Introduction: Teacher Spotlight: KathyCeceri
Welcome to another Author Spotlight Interview!
The Instructables community is full of amazing and talented people. Author interviews are a way to spotlight individual Instructables authors, highlight their projects, and get to know them a little better and see what makes them tick.
For this Author Spotlight Interview, I had the opportunity to chat with KathyCeceri. Kathy is an author, STEAM educator, and all around amazing person.
I had the privilege of working with Kathy Ceceri during World Maker Faire New York, when she was teaching a class on creating robotic hands using household supplies. I've long been impressed by Kathy's ability to explain typically complex concepts in ways that young and old are able to easy pick up and put into practice.
Step 1: I Decided to Try Using a Hands-on Learning Approach All the Way Through K-12
You dove into hands-on learning when you started homeschooling your kids. Could you tell me why you decided to go that route for teaching, and how you feel the DIY approach worked for you and your kids?
As a kid, school only seemed interesting to me when we got to make things -- like a model city -- or demonstrate things, like how to shoot and edit an 8mm movie. I never saw myself as a teacher! Then one day, as a stringer for a local newspaper, I got to interview early childhood educator Bev Bos. Her schtick was letting preschoolers create using their hands and bodies. No worksheets, no kindergarten prep. I was already leaning towards homeschooling my own kids when they reached school age, and I decided to carry her hands-on learning approach all the way through K-12.
Judging by how my kids turned out, I think it worked. One went from obsessive Lego building to robotics as a teen, to video game design and programming in college, to building wearable fabric controllers with Arduino, to writing instructional materials for learning software as an adult. The other began writing a movie review column (for pay) at age 9, taught himself Autodesk Maya to do video animation, went on to make award-winning animated and live-action films as a teen (using a steady-cam and camera dolly made from old tripods and PVC pipes), earned a degree in film-making, and now is working on TV shows and movies.
As for me, after I got my “teacher training” leading workshops for our circle of homeschooling friends, I began teaching afterschool enrichment classes at local public schools and libraries. I enjoy giving kids the opportunity to do something different and creative without worrying about grades or tests. And I love seeing how much they learn in the process. I’ve taught “Invent Your Own Country” classes where students created artifacts like passports and money (and learned about borders and economic systems) and robotics classes where kids made working robot hands and gravity-powered walkers from ordinary crafts materials. At the same time, I wrote project how-tos for Home Education Magazine, FamilyFun, Wired.com, and Make magazine. And I now have more than a dozen non-fiction activity books for kids to my name as well!
Step 2: The Goal Isn’t to Turn Every Kid Into an Engineer -- It’s to Introduce Them to Engineering Concepts That Can Help Them With Any Creation Process
As an English major with no formal training in STEM or the classroom, what advice do you have for parents or educators who want to introduce their kids to makerspace activities but feel overwhelmed at the idea of incorporating projects into their curriculum? How do you ease their transition to disciplines they may not be comfortable with?
I totally understand the feeling of having no idea where to start with a STEM project! I even gave a talk one year at World Maker Faire New York called “Engineering for English Majors.” What I tell parents and educators is that you don’t have to know everything. In fact, kids benefit when you show them how to research projects online or in print, and seek out experts and mentors to guide and advise you. The goal isn’t to turn every kid into an engineer -- it’s to introduce them to engineering concepts that can help them with any creation process.
In fact, looking at how much I use the same materials and techniques to teach both art and science, and how the overlap between technology and design, I came up with a Venn diagram that shows some of the ways art, engineering, and inventing intersect. They’re not as different as you might think!
For adults who are intimidated by a science or technology project, I suggest starting with activities that use skills you already have, like working with crafts materials and tools. Maybe make a Gravity-Powered Robot Walker with bamboo skewers and folded cardstock legs. Or try some kitchen chemistry using cooking techniques. Build on what you already know, then take it a step further as you gain confidence.
Step 3: It Always Helps to Share Your Projects Online
You’ve published 13 books across a wide range of disciplines, from papercraft to robots, food hacks to fiber tech, and a lot more. I’m curious how you approach each new discipline, and if you have any strategies or techniques that might help others?
I’m a dabbler. I love trying new things, seeing what people have done with it, and then figuring out how to do something similar at a really basic level. I don’t feel the need to master every area I explore. I guess my strategy is to see if I can do just enough to impress someone who’s never tried it at all, lol! When your audience is kids and beginners, you can get away with being a novice at everything.
And it always helps to share your projects online, and bask in that warm glow of seeing your stuff featured on Instructables.
Step 4: I Guess the Perfect How-to Has a Balance of Just Enough Information to Get You Through the Project, and a Little Bit of Background to Pique the Reader’s Interest
Your instructions always feel easy to understand even when they’re explaining complex topics. Is there any advice you’d give to others thinking of writing instructions or tutorials on keeping complex topics simple?
Don’t assume anything. Or at the very least, assume your audience knows next to nothing about your particular topic. That can be hard to do when you’ve been doing something at a competent level for a long time, but it’s really important. It’s easy to be discouraged when you have to Google a term for a technique or piece of equipment in Step 1 (believe me, I know).
If anything, I have to stop myself from explaining too much! It’s also important to keep your instructions from rambling, and your tone light and welcoming. I guess the perfect how-to has a balance of just enough information to get you through the project, and a little bit of background to pique the reader’s interest and give them further avenues to explore, without going overboard.
Step 5: Leave Your Audience Room to Start Thinking About How to Improve Upon Your Project and Make It Their Own
School often makes it hard for kids -- and teachers -- to step out of their comfort zone and try something new. What tips do you have for adults who want to inspire kids to take risks and experiment with their projects, rather than worrying about a grade or trying to be perfect?
There’s a philosophy of Maker education that says keep your examples clear but stripped down, even unfinished. Experts have some more jargon-y term for it, like “imperfect prototype,” but in my head, it’s always “crappy example.”
For example, I was once building some sample cardboard pinball machines for a library workshop. I was just about to start a new version with a few improvements, when I realized that the kids would learn more if I asked them to suggest things I could try to fix my model’s issues. And they did!
The point is to show your students how the thing you’re building is put together and how it works, without worrying too much about how good it looks or trying to get all the kinks out. Martha Stewart perfection is intimidating for them, and frankly, it’s more work for you.
Instead, leave your audience room to start thinking about how to improve upon your project and make it their own.
Step 6: Kids Don't Get to Take Things Apart Nowadays
What is your favorite hands-on classroom project?
I love to have kids make real working robots out of recycled stuff. Kids don't get to take things apart nowadays (and often when they do, all they see is some printed circuit boards).
But give them a dollar store solar garden light and a screwdriver and have them take it apart, and suddenly they’re exploring electrical circuits and “programmable bodies” that move different ways because of how their parts are put together. The problem with using recyclables and cast-offs, unfortunately, is that what’s widely available today can sometimes disappear tomorrow. Staples like film canisters and plastic straws can become extinct overnight. You used to be able to make my Solar WobbleBot completely out of stuff from the junk drawer -- the best motors came from old Walkman CD players. But I love that project so much, I’m willing to scour eBay for the motors I need.
Step 7: Scale Down Expectations
How are you transitioning your workshops and classes from in person to online, and are there any suggestions you have for others in a similar situation?
This spring, I was asked to teach my hands-on workshops on Zoom, for kids at home. It was a real challenge, because I had to assume they only had access to normal household stuff. I managed to come up with some versions of my projects that only required everyday things like paper and old t-shirts. At the the Empire State Maker Faire on October 16, I’m going to be giving one of my T-Shirt Tote Bag workshops, along with a presentation for teachers showing other ideas for things you can realistically teach kids at home.
For my upcoming Build BOTS robotics course through Maker Camp, I’ll be pointing students to the parts bundle they can buy through Adafruit, but also telling them how to salvage almost all the electronics they need from dollar store stuff. That information is in the BOTS book as well -- I like the fact that anyone can learn high-level concepts without the need for an expensive kit.
I think the key to helping kids follow along with hands-on projects at home is to scale down expectations. Make it easy and fun -- nobody needs extra stress at a time like this. Limit yourself to one or two kinds of materials, and keep tools to ordinary school supplies like scissors and pencils. And reduce build time to just 10 minutes, 20 at most. Leave time for questions, and time for kids to show you and each other what they’ve made. Even if you’re only interacting via chat, it’s still nice to have a little human connection if you can manage it.
Step 8: To Really Understand What You’re Doing and Be Able to Do It on Your Own, You Need to DIY
What advice do you have for Teachers on the fence about using Instructables or Tinkercad in their class?
Kits are nice. Premade, scripted curriculum that tells you exactly what to say and do is helpful. But to really understand what you’re doing and be able to do it on your own, you need to DIY. And that’s what Instructables is great at. I look at the site every day, just for the pleasure of seeing what crazy but practical thing somebody thought up!
Tinkercad is another tool I love to use with students. When it comes to teaching software, I’m still at the drag-and-drop level, and I’m perfectly happy there. You can get a good grounding in the building blocks of how coding works and start inventing your own stuff pretty quickly. Tinkercad is so easy, you can start doodling and messing almost immediately. It really lets you get into the zone, where happy accidents and connections can start to form. That’s a fantastic way to use STEAM to develop students’ capacity for creativity and wonder