Introduction: How to Lead an LA Makerspace Hands-on AI Workshop

About: LA Makerspace is a Maker education nonprofit turning LA Public Library branches (city and county) into places where kids can learn science and technology skills! If you are a librarian, or any other non-STEAM…

At non-profit LA Makerspace, we focus on teaching valuable hands-on STEAM education to encourage the next generation, especially those who are under-represented and under-resourced, to be empowered Makers, shapers and drivers of tomorrow. We do this primarily through the awesome public libraries. From Scratch coding to craft robotics to e-textiles, we develop and deploy great free curriculum and classes to help inspire the next generation. Please check us out at to find out more and to support a great program.

We developed this specific artificial intelligence activity because in 10 years, today's 12-year old will have to answer questions and develop solutions to issues and opportunities that we are only beginning to understand. Hands-On AI, along with other fun (and cheap) LA Makerspace hands-on projects, attempts to demystify and simplify some of the ideas, questions and responsibilities around this area. These are just seeds. But we all know what seeds do : )

This guide and summary video were developed with teachers and workshop leaders in mind, but the activity can be adapted to any size group by adding or removing various parts of the exercise. You can also do it at home as a family activity! We published this under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License so that you can freely take, make better, remix, share out and more. And a special thanks to all the friends who helped bring this to life!

Thank you and have fun,

Malik Ducard

LA Makerspace Board President

Step 1: You Are Rad.

Thank you a lot for being awesome and helping people learn more about A.I.! Never taught anything before? No need to worry. It's actually not going to be much more complicated than telling knock-knock jokes and calling bingo!

ETA: Wanna see a Hands-On AI workshop on the news? Here we are on KTLA!

Step 2: Overview

The video above explains how the project works. Please watch it (it's just 3.5 minutes long) and then continue reading. It will make things a LOT more clear.


No seriously, watch it.

OK as you saw -- it's simple!

In the next steps, we'll be providing step-by-step instructions for how to do the project, but also for exactly what to do and say to lead your workshop.

These are the parts of the workshop:

  1. Preparing the materials
  2. Introducing the topic
  3. Playing Game One: "Secret Coding"
  4. Creating "Role Models"
  5. Playing Game Two: "AI Showdown"
  6. Wrap-up

Step 3: Materials List

For this workshop, you will need:

  1. One 5x6 egg carton per person or group who's gonna participate. You can get these from Josh's Frogs for $0.40 - $0.20 each depending how many you order. If you get tired of using them as a computer you can raise crickets in there too.
  2. You'll need something to cut the egg cartons with. The molded pulp isn't easy to get through, and this shouldn't be done by the kids. Use a cardboard cutter or trauma shears.
  3. Sponges, to use as the "bits" of data to program the computers. Just regular ol' cellulose sponges from the 99c store, no green scouring layer or fuzziness. At Dollar Tree they call them Scrub Buddies apparently. ?
  4. Pipe cleaners, to use to create "hinges" on the computers.
  5. A marker to label the pockets on the egg cartons.
  6. Blank sheets of 8 1/2" x 11" paper, one per each person or group.
  7. Enough printouts of the Hands-on AI worksheet for everyone.
  8. A buddy to help you out during the workshop, if possible. Staff from the group can also be helpers, but someone to go over the workshop together ahead of time and team up with you on the day is great.

Step 4: Prepare the "Computer" and "Bits"

  1. Cut up the sponges into little cubes. These will be the "bits" of data in the computer.
  2. Label each pocket of the egg carton from 1 to 30. You will want to do this so that the numbers make a straight line after you cut it up and stretch it out. The picture shows how to do this.
  3. Make a hole in the bottom of each pocket that the sponges can be squeezed through, but not fall through.
    • We have found a hole the size of the flattest part of the bottom of the pocket is good.
    • Stabbing it with a pen works to make the hole. It doesn't have to have clean edges.
  4. Cut the egg carton into 5 rows of 6 pockets.
  5. Use the pipe cleaners to create "hinges" you will use to allow the computer to be stretched out into a line, then folded back into a grid. You want to poke two holes in the pockets that are next to each other in the hinge and then connect with half of a pipe cleaner, leaving a big loop for the rows to rotate.
    • If you did it right you will be able to open and close the egg carton like an accordion.
    • We discovered this by doing it wrong first.
  6. Use the binder clips to stabilize it in either position.
  7. Do this up to 20 times, one for each person or group participating in your workshop. Hopefully you have friends and/or pizza with you to help.
  8. Gather your blank paper and print out copies of the worksheet for everyone.

[Yes, this is the same worksheet as in the prior step. Didn't want you to be wondering where it was in case you didn't notice it last time.]

Step 5: Prepare Your Mindset

Your own mindset is one of the most helpful things you can prepare! This is a Maker workshop, and one of the main purposes is to help participants develop a Maker mindset and identity, as well as learn new skills. By the way you present the information and interact with people during the workshop, you can help them believe the things in the picture above about themselves. Those traits are the foundations of confidence, persistence, and joy in our own problem-solving abilities and creativity.

So, what are the things to remind yourself of when you are leading a workshop, especially if you don't have a lot of experience?

  • This is a Maker workshop. We do making for fun, it is a form of play. Therefore, this is playtime for me too -- I don't need to worry about "not doing it well enough" or things like that.
  • Not having training or experience as a teacher -- or even subject matter expertise -- actually means I can be MORE helpful, not less. Having the "authority" in the room say, "I don't know, but these are the steps I take to find out," gives people a chance to practice the process of learning itself, as well as the new skill.
  • The more fun I am having, the more fun others will have too!

Step 6: Introducing the Topic

Now, you're ready to begin your workshop. Have everyone come in and sit down, but don't give out the supplies yet. We find this will distract everyone with looking at the supplies and not tuning in to the introductory material. Here's what we recommend that you say to introduce the topic (in your own words):

You: Welcome to the Hands-On AI Workshop. I'd like to know -- Would anyone like to tell me a knock-knock joke?

Generally, you'll see a lot of hands go up. Choose a few kids to tell their jokes, then say:

You: I've got one. "Knock knock." [Who's there?] "Alec." [Alec who?] "Alec... knock knock jokes."

Yes, it's a corny one and you'll have to cheat a bit on the pronunciation ("Alec"/"I like"). But you'll go on to explain:

You: I didn't make that joke up, or read it anywhere. It was the first knock-knock joke ever made up by a computer. [Source]

Continue on to explain:

  • The computer that made up the knock knock joke was an A.I. "A.I." stands for artificial intelligence.
  • Ask for examples of A.I.s they may have heard of that already exist in our lives. Expect to hear "Siri," "Alexa," "Echo," etc. If they don't come up, add: self-driving cars, face filters on Snapchat, Google Translate, or other examples you may know of.
  • Then, boil down those examples to the simple definition of an A.I.: a computer that can do something humans can do, such as recognize images, understand language, or make decisions, without humans telling it each step of how to do it.

Next, hand out the "egg carton computers," worksheets and sponge "bits," and say:

You: Today, we are going to take these egg cartons and teach them to recognize letters, just like an A.I. But, before we can understand how A.I. works, we need to understand how old-school computers work.

Step 7: Play Game One: Secret Coding

Once everyone has their egg carton, say:

You: So, old school computers have their own language. We put information into computer language for them, and then they process the information, and convert it back out into something we can understand, such as a picture.

You: If you look on the worksheet, you see two things written in computer language, in the first two columns.

You: Does this look like anything you recognize? Has anyone done secret codes before?

Don't be surprised if many know what binary is or have at least heard of it!

You: In this language, information is broken up into the tiniest little bits possible. Today the sponge pieces are going to be the bits for our computers.

Next, ask them to stretch out the egg cartons from a grid shape to a long line. Tell them:

You: The code on the worksheet tells you how many sponges go into each pocket, no sponges or one sponge. Why do we have the 0s in there, why don't we just leave it blank? It's because in a real computer, it's not using sponges, it's using electricity. For each bit of information, the electricity is either on or off, 0 being off, 1 being on.

Ask the class to split up into two groups, one to work on each line of code. Note: It's important that there be an equal number of computers in each group. This could mean someone ends up having to share, but, they will still get a computer to take home and work with on their own later.

You: Now, you are going to put sponges into your computer's pockets according to the instructions in the code. You are coding!

Once the kids have finished putting in their sponges, announce:

You: Now, we are going to debug, which is a very important part of coding. I will read off the code for each group and you can double check your computers.

This is the part where you read off each pocket number and the amount of sponges it should have, just like calling bingo. ["Pocket 1, no sponges! Pocket 2, one sponge!" etc etc]. If the kids got mixed up on sponge placement the project won't work, so that's why this step is important, despite that it is kind of boring for the leader. The kids like it though.]

You: OK it's time for the computer to process the information. We do that by folding it back up into a grid.

Ask each group what they see, and if possible write it on a whiteboard, chalkboard, poster etc. Group 1 should see an "H" and Group 2 should see an "I." Ask them what that spells -- "HI."

You: The computer said Hi to us! Hi computer!

And the crowd goes wild.

You: So that's how an old-school computer works. We put in a code, and the computer converted it into a letter we could understand. That's actually what typing is. When we hit a key or touchscreen with a letter on it, that sends the computer the code for that specific letter, and it displays it on a screen by turning the pixels on and off.

You: But, what if we wanted a computer to understand our handwriting? Everyone's handwriting is different. We couldn't tell the computer the exact code for every different person's way of writing a letter. Well, that's where Artificial Intelligence comes in. We can teach an A.I. computer how to recognize a handwritten letter even though they're not all exactly the same.

Step 8: Creating "Role Models"

You: So how do A.I.s learn things? The same way as we do. By example. We are going to give the computers a bunch of examples of handwritten letters.

You: And this is a very important thing to realize about A.I. It's our job to teach it, we give it the examples. It's our responsibility to give it examples that are correct, and that are good.

You: We're going to do that right now. We are going to take two different letters, and create a "role model" for each, a good example to follow.

Now pass out the blank paper and pens. Ask Group 1 to write a big capital letter "A" on each of their papers, trying to fill up as much of the paper as possible. Ask Group 2 to write a lowercase "b" the same way.

Then, have them lay the paper over their computer (in grid form) and "trace" the shape of the letter with sponges onto the grid.

Next, have them stretch out their computers back into a long line.

One by one, have them stack the computers on top of each other, and push the sponges from the top one into the one below, until finally, there is one computer with all the sponges collected in it, capturing the data of their placement in the pockets of the prior ones.

Finally, read off the pockets and numbers of each "role model" and have the kids copy them down onto their worksheets. Each person should have the data from both "A" and "b."

While all this was going on -- Another adult should draw either an "A" or "b" onto a paper, and trace it onto another computer, which should be kept a secret.

Step 9: Play Game Two: A.I. Showdown

Have the adult confederate bring in their Mystery Letter in the form of a long line, so no one can see what the letter is.

You: And now -- We have a Mystery Letter! This is either an "A" or a "b", and we are going to use our new Role Models to find out which one. The way we will do that is by playing a game -- An A.I. Showdown.

First, "bingo call" out the Mystery Letter code and have everyone write it on their worksheet.

You: So, the players in this game aren't us. The players, are Role Model A vs Role Model b. Their goal is to get the best match to the sponges of the Mystery Letter.

Each pocket is like a round. If Mystery Letter has a sponge in Pocket 1, and either Role Model has any sponges in that pocket, they get the number of sponges in their own pocket counted as their points. For example:

  • Pocket 1: Mystery Letter has no sponges. Role Model A has one sponge, Role Model b has zero sponges. Nobody gets any points, because there isn't a match.
  • Pocket 2: Mystery Letter has one sponge. Role Model A has two sponges. Role Model b has no sponges. A gets two points; b gets no points.
  • Pocket 3: Mystery letter has one sponge. Role Model A has one sponge. Role Model b has three sponges. A gets one point, b gets 3 points.

Go down the list, "playing" the Role Models against each other round-by-round until the end.

You: Now, we add up all the points each Role Model got. The one with the higher score, matched it the best... And should be the Mystery Letter!

Then, have everyone input the Mystery Letter code from the worksheet into their computer, fold it up into a grid, and see if the A.I. was able to distinguish which one it was...

And the crowd goes REALLY wild!

Step 10: Wrap-Up

Next, take a moment to discuss and reflect on what everybody just learned. Here are some suggestions for discussion-starters:

  1. What did you learn from making your project?
  2. Will you keep working on it after the workshop?
  3. What was the most fun part of making your project?
  4. What problems did you have while you were working on your project?
  5. How did you solve them?
  6. What are some ways you could share what you learned with someone else?
  7. Did you help someone else with their project, or did someone help you?

And lastly -- High fives!!!!!

You did it! Thank you for helping people learn more about A.I.!!