Teaching

The more I’ve learned about the subjects that I’m passionate about, the more I’m inclined to share them with the people around me. I’ve spent the better part of 6 years informally teaching everything from dance to robotics, engineering to design. I’ve started getting the hang of a personal teaching style that’s very hands-on and experiential (which I picked up from participating in FIRST Robotics and attending Olin College), and I’m excited to share my knowledge with the world.

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How to Make a Makerspace

In the summer of 2012, Dale Dougherty of MAKE Magazine approached me about running a conference on how to design and run makerspaces like Artisan’s Asylum. MAKE had been watching the proliferation of spaces like ours over the past several years, and wanted to create a venue where founders could learn about the best practices for starting and sustaining spaces. Similarly, the Asylum was getting constant requests (at a rate of 3 to 4 requests a week) to help space founders talk through processes and develop their business plans. As a result, we announced that we were co-producing an event called How to Make a Makerspace, which ended up being sponsored by Sparkfun Electronics, ShopBot Tools, MassDevelopment, and Cognizant.

The event drew over 200 people from 5 different countries and most of the states in the US, and we had 22 speakers from 14 different makerspaces. The event featured two main educational tracks that focused on startup efforts and sustainability for these spaces, with a third track on Sunday focusing on education. I spoke on a majority of the panels about the foundation and running of the Asylum, and presented about acquiring insurance, finding appropriate space, and acquiring tools.

My role in this event was that of primary event organizer and panelist, but the event wouldn’t have been possible without the huge support from Artisan’s Asylum volunteers and all of our panelists. Artisan’s Asylum is continuing to develop the information presented at this event, with the goal of creating an open-source, distributed packet of materials and lectures that can help founders establish spaces without running into many of the standard pitfalls.

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Robotics Intensive: Rideable Hexapod

James Whong, Dan Cody and I started talking about building a giant, rideable robot in October of 2011. The three of us had always wanted to build robots large enough to ride since we started building robots, and finally decided that we had the ability to act on our desires with the facilities available at Artisan’s Asylum. We fleshed out the systems design enough to roughly know how much the project would cost, and designed a way for us to be able to create the robot in a reasonable amount of time; first, we would teach a class on large-scale robotics at Artisan’s Asylum. We would then use class fees to pay for the initial robot prototypes, take the prototypes to Kickstarter, and raise money for the actual build of the final vehicle.

We announced our intentions to the world by offering a class called Robotics Intensive: Rideable Hexapod at Artisan’s Asylum; the class sold out within 12 hours of our announcement, despite the $750 price tag. We assembled a team of 15 people who ranged in experience from complete novices in design and fabrication, to professional programmers and electrical engineers. Over the course of the next 4 months, we combined lectures, design exercises, hydraulic system assembly, and steel fabrication into an incredibly intense teaching and design process. In the end, we produced simulations of an individual leg and a full robot, we created a half-scale hydraulic leg and power system, and came up with the prototype design for a full-scale leg.

The Robotics Intensive as a class proved to be difficult to manage in a couple of major ways. First and foremost, there was always tension between our roles as both project managers and instructors; sometimes, we simply had to do the design and fabrication work ourselves, in order to keep the project moving in a timely fashion. In addition, balancing the educational requirements of students with vastly different backgrounds and experiences was incredibly difficult; often, students would be working on collaborative exercises where one set of students would have just learned Python for the first time that class, and another set of students would program in Python professionally in their day jobs. In general, the students learned a ton about a variety of different subjects, and we as instructors learned a ton; if I had to do it again, I’d drastically change the scope of the project to be able to be accomplished in the time allowed, and make sure incoming students had similar skill sets and experience levels.

If you’d like to learn more about what the class transformed into, check out my Stompy section or the Project Hexapod website.

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Introduction to Pneumatics and Hydraulics

I participated in FIRST Robotics through all four years of high school, and got exposure to pneumatic systems early on. I became fascinated with that kind of simple control and linear motion, and looked forward to learning more about them in college. Unfortunately, fluid power systems weren’t included in a mechanical engineering education at Olin College, and I had to learn more about pneumatic and hydraulic systems on the job at Boston Dynamics. I soon learned that fluid power systems weren’t really taught anywhere nearby, even though they were extremely powerful systems to have experience in.

I decided to teach an introductory class at Artisan’s Asylum in pneumatic and hydraulic systems, with huge amounts of help from Michael Soroka as a teaching assistant. Over the course of 8 sessions, we explored various aspects of each type of system, including power plant design, valve selection, actuator selection, circuit design, how to control motion, and joint design. Every class had some sort of hands-on or design component (including disassembly of pneumatic and hydraulic parts, assembly of functional systems, and several circuit design exercises), and students left the class having designed both pneumatic and hydraulic circuits from scratch.

The class went over very well. By the end of the hydraulics class, students were designing their own power units from scratch, creating full circuit diagrams and Bills of Materials and assembling a final power unit from scratch. The one main restriction of the class seemed to be price; I tried to keep the ticket price below $400 per person, but that didn’t allow for very complex kits or parts that students could take home. In the future, I want to work with sponsors to see if kits can be provided to students at relatively low cost.

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3D Printer Tool Training

uprint3dprinter3In March of 2012, Artisan’s Asylum purchased a uPrint 3D printer from Stratasys for general use by Asylum members. I designed the curriculum and training for the machine, and taught all of the weekly classes for it for around 6 months. The curriculum included an introduction to 3D printing, a basic run-through of all the software required to run the machine, several rules of thumb for optimal part orientation and printing strategies, and an introduction to the kind of mechanical design needed to produce the best results with the printer. One of my early students now teaches the class for the Asylum on an ongoing basis.

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Artisan’s Asylum Tool Training

As Artisan’s Asylum grew exponentially over the years, we quickly realized that we needed a standardized way of ensuring that every member used equipment in a safe manner. This was incredibly important for both ensuring that novices coming in off the street were trained to our standards, and to make sure that users claiming prior experience had a way to prove that to us as an institution. While we were at 13 Joy Street, we had our existing members check out new members informally, but when we moved to 10 Tyler Street we immediately became too large for an informal system.

Tool Training Image2One of the first projects I took on in the new 10 Tyler Street location was the creation of a standardized set of training and testing syllabi for most of the tools in our shops. I drew inspiration from the procedures I saw in action at the Olin College machine shop, and combined this with personal experience, information in tool manuals, and the experience of professional operators. These syllabi covered the basic, safe functionality of each machine, including what personal protective equipment is required for operation, what safe operations are required, what common maintenance procedures need to be followed, and what materials are allowed on each machine. We then split up the training and testing sessions into groups of related tools, and offered both 2-hour training session and testing sessions for new users. The training sessions were designed to get people using tools safely; if they wanted to use tools well, they were encouraged to take long-form classes.

In my position as administrator, I didn’t get too teach very many of these sessions before I needed to focus on other things. The tool training and testing program has expanded and changed with the help of more than a dozen committed trainers and volunteers at the Asylum, and will likely be revised significantly given the year of experience we have working with it. In particular, the tests need to be revised, and students need more specific training with each tool; one great idea that’s been floated is to have every student build a cohesive thing using the tool groupings that they’ve been trained on.

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Blues Union

I learned how to dance fairly early in my life, but it was only in college that I learned the social dances of Lindy Hop and Blues. Over the course of my dancing, I met a woman named Jenn Martinez, and we found a shared appreciation for both learning and teaching social dance. Between 2007 and 2009, we learned a style of dancing called Blues Dancing while flying around the country to attend dance events, and we realized that there was no Blues dancing to be had in Boston on a regular basis; there was a single pair of instructors in town (Ogden Sawyer and Amanda Gruhl), but they were too overworked to host a regular dance.

We decided to commit ourselves to starting a Blues dancing scene from scratch in Boston, and started by teaching a large number of classes at both a beginner and intermediate level. We started teaching at a free weekly MIT dance venue, moved on to teaching at the Dance Complex in Central Square, started a weekly dance at a live music club in Davis Square, and once we had taught enough students to have a fledgling community, we started our own dance called Blues Union in Union Square in mid-2009.

Blues Union quickly grew to include both a beginner lesson and intermediate lesson in addition to a weekly dance, and soon had a rotation of 3 to 5 teaching couples at most times. We regularly introduced new pedagogies of dance instruction, such as implementing a Clinic style of instruction (where students get individual attention from instructors over the course of a free form lesson), including history and musicality as a routine part of lessons, and teaching dance with a live band accompanying instructions.

My role in the dance included organizing, teaching, and DJing the dances. At its peak, Blues Union attracted an average of 50-60 people per night, included one live band a month, and brought instructors in from as far away as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. to teach lessons. I have since moved on from organizing dances, and Jenn Martinez now runs Blues Union with a group of dedicated volunteers.