When we started Hacker Scouts, we envisioned a program where kids could learn real, relevant skills in order to achieve the greatest inventions of their imaginations. A program that honored their developmental process and supported their autonomy. A program that was fun and filled with activities that showed kids the intersect between making, technology, function, and aesthetics. It all started with Open Lab.
Open Lab is a program based on how children learn through various developmental and educational theories as well as a desire we see in the Maker culture for community and family inclusiveness. The idea is this: Twice a month we hold Open Labs where we have experts/mentors available to help kids with any project they bring in. There is also a featured project that a whole workshop is built around that specifically targets specific skill building. In addition, there is always a menu of other kits/activities that are available for kids that focus on a variety of interests, skills, and ways of learning. The structure has a method- it creates consistency and the opportunity for mentoring and improvement, the provided activities and featured workshops are designed to teach to multiple learning styles, the format supports autonomy and independence, and the program is inclusive and adaptable. Kids can earn badges or not for their skill building, and they can come every week or once in a while. The result so far has been exceptional and exciting- families have come and learned, shared, hacked and formed community in our hackerspace while thriving on the opportunity to learn new skills, reinforce knowledge, and benefit from mentoring to explore their own interests and achieve their unique goals.
Here are 10 steps to starting an Open Lab in your community:
1. Know your audience.
Think about what kind of community you live in. Is there a thriving Maker culture or are you introducing a new way of doing and learning for most families? What is the age range you will be focusing on? What are the interests and experience of the families coming to your program? This will guide how you approach your Open Lab, and the activities that will be appropriate to begin with.
Find a place that is accessible and can easily accommodate Open Lab. Hackerspaces, community centers, schools, other organizations that have classroom space are all options. Keep in mind that your location's size, rules, and equipment (or lack thereof) will determine what kind of projects you can choose. Having an open space with tables kids can move around usually works best, but any space can be adapted. In fact, sometimes a tight squeeze can result in some benefits.
3. Establish a base of Mentors
There are many ways to recruit Mentors: hackerspace members, parents, local Makers, teachers, and other specialized organizations are just some of the resources you can use to find help. Some volunteers may be more interested in development of the projects, some may love teaching, and each will have their own unique skill set. Make sure you have enough volunteers to keep an appropriate kid to Mentor ratio and cover when someone can't make a session. You should also have a good number of volunteers who have a general skill knowledge, as opposed to being an expert in just one skill. Provide training in skill building and child development/working with children for your Mentors.
It's been our experience that planning on the fly is stressful and can be catastrophic. Example: we announced that we would be making Spy Gadgets at our next Open Lab. We ordered the parts. The parts literally fell off a boat from China and we could not replace them in time. We had to scramble for another featured project. Lesson learned. You should always try to plan a month in advance and you should always have a working example of what you are making BEFORE you use it as a project. There is nothing worse that doing a project with children and having it not work because of a design flaw or a mechanical problem that you could have/should have worked out ahead of time. Also, remember that you don't always have to design a project from scratch. There are so many resources on the Internet; think of yourself as curators, culling the best projects that interest you and the kids from what is available.
5. Reach out to the community
We (the founders) are lucky that we live in a thriving Maker community. We are doubly lucky that we (the founders) are part of an enormous and interested homeschool community. We began by putting emails out to our local neighborhood list, a few community and parenting lists, and several homeschool lists. This was enough to gather over 30 kids for our first Open Lab. From there, word has spread either by press features or by our Hacker Scout community forwarding the information on. Now, we have 40-70 kids at each Open Lab. Other ways to find community are school email lists, social media (like Facebook, Google + and Twitter), ads in the newsletters of related organizations, and online forums. Leave flyers at coffee shops and community boards. It doesn't matter how many kids you start with, just start.
6. Mix it up
When we plan an Open Lab, we try to vary the activities each time, paying special attention to differentiated learning, multiple learning styles, and subject area. We want to make certain that not only is our menu accessible and interesting, but offers every child something unique to the way they think and learn. We also create activities that exercise small motor skills, sequencing, following directions, and component identification, all of which are necessary to accomplish larger projects. Many of our activities are meant to bridge skill development and introduce new options. For example, a child who solders a wire metal sculpture may be less intimidated to try an electronic kit next time. A child who sews with conductive thread and LED's may be willing to try building a circuit board, and vice versa. Finally, we focus on skill building that encourages knowledge, correct application, and retention. Every Open Lab builds on the previous.
7. Be consistent
Kids love consistency. Every Open Lab has the same rhythm, though the activities may change. They know that when they come in, the menu of activities will always be posted in the same place. Towards the beginning, I will get up on my chair and that is their cue to listen up. They know I will go through and explain the activities so they can decide what they want to do. They know (and anticipate!) I will ask some of them to recite the two rules and two suggestions of Hacker Scouts for anyone new to Open Lab. (No rough-housing, no using the equipment without an adult present, have fun, and consider taking a risk on something new when choosing a project.)
8. Respect the autonomy of the children.
It is very easy for adults to make judgements about what children should or could be learning. But it is not about us, it is about them. Try to offer a diverse array of projects at your open lab that will appeal to different learning styles and interests. And then get out of the way. Even children come in with their own set of experiences and ideas, which need to be respected. Let them choose what they will, even if they choose it every single time. Most often, there is something in that skill or subject they are trying to work out for themselves. Eventually, most kids try something new after a while. But even if they don't, there is value in simply being exposed to a variety of activities, whether they ever choose them or not.
9. Slow and Steady
I can not stress enough the importance of patience. It is easy to get excited and want to jump into starting an Open Lab, but the reality is it will go a lot better if you slow down and start simple. Do not commit to more than you can support, both in time and in people. Decide on some activities, find a great location, collect a solid group of Mentors, and put the word out. We started with two Open Labs a month, and although we could probably have enough kids attending every weekend, we are satisfied with how it is working for our community and the amount of commitment for our Mentors. Three months later, we started our Guild program, which had almost 50 applicants for 15 spots. We have a wait list and have designed a program that will support bringing in new kids in stages. Figure out what works best for you, your location, and your volunteers, and stick with it for a while. You can always add another day or change your approach along the way.
10. Jump in a just do it
This may seem to counter what I just said in #4 and #9, but the truth is you can only plan so much and then you just have to take the leap. See what works and what doesn't. Make adjustments, take some risks. It may take time to work out the kinks but it's ok. Kids are (mostly) forgiving and will have fun regardless. Have fun with them. Part of being a Maker is failing, and then hacking whatever you were trying to do in a new way to fit your needs. So hack your own Open Lab, and see what happens!