This is a guest post by Pen-Yuan Hsing, a PhD student collaborating with the Into the Night project.
“The best way to learn something is to teach it. (and vice versa!)” I don’t know if this quote can be attributed to one person, but my experience with teaching and science outreach has certainly taught me how true this statement is. My time with Into the Night is a great example of that in terms of what I did and how I put it into practice. Here are some of my reflections.
One of my responsibilities for Into the Night is to make about 30 artificial glow-worms for our Earth Hour citizen science event on 25 March 2017. Artificial glow-worms are simply green LED lights that mimic real glow-worms. They are easy to make, and have already been “deployed” by Stephanie Bird in a study of light pollution’s impact on glow-worm mating1. I was just going to use their method – soldering an LED and resistor onto a 9 V battery – but Adele and Muki suggested that I create an Arduino maker’s event out of it.
This turned out to be a great idea: An Arduino-based glow-worm is overkill, but it forms a flexible basis for creating new features for the glow-worm and holding a beginner’s workshop can increase the reach of our work. It would really be “doing it together science!” Most importantly, it allows me to learn how to make stuff with Arduino by teaching others to do it. So what did I learn (from teaching)?
The first was a review of basic electronics which I’d forgotten long ago. What is voltage, current, or resistance? What is a breadboard??? I also had to learn how to program an Arduino. All of them are well covered in the Projects Book in the Arduino Starter Kit.
Just as important as learning the material is learning how to teach it. I have plenty of presentation/lecturing experience and designing experiments for demonstration, but not so much when it comes to conducting an interactive workshop. I knew a few things like asking the participants questions rather than stating everything myself. But to really make this work, I had to rely on help from the experts at ExCiteS. For example, Alice had a great idea which was to include a brief quiz on the topics covered. This made the workshop more interactive, and the quiz questions became great points on which to start discussions. Alice also reminded me to ask participants to complete an evaluation at the end, which greatly helped my learning!
In my opinion, the most important take away is to put yourself in the students’ shoes. By learning how to explain something to someone with no knowledge of it, you are forced to organise said knowledge in a way that actually reinforces your own understanding. For the Arduino workshop, it led me to teach with wearable components such as the Adafruit Gemma board. Not only is the Gemma a simpler Arduino board, but it needs no soldering. All you have to do is to sew the Gemma to a LED with conductive thread (I didn’t even know conductive thread existed: Another new thing I learned!). This approach made the topic much more approachable and certainly less intimidating than soldering. I also did a dress rehearsal of the workshop by teaching it to Gianfranco first, which greatly helped with refining how I explain everything and tweaking the timing. By going through the process you catch things that are easily missed when just “thinking” about it. For instance, the rehearsal taught me to organise the parts needed into bags to be passed to each participant beforehand to save time.
Of course, as is true for almost all events, something is bound to go wrong. For the Arduino workshop, the biggest problem was that some of participants’ laptops refused to detect and connect to their Gemma boards. During the rehearsal, Gianfranco and I tried hard to come up with (relatively) foolproof methods to get all programs and drivers installed so they will work with Arduino boards. Almost a week before the workshop, I even wrote a set of instructions that I sent to all participants. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that they all followed those instructions and pre-installed the requisite software before coming to the workshop. Unfortunately, this still did not account for the incredible diversity in computer configurations in today’s world. From this I learned that, if possible, I should simply provide pre-configured computers for events like this so people don’t waste time trying to get theirs to work.
Learning by teaching is great, but there is probably a fine (and somewhat fuzzy) line on what basic knowledge you need before teaching something. What I mean is that if you literally know nothing, trying to teach it will probably not help you learn it. I remember frantically cramming a few hours before I had to lecture on it to a classroom full of students. Event this helped me learn it when I gave the lecture. Another example is that I knew a bit of R and Python which made learning Arduino programming much easier. If I had zero programming experience, then going straight to running the workshop would probably not have taught it to me. I think this means that in order to successfully learn by teaching, you have to remember that the teaching includes all the preparation which goes into it.
While I think many things could have been improved to make the workshop better, I am gratified that there is still some positive feedback. Toivo (one of the attendees) said that he had been to many “beginner” maker events, but they were taught by complete nerds who couldn’t empathise with the learners and bring the material down to their level. This Arduino event, however, was apparently much more beginner friendly by including the “basics” like what words like current or resistance mean. “Nerds with empathy” is probably the keyword (keyterm?) here, and I will keep that in mind when I plan future activities.
I’m grateful to Muki, Adele, Cindy, and Alice for teaching me how to run a good workshop; and Gianfranco for helping me set it up and posting this here for me. Special thanks also go to everyone who attended, I hope you got something out of it – I certainly did!
I try to be as socially responsible as I can, so as usual this text and accompanying pictures are shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license (or its future versions), meaning you are free to share and adapt them for any purpose as long as you provide attribution and share what you make under the same license.
- Bird, S. & Parker, J. Low levels of light pollution may block the ability of male glow-worms (Lampyris noctiluca L.) to locate females. J. Insect Conserv. 18, 737–743 (2014).