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Lessons from Teaching an Intro Class…

One of the benefits of having such a diverse and vibrant community as you can find at a decently sized Hackerspace like Familab is access to a wide variety of people with different skills and different levels of proficiency. I came into the lab enthusiastic to learn more about electronics and mechanics for prop design, and brought with me a background in VFX 3D Modelling which I have been applying to 3D Printed prop design that I could pass onto others… or so I thought… My first class today as an “Intro to Fusion 360” turned from being a teaching experience instead into a learning experience for myself, putting in context just how far I’ve actually grown as an artist over the years, and how many concepts which I’ve taken for granted have become second nature. It’s easy to forget how hard something is to someone who’s never done it after you’ve already had your “eureka” moments where those concepts have clicked and become so “obvious” in hindsight.

Coming away from that class the biggest thing that stuck with me is the old adage- K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). It’s very easy to get sidetracked discussing best practices, techniques you’ve learned, deeper theory, etc… when someone who is totally new and has no idea how to even approach the tools simply needs a place to get started, not to be burdened with all the considerations that streamline the workflow once you already know how to approach a problem.

For anyone who has a proficiency in any skill that they could share with the community (and please do, we all grow together!), my recommendations taken away from this class experience would be:

  • Start with a 1-on-1 class with someone who is totally new to the subject. They can help guide you, letting you know where you’re going too fast, where you’re glossing over intermediate steps that have become second nature to you, and what concepts are more complicated than you give them credit for being. You also are under far less stress and pressure dealing with a single student than trying to time manage a whole class with people of varying levels of proficiency who might get ahead or be left behind at different stages in the process.
  • Avoid “best practices” or “workflow improvement” or “pro tip” concepts. A beginner isn’t even at the level of knowing how to approach the problem yet, let alone hitting a wall where they’re being slowed down by inefficiencies or nuance… you need to learn to walk before you can run.
  • Multiply the time you think a project might take you by an order of magnitude for someone who’s brand new. If you think it would take you 15-20 minutes to make something, expect to be walking a novice through it for several hours. Start with something that you think should be a 3-5 minute project first, and dedicate a couple hours of class time to completing that.
  • If it involves software, test out that software on a fresh clean install first! Over time you’ll change settings to suite you, install plugins, alter presets, customize hotkeys, etc… and those will become what you’re familiar with, and it becomes very easy to forget that your experience may be quite different than what a new user with a clean slate will be presented with.
  • Prepare for the class by thinking like you would teaching a child to program. When introducing kids to coding, one of the thought problems you can present is “describe how to make a PB&J sandwich”. The first replies you’ll get will be something like “Get some bread, spread the PB&J, eat it”… but you can encourage them to go further “Open the fridge, locate the loaf of bread, grab the loaf of bread, face the counter, place the loaf on the counter…” Consider that intermediate steps which may be obvious to you will be lost on someone who’s never done something before, and must be broken down thoroughly.
  • Specific to FamiLab or other Hacker/Makerspaces- consider hosting a “members only” class or two with friendly faces before opening the class up to the public. Public classes can be a great way to bring people into the space, create buzz, get new prospective members invovled, and potentially generate a little bit of income…. but its also an extra level of pressure and chaos if you’re still in the “beta testing” phase of the class. Having friendly faces who are willing to help you iron out the bugs and smooth the flow of the class for public sessions will make first impressions for outsiders much more positive.

All that said- as Makers we learn by collaborating and sharing our knowledge, so if you’ve got any areas of proficiency please spread the knowledge!