Introduction: Teach Students to Make Things by Making Them Write Instructables

Picture of Teach Students to Make Things by Making Them Write Instructables

I want to share my experiences teaching a course on Making at the university of applied sciences in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This is going to lead to some serious Instructable-inception: this is an Instructable about how to use an Instructable to teach people to make Instructables (the analogy with the film Inception goes even further, as teaching is of course aimed at planting new ideas in people's minds :-).

I was one of several educators who taught courses in the school's fabulous fablab called Stadslab. There are two different courses, both of which are based on MIT's “How to make (almost) anything”. One focusses on the making part, so how to use the machines in the fablab, and the other focusses more on electronics, programming and how to make smart objects. They overlap considerably however.

The main aim of the course is to show students how easy it is to make things. Electronics are supercheap (thanks to mobile phones), there are manuals for everything on Instructables, there's open-source software available for every purpose, manufacturing tools like 3D-printers are very accessible and ready-made designs can be downloaded for free on Thingiverse. Nowadays, anyone can make everything.

This is an elective course, so there will be people from shipbuilding to fashion school students. Some will have experience with 3D printing, others are already good programmers, but the course is meant to offer the first basics in different techniques.

A secondary objective of the course is to teach students about rapid prototyping, and the mantra 'fail cheap, fail fast’. The aforementioned circumstances make it possible to just experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. Part of this experimentation is that students learn how important it is to document every step and design choice.

Obviously that's where Instructables proves massively useful. Letting students write Instructables as a way to document their progress was suggested by Arnold Roosch, one of my wonderful colleagues there. I thought this was an awesome idea, and over the course of a few semesters figured out how to integrate Instructables in teaching students how to make things.

Step 1: Why Is Writing an Instructable So Great for Coursework?

Picture of Why Is Writing an Instructable So Great for Coursework?

Writing an Instructable is excellent as an assignment for a course, because:

  • It's fun to show others what you make.
  • In the process students learn what the making scene is like and that sharing leads to massive amounts of online resources.
  • Students realize that they too can become part of that community and learn that their experiences and knowledge can be valuable to others. This provides instant real-world relevance to the course.
  • Students will often get useful and motivating feedback in the comments from others in the community.

And sometimes, students' Instructables will get featured on the website's front page and even become hits. Much more fun than when they have to write a paper that only the teacher will read!

Also, having everything on one page is much better than demanding several deliverables which each have to be graded separately. (We did that before, and it slowed everything down, was a lot more work for the teacher and overcomplicated things.)

I don't claim to be the world's best teacher, and I certainly do not claim the setup or contents of this course to be all my idea, but I do hope other educators will find these ideas and suggestions useful. I think having students write Instructables is a good basis for a fun introductory course to making things, and making things is a great thing to teach.

Step 2: Setting Up a Teachers' Instructable With All the Course Info

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You could hand out course info on paper, or distribute a link to a page on the education portal of your school, but why not start the course by pointing the students to an Instructable? It is a good way to have everything (course info, assignments, and good examples) in one place. The Instructable can be a step-by-step guide to how the students should tackle their project, or just a repository with all information they need divided under several headings (that's what I did). As a bonus, it helps them to get used to Instructables so that making their own becomes easier.

The Instructable for my course can be found here: https://www.instructables.com/id/A-course-on-build...

It is in Dutch, but let me explain what is in there.

First step: Course aims.

The aim of the course is to build an object: students can make whatever they want, provided the object meets the listed requirements (more on those below).

Second step: Explanation on how to make an Instructable

This part shows the students how to set up an Instructable. Make sure you remind the students that they save their Instructable as a draft at first. Instructables' moderators will unpublish any new Instructables that are just a stub. They are friendly about it, but it's not a fun way to start for newcomers.

Add a link to a Google form where they can fill in the address to their Instructable, so you know who is making what. Ask them to tag their Instructable with the course name.

Third step: Online resources

This is a list of websites, software, repositories and a few inspirational examples. Students will not instantly remember every good resource mentioned during class, so here they can look them up. My list includes links to

  • a couple of good example Instructables
  • Thingiverse.com, with its massive collection of downloadable designs for 3D printing and lasercutting
  • software such as Inkscape and Tinkercad
  • the website where they can buy design software at student discounts
  • websites that offer templates for boxes such as Makercase

Fourth step: Where to buy electronics

The school provides a lot of nice tools and also a lot of cool electronics to play with, but they are not to be taken home. So for those who want to incorporate electronics into their object and be allowed to take it home with them once finished, I made a list of webshops that have a good assortment of stuff like Arduinos, sensors and other components. I hope to show those students who are new to making and to electronics that there are great places to get cool stuff and that most everything is available.

I make a distinction between online stores that are 'local' and deliver fast, and online stores that ship from Asia. These often offer products fantastically cheap, but they are only useful when there is no deadline -- which in this course, there is.

Fifth step: Grading

Here students can look up what the requirements are and how their grade will be determined. I think it's important that this is clear from the start of the course. More on the grading later on.

Step 3: The Assignment

Picture of The Assignment

In the first lesson, after an introduction to maker culture, the fablab and the tools there, I tell them what the aim and content of the course is and what the assignment that they will be graded on.

It is a two-part assignment: build something, and write an Instructable about it.

The requirements are:

  • Use at least three machines to build your object:
    • a 3D-printer,
    • the lasercutter,
    • and something else which has a power cord (this is mainly to make sure they actually build something, not just churn out a design they found online).
  • There has to be a hinge somewhere in your object.
  • The object contains an electrical circuit (doesn't have to be a microcontroller, a simple lamp will do).
  • Write up a manual on Instructables.com which tells others how they can replicate your object.

The required hinge and circuit are there to make sure the object has a minimal level of complexity and so at least a minimal level of creativity is needed.

Show them a couple of good examples, well-written and well-illustrated Instructables. If you show them Instructables on a wide range of different objects (from wearables and toys to lamps and Instructables for making a sandwich), they will hopefully be inspired and also understand that they are free to make anything they want. Having them choose their own project is an important step, I think.

The Instructable doesn’t have to be super extensive, as long it describes what steps they are taking. I tell the students that if they don't consider themselves good writers, that's ok. Leaning heavily on photos, videos and sketches is fine too. If the Instructable can be used as a step-by-step guide to replicate their object however, it will be rewarded a higher grade.

Step 4: Getting Started (lesson 1 Continued)

Picture of Getting Started (lesson 1 Continued)

After explaining the assignment, have your students brainstorm in small groups, and tell them to come up with at least twenty ideas for things they would like to make. Remind them it does not have to be useful -- fun and nonsensical can be good too. If one of the groups gets stuck, provide examples of things they can think about, such as 'how could you make a coat hanger more smart?' and 'what would you like to decorate your bike with?'

If everyone has laptops or tablets, you can ask the students to go and find three Instructables they find especially fun, useful or weird, just to get a first taste. After a couple of minutes, ask the class which Instructables stood out to them.

Advise the class to subscribe to the Instructables newsletter to get a steady feed of inspiration.

As homework, ask them to decide on what they want to build, start an Instructable and send you the url before before the next lesson. Also ask they bring a sketch or a cardboard model of what they are going to build to the next lesson.

Step 5: Discuss the Students' Ideas (lesson 2)

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In the second lesson we talk about what ideas the students came up with.

Have students show their models or sketches to the class. Together with the class, evaluate if the idea meets the course requirements, if it is achievable in the span of the course. It helps if you have experience yourself in making things, so you can offer ideas and advice on their builds.

Some students need to be slowed down a bit, others need to be helped on their way, and again others need encouragement to make things that are bit more challenging than what they first come up with. Sometimes they will say 'I want to build a useless box' and then I will say 'I think you can come up with something just a tad more interesting and original' :-)

When there are students that want to start a huge and complicated project, I remind them it's just a ten week course. I usually tell them about the MoSCoW method, which helps them define which steps in their project they should get out of the way first (which will get them a grade) before working on adding X-ray cameras or flux capacitors. This is mainly about managing their workload and expectations. This is an elective course, which means we have to try extra hard to keep motivating people to stick with it.

Some insisted though on making stuff that sounded hard and complicated to me, and have amazed me with the results.

Once a student was a little too clever in his reading of the course criteria and made the little orange box in the photos below. It's not particularly exciting or creative, but hey, it does meet the criteria. I do show it to other students when I feel they are thinking too big and to illustrate they can also pass the course with something relatively basic.

Encourage them to start building things fast. Some students tend to want to keep researching and perfecting their design. I often remind students that it's better to quickly make something and have a finished, sufficient product at the end, than to have something that is half-finished because they wanted something perfect. Progress is what counts, not perfection (as my girlfriend often reminds me :-).

For homework, ask them to add a list of materials and tools to their Instructable. Remind them to add their design/model to their Instructable (either a pencil drawing, photo of their cardboard model, or a Sketchup or Tinkercad file).

If you are so inclined, warn them everybody really needs to have their Instructable up by next week, and tell them those without one need not bother to show up for the next lesson.

Step 6: Subject Matter of the Rest of the Course

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The course consists of eight sessions in total, in which I usually start talking about that week's theme, and then have the students work on their project.

Every lesson I have a look at the group’s progress, maybe show a couple of their Instructables I think are promising. Ask about their progress, talk about any hurdles they may have encountered and offer advice. Ask if they made sure they have all the materials they need.

I won't describe here everything I talk about during the classes, but we try to cover everything students may need to build their object:

  • designing in 2D (making and adapting vector drawings in Illustrator or InkScape)
  • designing and editing 3D models (Fusion360, Tinkercad, SketchUp, OpenScad)
  • working with 3D printers and laser cutters (we take them on a tour of the lab)
  • electronic circuits (from simple lamps to bristle bots and Makey Makey)
  • programming and sensors (during which they can try their hands on Arduino's)

After talking, let them work on their project and walk around and offer help where you can. Remind them every week to also work on the Instructable, since that is what is earning them course credit.

Step 7: Grading

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Grading is based on the text and illustrations in the Instructables.

I'm quite proud of the grading form seen below, mainly because of its clarity and usefulness. It took a few iterations and was developed over a couple of courses. The grading model aims to be fair (so no higher grades because a certain building technique applied turns out to be a favorite of the teacher), easy to use by the teachers (making fast grading possible), and transparent and easy to understand, so students know at the start of the course what they have to deliver to pass the course.

This is how grading is done:

Design: max 2 points

  • Is the design an existing idea which the student did not really make their own? 0 points
  • Existing idea but with an original slant: 1 point
  • Original or clever own design: 2 points

Machines: max 1 point

  • If less than three machines were used: 0 points, otherwise 1

Hinge: max 1 point

  • If a hinge is missing: 0 points, otherwise 1

Circuit: max 2 points

  • If missing: 0 points
  • If the object does contain a simple circuit: 1 point
  • If a microcontroller was used or a self-designed circuit is incorporated: 2 points

Instructable: max 2 points

  • If the manual is incomplete (see below): subtract 1 point
  • If the Instructable is complete and an easy to follow manual: 1 point
  • If the Instructable is fun to read and contains thoughts on alternative approaches to the build or possibilities for follow-up: 2 points

End result: max 2 points

  • Not finished: 0 points
  • Functioning/finished and complete or coherent object: 1,5 points
  • Especially well-built: 2 points


The total maximum points to be earned is 10, which corresponds to the highest grade in the Dutch grading system, where 10 points is excellent, 1 is lowest and the passing grade is 5.5.

For the purpose of this assignment, an Instructable will be considered complete when it has at least these elements:

  • a sketch and/or a (paper) model of the design
  • list of materials used
  • list of tools that were used
  • explanation of the construction in separate steps (each with illustrations)
  • photos of the end result (adding a video as well is great)
  • preferably also: tips on alternative methods and explanation on possible changes or follow-up steps for building the object.

Administrative requirements: if the student was absent more than two of the lessons or did not supply a link to an Instructable, no grade can be awarded.

Step 8: Ending With an Exhibition

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We conclude the course with a exhibition. The course is taught to multiple groups every semester, and it's really a lot of fun to see so many projects together. Encourage everyone to walk around and look around or explain their projects to the others.

The only practical purpose of the exhibition is that the teacher can see if the objects in the Instructables that are to be awarded a grade actually do exist (and were made by the student that wrote the Instructable) and to evaluate if the objects work as advertised in the Instructable and do not fall apart. (Yes, I have touched objects made by students and broken things once or twice. Sorry.)

You can ask students to tag their Instructable with the name of your institute or the course, because then you will have a list of projects made during the course. You can also make a collection here on Instructables to show off to others what cool things have been made (to school administrators maybe, or students who are considering what elective to apply for). This collection can also serve as inspiration to new students in the course and to be able to tell them 'look, this has been made here, and you can do this too!'

Comments

diamondemb (author)2017-10-12

I think this is Great!
With the lack of shop classes available to kids this is a great way to teach them skills that they will use everyday in life. Great job! Thank you for doing this.

tjaap (author)diamondemb2017-10-12

Thank you very much!

gm280 (author)2017-10-11

Sounds like a great idea. And the ones that get excited about this project are the ones that need to be doing this. It is hard to make everybody excited these days, so anything that helps direct their attention and focus their ideas into something productive and build something, is great.

tjaap (author)gm2802017-10-12

Thanks, I agree!

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Bio: I am a freelance journalist and builder. I love to make my ideas become reality and I try to get better at it. Among techniques ... More »
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