Through the efforts of many dedicated volunteers (actually everybody who works on Full Stack Embedded is a volunteer, but specifically we’re talking about excellent students in Africa) we’re spreading like crazy! Full Stack Embedded will collaborating with more schools in more countries, and it will be planned by the people who know the students best. That might be you. If you want to plan a workshop with FSE, here’s all the info you need to get started.

First of all: be in contact with us. We’ll help you out each step of the way. If you’re planning the workshop, you’re the boss, and you’re running the show, but it’s always good to know you have people supporting you.

Secondly, keep the FSE workshop objectives in mind. Each workshop should do the following things:

  • Establish and deepen relationships between people
  • Exchange ideas
  • Help students practice important skills
  • Make sure everyone walks away having learnt something

In the following sections you’ll find a few tips which should apply to every FSE workshop, no matter what the topic is.

Establish and deepen relationships

One of the tenets of Full Stack Embedded is to connect people with different skills, ideas and talents. Make sure that in addition to simply learning, you’re also connecting with the people that you’re teaching and helping them to establish meaningful, lasting relationships to each other that will remain even without you.

How this works best depends on the situation – it might be getting a bite together, or going on a small field trip, or making time to discuss ideas even bigger and wider-reaching than programming and soldering. When the participants have ideas, encourage them and point them in directions where they can find out more, and towards people they might be able to team up with. Inspiring each other is at least as important as learning skills from each other, so don’t forget to make this happen.

Exchange ideas

Listen to the students. Find out what they need and cater to that. Make the students work in groups and help each other.

Once groups are established, it’s natural for people to specialize on what they do best. This makes a lot of sense, but don’t let them specialize too much. Every hour or so force the participants to switch who’s doing what. This helps them to communicate with each other and understand what the others are doing better. It’s a bit more difficult, but it’s also more fun and in the end they learn more from it.

Help students practice important skills

First of all, make sure this is possible by checking that you can provide the students with what they need. It’s best if you prepare the classroom so that everything’s available there, without having to go into the Internet, etc. – you never know when the connection might drop. Do you have the software students need on a disk? Data sheet printouts? If you’re using a presentation, do you have a local copy? Get these things so your students aren’t distracted with irrelevant details.

Our experience is that students often have a good theoretical understanding of topics we teach about, but that it’s hard to apply that knowledge in practical ways. This means that you can teach all day and they will learn, but without applying that knowledge, most of it will stay theoretical and untested. A good rule of thumb is to check yourself. Are you talking a lot? Then you’re probably talking too much. It’s time to give the students something to try out.

The most effective way to overcome this difficulty is to practice, practice, practice, because in doing so students learn new ways of thinking. More importantly, they learn not to be afraid to fail, and they learn to help each other and research on their own. These skills are more important than any lecture. Have your class practice, even if it’s frustrating – that’s how knowledge converts to skills.

Walk away having learnt something

The greatest challenge of teaching is giving each student the chance to walk away knowing that they’re more capable now than they were before.

In order to do this, you need to have a clear learning plan. This is more important than a teaching plan! Think about what your students need to learn – not about what you want to teach – and work from there. An example might be thinking about what the goal of a workshop should be. The students should know how to do something they couldn’t do before, like build a specific type of robot. What topics to they need to understand? What skills do they need to possess in order to make that possible?

With the example of a robot, you can break it down into smaller components. Students must be able to:

  • Assemble the hardware
  • Write software that communicates with the hardware – drivers, classes, schedulers, etc.
  • Write one or more applications which make use of the hardware in order to accomplish something. Otherwise you only have a shiny new robot that can’t accomplish anything.

Now work backwards. How much time do you have, how many resources? Do you have enough computers? A room for everyone to work in? Internet? Electricity? An overhead projector? These will determine what’s possible.

Now that you’ve broken down the pieces of the project, you can start figuring out how to get the students to understand it. Explain as little as you can, and use short inputs which the students can practice, if possible.

Time is a precious resource you will need to account for. Take however long you think students will need from hearing you explain something to understanding it. Oftentimes it’s a good idea to triple however much time you thought that would be and plan accordingly. Some students will get it right away, but some won’t. If you have the fast students help those who are struggling, nobody will be bored, and your estimates will be accurate at the end.

Remember, FSE workshops build skills more than knowledge. So always give students a chance to try out what you’ve taught them. If necessary, let them get frustrated with the harder stuff. You can’t avoid frustration anyway, and it’s better that they’re frustrated in a classroom with somebody there to help them, than at home with nobody around! In the first situation, they’ll try until they get it; in the second, they might just give up.

End every day with an accomplishment. The best ones are when students make something happen with hardware that moves around in the real world – that’s really inspiring and exciting. Structure your day so that after many hours of hard work, they get a light to turn on, wheels to move, something like that. That way they go home feeling like heroes.

And finally, remember, your students are better teachers than you are. They understand their fellow students better and once they get it they can explain in ways their classmates will understand. Find students who get it, and make them into teachers for the other students. This is a good way to keep the class at the same level. It also demonstrates that anybody can do what the students are learning – there’s no magic involved. It gives students practice explaining the material and helps them to learn it on a deeper level. And, finally, it strengthens crucial relationships that will last much longer than your workshop will. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.