Introduction: MVIFI Xlr8: Makers - Dine and Design Evenings

If you are trying to find ways to help people learn more about maker-centered learning, you can't just talk to them about it... you have to have them experience it! They need to be making something in order to really understand what it is that they are making. (Imagine talking about how to make a birdhouse without actually making one - it is a very different experience for the learner.) And at the same time, making something allows for one to really reflect on "how" they are learning. Setbacks and breakthroughs are much more obvious when making something, and far easier to reflect back upon when turning on the metacognition engines.

The challenge now becomes finding a way for doing exactly that: experience making and recognizing the richness of the learning involved.

The Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (MVIFI) has found a way to do this that works really well for the Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, Georgia. It's called a "Dine and Design" evening, and it is full of food, fellowship, and fun!

Step 1: Big Picture Event Logistics

The two hour event is broken down into the following pieces:

  1. Visit and eat - 20 minutes
  2. Watch a video (and finish eating) - 10 minutes
  3. Invitation or instigation for the night's project - 10 minutes
  4. Tinkering, building and making - 60 minutes
  5. Reflection and debriefing - 20 minutes

(More details for each of these pieces can be found in the following steps of this Instructable.)

We cap attendance at around 20 people.

The event is also held in one of the design studios located on the MVPS campus where supplies, materials, tools, and space are readily available.

Step 2: Planning and Invitations

Before the event occurs, the MVIFI team discusses what the theme of the night will be, and works out the details regarding the materials/equipment - or facilitators - that will be needed for the night.

Then an invitation is sent out to various constituency groups to find out who would like to attend. We use Eventbrite to make it more official than just email, and so we can utilize the organizing features that that platform provides.

Here is an example of one of our invites.

Note that on that specific invitation, we shared with attendees what we would be working on that night. We are experimenting with the idea of making it a "surprise" for participants to see what impact that has on the learning side of things for them.

Step 3: "Visit and Eat" Event Component

This is a maker-themed event, so we try to have some kind of make-your-own-meal food... obviously! :-)

Tacos are a very popular choice!

This is also when we try to establish some of the fun, playfulness and camaraderie that is often found in maker-culture. Since this evening is going to have a lot of DIT (Do it Together) time, and many of the people attending may only know each other in a passing sort of way, the meal also serves as an ice breaker.

Step 4: "Watch a Video" Event Component

Here's where we start show connections between the big-world ideas related to the small-world topics the participants are about to dive into.

In edu-speak, this is often called "the hook for the lesson". Typically, parts of a TED talk are shown due to the often inspiring nature of the speakers and topics. Perhaps using examples can help to explain these points...

Dale Dougherty's talk "We are Makers" is pretty inspiring, but not focused on something specific enough to go and make it.

Mitch Resnick's talk "Let's Teach Kids to Code" gives an inspiring basis for why kids need to code, and also shows off a specific example of Scratch to help our maker night attendees know what they are getting into.

(There are others out there that are certainly able to hit the sweet spot that we are after. If you know some, please leave a link in the comments!)

Step 5: "Invitation or Instigation for the Night's Project" Event Component

This is where we do a little more formalized instruction regarding the work that folks are about to get into.

Sometimes this takes the form of an "invitation" where we ask participants to just "mess around" with some tools and materials to see what they can discover. Our instruction might be very specific, like how to activate a particular feature or function. Or extremely general, like take things from pile A and put them together somehow with an item from pile B.

Sometimes we present participants with an "instigation" where we ask them to reproduce a specific project. As before, our instruction can be very specific or very general. Typically with the general instructions, we encourage participants to look closely at a previously made example to determine how it was made - the visible thinking routine Parts, Purposes, Complexities is excellent for this task.

In either case, we are always sure to give them a prompt with a challenge to work toward. For instance, a prompt with an invitation might be: "Create a structure out of straws that can support an empty milk jug from the ceiling." A prompt for an instigation might be: "Create a LED lamp like the one here, but use something other than copper wire to complete the circuit."

Step 6: "Tinkering, Building and Making" Event Component

This is pretty self-explanatory :-)

Participants now have time to work towards their solution for the prompt that was given. The facilitator's job now becomes guiding their work through techniques that promote exploration, experimentation, and collaboration. Two big quotes are constantly kept in the heads of both facilitators and participants:

  1. "If you tell somebody something, you forever rob them of the chance to discover it themselves." -- quote from Curt Gabrielson.
  2. "Ask three before me" -- prompt from Gary Stager.

The first is intended to build confidence within the participant in the sense that they can do it themselves, and that if someone is going to help them, the helper isn't to do it for them.

The second promotes the DIT culture, and builds confidence in people (other than the facilitator) to realize that they are capable of teaching others too. Ideally, you can't tell who the facilitators actually are during the event since everyone is learning from everyone.

Step 7: "Reflection and Debriefing" Event Component

This is when participants step back from what they were making, and think about their personal making experience and the learning that occurred.

But before that happens, the participants are going to want to share what they did - whether dazzling or dismal... neither is better than the other at this point of the learning process. But keep in mind, successes shouldn't just be saved for the end of the night. Someone successfully getting their "LED lamp to turn on" needs to be shared during the course of the event so that others that haven't been successful yet, have a chance to learn from the work. The same can be said of mistakes and failures. Learning from the mistakes of others is another cost-saving/time-saving/sanity-saving way to build skills and capacities in maker-centered learning environments (or any environment for that matter).

After that, the reflective work starts to take center stage as people share their perspectives and introspective takeaways. Some prompts that help facilitate that:

  • "I used to think...., but now I think...."
  • "I like... I wish... I wonder...."
  • "Describe what was going on in your mind while you explored and created."
  • "When did play, passion, and purpose manifest themselves tonight for you?"
  • "What emotional connections to previous making experience did you have tonight?"
  • "What was the biggest obstacle you overcame tonight? What obstacle is still in your way?"
  • "What will you do next?"

Step 8: Giving Credit

After the event is over, we encourage the participants to share their continued reflections on the activities of the night. That may come in the form of tweets, Instagrams, blog posts, Storify stories, or other digital means. These reflections can then be used as submissions to our badging platform, Credly, so that they can be reviewed and a micro-credential issued. In this case, the xlr8: Maker badge.

We also give out xlr8: Maker Facilitator badges to folks that take the lead for the evening.

And speaking of giving credit, a huge thank you to Bo Adams for taking the pictures that adorn this Instructable so that folks would have visuals to go with the text on the page!

Step 9: Sharing Your Thoughts

Please take a moment to leave some thoughts on the design and structure of our evening. I know a lot of the people on Instructables are part of various makerspaces that host maker nights similar to ours. And it is those folks that can help us make our nights even better.

  • How are maker nights at your makerspaces set up?
  • What ideas should we consider?
  • What things did we forget to include?
  • What problems are we not seeing that our current design is going to cause for us?

Your feedback in the comments would be incredibly valuable to me and my team. And if you'd like to learn more about the genesis of our xlr8: Maker nights, consider reading our blog post on it.

Thanks so much for giving up some of your time to read our Instructable!