained everything needed to make a parallel circuit on a felt fox.  I ended up designing the felt fox myself after attempting to make something work with Lisa Higuchi who does amazing work but as I found myself running out of time I just created a simple pattern that could be held together with felt glue and then sewn/wired up in about an hour – which was the length of the workshop.  The soft circuit guide had the information needed for ordering supplies so in the end the kit’s component list looked like this:

  • 100 9×12 sheets of copper brown felt (400 fox faces)
  • 100 9×12 sheets of white felt (400 fox eye areas)
  • 30 9×12 sheets of black felt (450 nose/eye/inner ears)
  • 10 spools of conductive thread from Adafruit
  • 400 3v batteries
  • 400 battery holders
  • 800 yellow LEDs
  • 400 red takeout boxes
  • 5 bottles of felt glue
  • 400 small ziploc bags
  • 400 needles
  • 1200 pins (intended for holding the felt pieces together for sewing, they ended up being superfluous because of the glue)
  • 400 manual/pattern sheets

 

Shot of the pattern and instructionsThe felt firefox kit contents

I literally threw together a manual and a pattern at the 11th hour, as the UX team was coming to help me assemble the kits one night after work.  The manual leaves out a lot of the detail as to HOW to make the felt fox. Fortunately it includes a picture of a completed fox, so hopefully a resourceful teen at home can determine how to make her fox kit work. I have definitely learned from this experience to make creating the instructional materials a much higher priority next time.  The pattern was done in haste with a sharpie, me tracing around the parts of my prototype fox, I’m actually pretty OK with how that part turned out. When we assembled the kits we put all the small components into a ziploc bag and put said bag, one square each of white/brown/black felt, and a folded up instruction sheet into each takeout box.  The takeout box was a really robust container for kits and yet kept things light. I had no trouble carrying the 350 kits, in various bags and boxes, to my car to take down to SJ on the day of the conference.

The kits are in the bag stuffing lineEarly in the morning on Saturday February 12th, 2012 I drove the 350 kits down to the eBay campus and kept ~70 kits in our Maker room, leaving the rest with the D2BD volunteers who were stuffing bags with swag for the girls: Make magazines, usb bracelet, stickers, notebooks, a water bottle, and (among other things) a Mozilla felt fox circuits kit.  Then back in our room I had two of the Mozilla volunteers for the day make their own foxes so they’d be ready to help the girls when the first round arrived a few hours in.  Kate and Christina did a wonderful job of creating their first parallel circuits and spent the rest of the day being professional felt fox makers :)

Helpers make their foxes

As with last year, I found that out of the three workshops we did that day the first was a bit rough, the second quite smooth and the third was a cakewalk.  We can learn so much in one day about how to improve the process and the set up.  The first thing learned was that we had a bottleneck situation on scissors and glue.  5 bottles seemed like a lot to me but when split between two tables with at least 10 girls at each that was no longer the case.  I had brought in all my scissors from home, which turned out to be a lot (6) for a home, but not enough for the workshop.  We did scare up a few more pairs and optimized for workshop two by keeping the pre-cut paper pattern pieces for the next group of girls to minimize scissor time needed.  Another surprise: some girls did not know how to sew.   This was something I hadn’t thought of ahead of time since I learned to sew at a pretty young age.  This fact leads me thinking that because of time constraints, 1.25 hrs per workshop, using ‘squishy’ circuits might have been a stronger learning experience here.  The sewing is probably more appropriate for a half-day workshop or even full day if possible.

Customization of the fox pattern

Customizations happened.  I loved that girls immediately took to hacking the fox pattern as designed by me; adding bows, crowns, and eyelashes to their foxes.  It made me glad I hadn’t found time to pre-cut the fox parts.  The back of the fox head is easy to draw a circuit path on and see/experience polarity – using sharpies on felt was a great way of going over the concept of a circuit, right on the material about to be used.  I am really happy with the overall teaching experience here.  Several girls showed incredible tenacity in the face of adversity.  One young woman in particular, having a very hard time with the sewing, went out and got her lunch and then brought it back to the table to continue her work – she re-did the sewing and managed to get it working.  The whole time she was silent and focused and I really wish I had pointed out to her that her attitude was the most impressive, hire-able skill I can think of.  I’m sure she’s going to do well in whatever field of study she pursues.  One young woman cracked me up when she became frustrated with threading her needle, exclaiming “This is why women revolted!”.

In conclusion – the event was a tremendous success – both the conference as a whole and the Mozilla workshop flourished this year. The conference does a great job of pulling feedback from participants, as they must hand in a form to get their swag bag at the end of the day.  We see in the feedback that we did a wonderful job of getting the young women excited about and considering career paths in technology. In the summary from the feedback forms “87% thought the robotics workshop (Mozilla/Microsoft) was great or good”. Also 100% of respondents would recommend this conference to a friend or another parent.

I really look forward to dreaming up something next year to top this.  I have no fixed idea yet because part of the fun of doing this conference/workshop is waiting and seeing what exciting new open technology would be a good fit at the time. I’m definitely going to keep the issues from this year in mind when formulating a plan for next year, and pay attention to minimizing participant wait times in order to increase overall satisfaction with the project.  When I initially came up with this idea, I was worried that it didn’t have a strong tie to Mozilla’s mission, but as I continued to develop and finally executing it I felt more and more like the way we work on projects like this is such a product of how we work on keeping things open on the web.  It was thanks to the web that I found the guide which helped me with planning, it was thanks to the spirit of the open web that people I work with (and some with whom I don’t) came out and volunteered to help make this happen. Getting your hands on a building block of technology, modifying it to make it your own, sharing the results – that too is the open web, and it’s what the day provided for all the young women in our workshops. I look forward to seeing what the future holds with these potential hackers in it.

Group shot with completed foxes

Lukas helping with fox making