Learning to code, a syntax error at a time – #Python

I have conducted workshops for kids – Soldering basics, Introduction to 3D printing, Scratch and Python for tweens – in these last 2 years of our makerspace. I end up getting more insights on each of these topics, every single time. Following is my minutes-of-the-event, tips for planning a workshop and lessons learnt, all rolled out in one with no particular order of importance.

Introduction

I saw an unprecedented interest in the recently concluded “Python for tweens” workshop at reserved-bit – all thanks to Ruchi, a very enthusiastic supporter and mom to 9 year old Ved who is a maker at reserved-bit. We had 11 participants, of which 7 were girls(Yay!). The age-group was 9-12 years old and all the kids were raring to go. Most of them were well-versed with Scratch and had got along their own laptops. This was new for me, since I have seen only a maximum of 3 participants per workshop. We usually set up our raspberry-pi with a large monitor and keyboard for the participants who cant get their own laptops, this time however we had no requests for a system.

Ready with my marker pens, prints of handouts, beta-tests of my sample programs and the agenda firmly etched in my head, I was looking forward to this large batch. The makerspace is well-equipped with stationery, charging points, USB cables and power extension chords, so that is one thing off my checklist.

Pro-tip: Always arrange for all hardware at the venue a day in advance so that you don’t end up wasting any time on the day of the workshop. It will be a long day and you will appreciate being well rested before the madness begins.

Pro-tip: A workshop, in my opinion, is one where the participants end up doing “work”; Else it is just another class. Keeping this in mind, I usually design problems for the participants to solve or build as they follow through the day-long workshop. They should be able to carry something home that they can refer and better later with experience.

Pro-tip: I try and get an idea about the experience level of every participant at registration – things like do they know any other programming language, typing speed etc.

Agenda

Primary agenda is to introduce the participants to basics of programming – concepts such as loops, functions, conditional statements.

Plan: Begin at 10.30, lunch break at 1, resume at 2, hack on till 4.30. If time permits, do a quick and wacky micro:bit project.

I stress, a bit much, on understanding how a-l-g-o-r-i-t-h-m-s work at the beginning of the workshop because that according to me is the foundation of computational thinking. I use Code.org’s graph paper programming activity with the participants. This activity is also an icebreaker, as we do it in pairs.

We breezed through the interpreter, input and conditional statements. I squeeze in 2 activities – a number guessing game and basic calculator. We covered all this before our lunch break and also took infinite loo breaks and a snack break.

I felt the youngest ones slip off in the second half and lag behind. But then I introduced turtle graphics and then everyone lost their mind, collectively!

It was most rewarding to see one of the participants discover the wonder of loops, which reduced her code of 56 lines to just 4 lines. I can’t wait for her and others to grow to love the language more.

Unfortunately, we had no time to check-out the micro:bits and do something with it. I had a mood meter project planned for the makerspace with the kids. Anyway, there is always a next time.

Slide deck heavily inspired by Young coders tutorial, by Katie and Barbara.

Lessons learnt

  1. Be flexible with your lesson plans, especially with a young audience. You MUST be willing to think and come up with things-to-do on the fly. One gets better at this with experience.
  2. Be ready for a lot of noise, mostly excited banter, and absolute disregard for the instructor 🙂 As long as they are learning from each other or trying to outdo each other with their newly gained tricks,  enjoy! – that is more than half your job done.
  3. Take and ask for a lot of help with volunteers. I can’t thank Aditya enough for volunteering to help and getting Parthvi along.
  4. Different age-groups grasp concepts differently and have different capabilities. I realized during this workshop that the youngest ones were struggling with all the typing while the older ones – especially the 11+ year olds – could build on top of the basic exercises we solved as a class. For eg. one of them made a simple calculator immediately after learning about how to take input from user. Pro-tip: Next time,  club the 8-10 year olds separately from the 11-14 year olds – not only for their skill-set, but also attention-span.
  5. Young coders get hungry, very hungry 🙂 Be prepared to take more breaks than planned.
  6. I set the group up for errors in practice code. By the time the workshop ends, they are completely unafraid of errors or making mistakes. Keep the trying-correcting loop going, it is entertaining and most effective teaching tool.

Roll Call – the special 11 and others

Avya, Riya, Ifra, Sharmada, Shreya, Rewa, Tara, Aadit, Mishu, Ved, Akshit – Thank you for all the enthusiasm. Aditya and Parthvi – thank you for allllll the help, you both are amazing. Parents/guardians – especially Ruchi – a big thank you for all the help, patience and trusting your precious ones with reserved-bit. Thank you Sid for all the help with setup and more.

Hope the time the batch spent at reserved-bit has been valuable and keeps their interest in #Python alive.

PS: We are in discussion over how to take this workshop ahead and hopefully we can come up with an update soon.

Science Hack Day, Belgaum 2017

Those who have followed reserved-bit this last year and are aware of its roots, would know of Science Hack Day, Belgaum. It is a 2-day event with science at it’s heart. It is a humble and enlightening 2 days, much like its organisers in India. They bring together people – makers, researchers, engineers, designers, teachers, students, architects from India – for science. The first edition was last year(2016) and we returned with the idea of a makerspace wanting to emulate the wonderful 2 days forever. This year we went in to meet friends we made from last year and be part of something truly epic.

Day -1 After the day wrapped up for our co-workers, we packed up most of reserved-bit in suitcases and cardboard boxes to take along. It is a carry-what-you-need and also some more things that might be useful kinda event, extensive collaboration and exchange is key. I wanted to set up a pop-up 3D pen workshop at the venue, therefore there was a suitcase of filaments and Ira’s colouring books. My hack idea was to set up a photo-booth using a raspberry pi and micro:bit. I also wanted to create an LED ring and design the SHD logo but couldn’t even get started on that one. I have preserved that idea for next year now 🙂

Day 0 We picked up Pooja & Praveen and left early morning to reach Sankalp Bhoomi (We couldn’t ask for a better venue) for lunch. After settling down, we watched others kayak, cycle and had our share of fun with the birds and bunnies. Ira was enamoured by kernel_girl and her red hair. Later Ira met her Ovi didi and needed nothing else. Later in the evening all volunteers, organisers and speakers gathered to introduce themselves and their ideas. I missed the Mapbox folks who had done such a fab job with the organic map last year. It was great to reconnect with Minal, Praveen, Hitesh, Rahul and Rupa on the personal front. It was great to meet Shreyas and to see he had returned with a hack idea of his own this time; last year he was a keen kid trying to help me with my Cookie toy hack. What’s more, he also won a prize this year for his hack! Yay!

Day 1 & Day 2 moved so fast; There was so much to do, learn and absorb. The students were divided into 2 groups on day 1 – one for soldering workshop organised by Jithin and other for science toys workshop. The groups were to swap the next day.  We had a video conference with SHD San Francisco which was happening on the same day, it was phenomenal to interact with makers from the other side of the globe.

Once the hack event started on Day 1, I opened my 3D pens and everyone seemed to be fascinated by them. Rakhi, Amol, Medozonuo and the others adeptly took over and since then I didn’t even have a second look at that table. There were a bunch of aspiring educators from Mysore who I had the privilege of interacting with, they were reassuring indicators of our future as a community. The demo session at the end of Day 2 had people turning up in packs to get their names printed using the pen! Medozonuo also made a beautiful witch hat for Ira that we now proudly display at reserved-bit. On day 2, right before the closing ceremony, I quickly tweaked my rainbow pendant based on adafruit’s hoop earrings with the neopixel ring to flash in blue so that it resembled the arc reactor for Hitesh to wear during the closing ceremony. It garnered a LOT of interest. The event ended on a high.

A few things that will stay with me forever – the aero-modelling demo and explanation, the geodesic dome, the nursery rhymes by Shakthi and the silicon plate at the lightning talks session, Ira’s Rapunzel (on paper) who had precisely 2 strands of really long hair, the rock cottages that had a verandah overlooking a small pool with a boat in-house (no kidding!) and the beautiful rock samples that were up on display.  One unforgettable moment was when Pooja made a 3D model of  a geodesic dome to help the team that was making a full sized geodesic dome using bamboos. That was collaboration at its best! Then there was the young biologist who held a frog in her hand and rushed to her professor and us to show the specimen she had caught. She was so careful in handling the creature and seemed to know everything about it!

Building a community, especially of individuals or groups with diverse interests is tough and exciting at the same time. The core organisers of SHD Belgaum seem to make it work like a charm. I wish for more hacks next year. There is a lot of unexplored territory – artists, designers, astronomers, nature lovers, food hacks, crazy electronics and more.

We left early morning the next day looking forward to visiting the Belgaum makerspace soon.