Hello Element14 community! I'm the manager of a free community makerspace in the Old North End of Saint John, New Brunswick. I entered the Great Micro:bit giveaway after a particularly great summer camp the New Brunswick Community College facilitated for us. The Community College had developed quite an amazing curriculum for the micro:bit (I'll have to see if they'll let me post the curriculum here!) with the 9-14 age range in mind. I'm glad I got to be a part of it.
After the summer camp, the community centre closed for 3 weeks to prepare for the after school season. Around this time, Facebook had started advertising this giveaway. I was pretty keen on getting my space some Micro:bits to re-capture the excitement of the summer camp with my younger youth (Grades 3-5). I held off on preparing my own curriculum materials until I had confirmation that I had won, since I can be excessively eager at times. I was able to keep my excitement under control since my organization had offered me a trip to Maker Faire NY! Some of my colleagues had created these very cool micro:bit proximity locator badges, which were very useful for finding colleagues if I got lost on the massive Faire Grounds.
I was amazed at how well the micro:bit was able to handle all of these radio signals at once. Imagine how cool it would be to have a workshop where everyone's micro:bits are communicating! My trip was awe inspiring, I got to meet many big names in the maker community, met like-minded tinkerers, destroyed my phone screen and phone cameras, and experienced 3 of the 5 boroughs of NYC. The plane ride home was torturous, since the email announcing the winners of The Great Micro:Bit Education Giveaway was due any minute. Once my plane touched down at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, my phone finally connected to the Canadian cell phone network. I saw I'd received an email from Daniel Zima asking for my community centre's address. The only sound I could muster from my mouth was a cross between a squeal and a gasp!
While waiting for the package to arrive, I had to think fast, since the community centre was opening back up the day after I returned home. How was I going to integrate the Micro:Bit into my makerspace programs? How was I going to document my journey? What happened in the next few months was not what I'd expected, and my approach to Maker-Ed is mostly to blame for that. I opened up the ONE Space in June of 2018 in a vulnerable community, and I was given one guideline: meet the kids where they are, and help guide them to where they want to be. I found that the best way I could achieve this is by having most of my makerspace time be unstructured. A lot of these kids are somewhat traumatized by the unforgiving rigidity of the education system, so I had to be careful not to replicate that environment. I also had to keep enough structure to keep the space from descending into anarchy.
During the school year, I deliver makerspace sessions to two groups of kids: the afterschool program (ages 7-11), and the evening program (ages 7-17). The day the package arrived, I was doing my evening makerspace session. I always let the kids open my packages, so I brought the box in and told them "I've got an extra special package today, you all won a prize!". They gathered around the table and tore into the package! We had a bit of a struggle with the microbit box, but we eventually managed to get into it.
That night, everyone in the makerspace tried out the Micro:Bits. We searched the internet and the booklet for projects and began building. Unfortunately after that night, it was hard to get the older kids back into the Micro:Bits. I was crushed that we couldn't recapture the energy of the NBCC summer camp. I asked the kids for feedback on the micro:bits, and a lot of them thought it was too kiddish, or that the blocks-based coding system reminded them too much of Scratch. Around here, a lot of schools halfheartedly introduce Scratch as a CS tool in their tech classes and never progress beyond basic projects, creating an aversion to block languages. I tried showing them that they could switch over to Java Script mode in response to this, but they had already made up their mind.
Since the older kids considered the Micro:Bits too easy, I thought I'd have the afterschool program give it a shot. The afterschool program tends to have a lot more structure than the evening programs, so it was easy to get them to all work together. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that a decent amount of the youth of the old north end have reading difficulties, and I'd neglected to ask about my group's literacy level. I'd made an embarrassing display of my privilege by assuming that everyone above the age of 8 could read. This might have been the biggest mistake I've ever made, since half of my group was frustrated by not understanding the words on the screen, let alone their relationship to the device in front of them. I had to do something to avoid upsetting the children, since I am all too familiar with the crushing disappointment of being reminded of my learning disability. To turn the session around, I broke the kids up into two groups, and each group had two strong readers to help carry the weaker readers along. Instead of letting them create their own programs, I hastily printed out some helpful block code pictures. I had the two teams compete to make the door alarm as fast as they could. It ended up working, but I felt like I'd traumatized the kids in the process, so I didn't make them do micro:bit activities again. To make it up to them, I let them use youtube for the whole makerspace session the next day.
I was pretty lost during the month of October. I really wanted to share the magic of microcontrollers with the kids, but they didn't seem to be taking the bait. In high school, I had some significant emotional problems, and the Arduino Nano helped me crawl out of my depression and rebuild my self-esteem. I experienced grief at the realization that I couldn't share that feeling with them. Full of guilt, I continued my Makerspace sessions without the Micro:Bits. Then, something incredible happened. While a makerspace regular was filming a video on the green screen, I started working on my halloween costume. Like any maker worth their salt, I take Halloween very seriously, and this year I converted a blue dress into an arduino-powered arduino costume. While I was programming the light sequence on the dress, a group of kids had gathered outside of the window to watch in amazement. It must have looked very odd to the children, since the dress was connected to a computer, and at the click of a button I could completely change the way that the dress lit up. I felt like I was performing a magic show!
I realized that the kids needed a maker role model. None of them were familiar with the wealth of maker content on the internet. My evening program is mostly comprised of middle school kids, so I edited some of the harsh language out of Michael Reeves' more appropriate videos and had a watch party. It worked fantastically! The next day I had 4 or 5 kids begging me to teach them Arduino, which is unfortunately not a Micro:Bit. I took what I could get at this point. I started developing arduino tutorials, but I had to be careful with my execution. I had to tailor my guides to short attention spans, and keep them simple. In the past when I taught code, I noticed that kids tend to get turned off of coding languages because of how most tutorials are structured. They tend to spend too much time explaining what the device is and how it works in the beginning, which most people don't care about. I also knew that having all of the tutorials be hard copies would cut down on distractions. I designed my tutorials to have a "code and build first, explain later" structure. This method of instant gratification worked pretty well, and my young experimenters were hungry for more. I ended up making 7 of these tutorial books in the span of 3 weeks.
The afterschool kids soon became curious about the crazy contraptions the evening program was building. Since I didn't want to repeat the last mistake I made, I tried making an incredibly basic arduino tutorial that didn't require reading skills or programming. I gave each participant an LED of indeterminate colour and a booklet of picture instructions on how to light it up. To make it special, I made sure that each participant received their favourite colour, and their faces lit up with joy when the hue of the mystery LED was revealed.
Next week is my organization's Hour of Code week, so I'm planning on developing a Micro:Bit activity for the afterschool program's stronger readers. I'm not quite sure what the activity is going to be, so feel free to suggest activities in the comments! I'm hoping that this reintroduction of the micro:bit goes well, the kids of the Old North End really do deserve such a great opportunity. Since free community makerspaces are new territory, there's very little literature on how to run one, and every failure is a new lesson learned. I also have to accept my role as a trailblazer, and continue documenting my experiences at the ONE Space, so that the next community makerspace manager doesn't feel as lost as I did. My Micro:Bit journey took me to an unexpected destination, and I'll be sure to post all of the arduino tutorials I created in an appropriate blog Monday. Thank you so much to Element14 for sending us these Micro:bits. Even if they didn't catch on, they still helped me understand how to best help this community.
-Zoe Ritchie, ONE Space manager