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laser cutter classes

Last year I started teaching laser cutter classes at the local makerspace. Our laser cutter requires authorization to use, even if you're a member, and we were way behind on getting classes set up and new members were frustrated, so I suggested that we set up a simple cadence. The class is held every three weeks and alternates between Tuesday, Saturday, Thursday, Sundays. It fills up fast.

The basic presentation portion is easy - how the laser cutter works, safety tips, unsubtle encouragement to use the nearby fire extinguisher if your project takes a turn for the worst.

Then comes the project portion of the class. We want everyone to create a vector art file - we start with sample shapes on a wiki page, they download the sample shape of their choice and open it in inkscape, add their name, save as an autocad file and import into the software that talks to the laser cutter.

This is unbelievably difficult. It was important to me that people do a project, but taking a slice of the general population through a basic file setup in inkscape is very rough. In every class I'm bound to have some bored looking college students who do not find this hard at all, so they wander off and play with the software and miss steps. Then I've got some people who seem to have barely used a mouse, I get them to a web page and tell them to right-click on an image to save it and they are lost. What's worst, I learned that I have to walk around the classroom and check on everybody, because nobody ever tells me they're lost until they're 12 steps behind and I spend 20 minutes with them personally trying to get them to catch up.

I've improved the class this year to make it only last two hours...

1) Made a printed handout of all the steps and icons we'd use so I could yell "I am on step 3! Is everyone on step 3?"

2) Encouraged people to spy on their neighbors to make sure we're all on the same step, since we've all got to get there together. This didn't work like I hoped. It basically didn't work at all.

3) Limited class size to only 6 people. A sadly low number, given how fast the class fills up.

4) I always have someone in the class run the up front projector computer so I can walk around. This can be intimidating to people. I joke that I make the latest person to the class do it, as punishment. But as I explain, if I'm doing the computer stuff I get way too excited and move too fast and people get lost.

5) We tried offering a "daily computer user" class and separate "computer novice" class... no one signed up for the novice class.

Smaller class size had the biggest effect, because the more people are in the class, the higher the odds of having a computer novice in there who required personal attention.

Teaching the class has also made me a crazy person now because when I teach classes at work, I am very slow. I tell people to find File > Open and then say "DID EVERYONE FIND THAT? STOP AND CHECK YOUR NEIGHBOR!" and all these engineers are looking at me like I'm trying to teach them the ABCs.

I still enjoy teaching it. It's relaxing. And it's made me known in the makerspace, since I've taught lots of people the laser cutter.

Just have to keep improving.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 10th, 2017 02:52 am (UTC)
altamira16 might have some good ideas on trying to deal with wildly heterogeneous groups at makerspaces. I suspect that unless you somehow enforce people checking on their neighbors, like only giving every other person a computer and having them share, you're not going to get that at all because it's inherently a space violation.

I'm thinking about the guided lessons I've done in, for instance, learning chip layout programs: there's a video and we're more or less imitating what the video does while a person handles people having problems.
Jan. 10th, 2017 09:28 am (UTC)
Hmm. Since people didn't sign up for the computer skills class, maybe frame it as part of the laser cutting class? Have two separate required courses for using the laser cutter and have the first one be making a vector file? Like

Laser Cutter Training Course Part 1: Creating your design file
Laser Cutter Training Course Part 2: Making your design

Or something similar. Then allow people to opt out of part 1 if they show up to class with the design already made?
Jan. 10th, 2017 03:36 pm (UTC)
That sounds like a really neat class. How long do the classes last? A semester?
Jan. 10th, 2017 09:19 pm (UTC)
So hard teaching anything when students are starting out with vastly different skill levels! Can you find an assistant trainer who would help students who are having a particularly tough time while you move ahead with the rest?
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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