Planning a class
Individual classes versus series
Makerspace classes can be either single events or series. An individual class covers the entire subject matter in the course of a single class. Classes in a series can either be structured such that each class builds upon the previous one, or can simply be a collection of classes on a single theme.
When choosing whether to offer single classes or series, the default is usually a single class, with a series usually only offered if a makerspace is reasonably certain that there is a core group of people with sufficient interest in a particular topic to want to take multiple classes in it, with enough availability to be able to take multiple classes, and who are also the kind of people who like to take classes, rather than preferring to figure things out on their own. That being said, series classes can offer enrichment that a single class simply cannot provide.
Single classes are usually the most common type. They are generally the easiest to plan, and they require only a one-time commitment from their attendees, instructor, space, and equipment. Individual classes can, of course, be offered many times if the interest is there, but the scheduling tends to be more flexible than a series class.
Classes in a series offer an opportunity to explore a topic in greater depth than a single class can do. For instance, a single class could teach the basics of veneer marquetry using a laser cutter, whereas a series of classes could go into greater depth on understanding and handling veneer, what makes a design suitable for marquetry, tips on using a laser cutter on veneer, understanding how grain orientation affects the final results, what types of wood finishes work best for a marquetry piece, and so forth. A series also allows participants to complete a far more complicated project than a single class allows for.
Sequential series classes
Series classes are often structured as a sequence, like the veneer marquetry example above, where each class builds on material presented in the previous classes and/or participants are working on a single project through the whole sequence of classes. In these cases, participants are expected to attend all the classes in a series. Series like these allow participants to gain a far greater depth of knowledge than a single class can offer, but they also require a much more significant commitment of time. If contemplating offering a class series, it is a very good idea to first bounce the concept off a number of the people who might be interested in it, in order to get a feel for whether a series will be able to gain traction at your makerspace.
Nonsequential series classes
It is also possible to offer a series of classes that do not require participants to attend every class. For instance, you might create a series called "Understanding Wood," where one class teaches you how to read the grain of a piece of wood, another discusses some of the most readily-available wood species, another explores the many different kinds of plywood, and so forth. In this case, participants can attend whichever classes strike their interest without having to commit to attending an entire series.
Project-based versus skill-building
The other major dichotomy in working out a class is to decide whether to structure it as a project-based class or a skill-building class. Obviously there is a certain amount of overlap between these two, since we generally build skills while working on projects. The main difference is that with a project-based class there is a specific project that all members of the class will be working on during that class, whereas with a skill-building class any projects worked on during the class are usually minor and designed purely to demonstrate aspects of the skill, rather than being ends in themselves.
Both project-based classes and skill-building classes can be offered either as single classes or as series.
Designing a successful project-based class
In general, a successful makerspace project-based class should be:
- Affordable to its participants
- Able to be completed during the class
- A project that people will want to make
- A project that encourages individualization
Affordable to its participants: Where are supplies coming from?
One big question with any project-based class is where the supplies for the project are going to be coming from. In some cases it is possible to get supplies donated for the class, but most often either the makerspace is paying for the supplies, the makerspace is charging participants a fee for the supplies, or the participants are bringing their own supplies. It is also possible to do a mix of these, with the makerspace providing some of the supplies and participants bringing other supplies.
If the makerspace is paying for supplies, that obviously limits the projects that can be offered based on the budget of the makerspace. On the other hand, it offers the benefits of maker opportunities to people who can't afford the supplies or who don't have the transportation to get to places to buy the supplies, which is often a highly marginalized demographic in the maker world.
On the other hand, asking participants to bring some or all of the needed supplies has a number of benefits. For one thing, it allows participants to choose the size/style/color/etc. of the items they bring. This is especially important for wearable items — for a customized t-shirt class, for instance, it is pretty much always the best plan to have participants bring their own shirts.
Another benefit to having participants bring supplies is that it gives them a chance to get familiar with places to buy the things they need, which helps them take a step towards becoming independent makers. One attendee at a makerspace sewing project class, for instance, said that he chose to sign up for the class because it would force him to actually walk into a fabric store and learn how to find things there.
The major drawback to having participants bring supplies — other than the fact that it limits participation to those who are able to buy supplies — is that it can add an element of chaos to the actual class-time. There is always someone who forgot to bring the supplies, or brought the wrong thing, or brought something that sort of fit the description of what they were supposed to bring, but isn't really going to work. For instance, those who design sewing project classes quickly learn that there is always that one person who brings polar fleece to the class even if polar fleece is totally unsuited to the project at hand. Likewise, in one class on laser-monogramming a cutting board, one participant brought a cutting board made from end-grain, which doesn't laser well, another brought one with a thick polyurethane finish that was going to be problematic to laser, and another person, despite signing up for a cutting board class, chose to bring a big painted wooden plate that she wanted to monogram. This is just part of the fun of offering makerspace classes! You, the instructor, are a maker, after all; you should be able to expect a little chaos and take it in stride!
The more makerspace classes you design and offer, the greater experience you gain in figuring out how to list needed supplies so as to minimize the chance for error. Generally speaking, as the list of things a participant needs to bring increases in length, the chance for error and misinterpretation rises exponentially. In a public library makerspace setting, for instance, it is rarely wise to ask participants to bring more than one or two items to a class. It is also important to consider the overall cost of the supplies participants are being asked to bring to keep from pricing yourself out of your market, or preventing people with lower incomes from taking the class.
Charging participants a fee for the class can often be the simplest solution to the supplies quandary. That way the instructor knows that the proper supplies are going to be provided, of the proper quality, and in the proper quantities. The drawback here is that many people seem to have a mental block against paying for a class, even if they would be willing to spend that same amount of money buying supplies to bring to the class. This seems to be especially the case in public library makerspaces. People who frequent public libraries generally expect everything at the library to be free, period, end of discussion. They are generally happy to bring supplies, but rarely open to the idea of paying the library a supplies fee. If you are not sure whether the users of your makerspace are willing to pay a supplies fee, give it a try and then stay alert to feedback.
Able to be completed during the class
People who sign up for project-based classes are generally those who are not quite comfortable with either their own creativity or own skill levels, and hence are not quite ready to be designing their own projects in a particular area. That means that it will take them much longer to complete a project than it takes you, the experienced maker. And if the class requires people to share equipment, that slows things down even further. Likewise, classes are a social experience, and a certain amount of chit-chat and off-task goofing around is part and parcel of the experience. As a general rule of thumb, therefore, do not consider a project for a class unless you, the experienced maker, can easily complete it from start to finish in half the length of time that the class is going to last, or less.
… Which brings up another important guideline: always, always, always test-run a project yourself before committing to offer it as a class. Sometimes things that worked beautifully for someone on an internet blog do not work so smoothly for you, even if it seemed utterly fool-proof. Always test-run. Always. Even if, say, you are offering a soldering project class, and you have been soldering since you were five years old, still take the time to test-run the specific project you are planning to do for the class.
Also, try to avoid projects that have more than one complicated element. A sewing project that includes setting a zipper, for instance, should be very basic in all other respects. This allows the participants to focus on and master the one complicated element, and it also helps keep the project simple enough to be completed during the class time.
A project that people will want to make
The ideal parameters of a makerspace project for a class will, of course, vary wildly based on the type of makerspace and the target audience of the class. In a public library makerspace, experience has shown that people are drawn to classes that teach a project that they can then make as a personalized/customized gift for someone — personalized t-shirts, monogrammed cutting boards, custom-etched wine glasses — things that allow people to make a unique gift tend to be popular.
A project that encourages individualization
It is important to remember that this is a makerspace, not a summer craft camp. Classes should be aimed at building makers, not teaching people to blindly follow directions. The best projects for makerspace classes give people an opportunity to make their project, not yours. Always try to plan an element of creativity and individualization.
Designing a successful skill-building class
The type of skill selected for a skill-building class can be selected to highlight the capabilities of a particular piece of equipment, or based on the needs and interests of makerspace users. For instance, a skill-building class could teach how to change the settings on a serger to access the various stitches available. The goal here would be to broaden people's conception of what the serger can do and start them thinking in new directions for future projects. Or, if your makerspace has a core group of 3D printer users who play D&D, you could design a skill-building class aimed at helping them create and personalize the figurines and models they use in the game.
Skill-building classes can also teach a particular technique. For instance, a sewing class could teach basic techniques of pattern modification, or a woodworking class could teach proper wood-finishing techniques.
When selecting a skill for a skill-building class, it is important to think through the level of skill that that class presupposes. For instance, the sewing pattern modification class mentioned above assumes that the participants know what to do with the pattern once they have modified it, and the D&D 3D modeling class above assumes that participants will know how to print the model once they create it. In order for a skill-building class to work, you need to be fairly confident that there is a sufficient group of people who have the skills your class presupposes, but do not have the skill your class is teaching. This can be done simply by staying aware of your makerspace users' skill levels and interests, or by some sort of formal or informal survey, or by simply offering a class and seeing what happens.
Skill-building classes often work well in a series format. People who are interested in building skills often want to build multiple skills in a given area.
Preparing for a class
Once you have the class structure and content sorted out, there are a few more things to settle before actually teaching the class.
Choosing a class size
Generally speaking, the goal is to allow as many people to take the class as the structure of the class will allow. Some things that limit class size include:
- Number of available pieces of equipment or necessary supplies. The number of available laptops, or sewing machines, or soldering irons will limit the number of people who can take the class. Even if multiple people can share a piece of equipment, there is still a cap on the number who can do so while still completing the project or learning the skill in the available time. If, for instance, everyone is sharing a single laser cutter, and each project will take 15 minutes, then a maximum of 4 people can be in the class for every hour the class is long, assuming that no buffer-time is needed between one project finishing and the next being started.
- Size of the area where the class will take place. Everyone in the class needs to have a place to work.
- Amount of help the instructor needs to give to each individual. In a lecture-style presentation this is not so much of an issue, but where an instructor is helping individuals work on a project, the number of people an instructor can help depends on how much of the instructor's time each individual is likely to need.
Choosing a class length
Optimal class length depends on the availability and attention-span of the intended audience and the complexity of the subject matter of the class. A class aimed at children should obviously be significantly shorter than a class aimed at retired adults can be. Weekend classes can often be longer than weekday classes, because more people have significant chunks of free time on weekends. Likewise, a more complex class will require a longer class time than a fairly simple one will.
Identifying the needed supplies and equipment
While test-running the project for a project-based class, make a list of every single thing you used as part of the project, including the rough amount of table-space it took up, whether you needed access to power outlets, and even list things like scissors and pencils that you tend to take for granted.
As part of preparing for the class, determine which items on the list you will be asking class participants to bring, and then be sure you are able to round up enough of everything else for the expected number of people in the class. Sometimes this involves getting slightly inventive with extension cords and power strips, for instance, and it is better to have all this sorted out before the class, rather than suddenly realizing in the middle of the class that half your people don't have a place to plug in, or that you only have three pairs of scissors available for a class of 20.
Preparing for the unexpected
Although many of the unexpected things that can go wrong during a class are, as it were, unexpected, there are a handful of "standard emergencies" that an instructor can expect and be prepared for.
People not coming prepared
If your class asks people to bring certain items with them, there will always be someone who forgets, or who brings something that isn't at all what you specified. If your class expects people to already have certain skills, there will always be that one person who is sure they can just pick it up as they go along. It is even the case that if your class is an hour and a half long, someone will sign up for it despite only having 45 minutes available before they have to leave to go pick up their kid from dance class.
Every instructor has to decide how far to go in accommodating situations like this, and it can be a rather individual decision. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself "can I make the accommodations necessary to enable this person to succeed without short-changing the other members of the class or setting an undesirable precedent?" If yes, then by all means go for it. If no, then regretfully explain to the person that this class just isn't going to be able to work out for them this time.
Sometimes making concessions like loaning an unprepared person necessary supplies can set a precedent, causing that person to think that it is ok not to bring the things the class requires. Most people most of the time are profoundly grateful to you for helping them out when they are not prepared, but there is the occasional person who, if you give them an inch, will take a mile. With practice, it is fairly easy to learn to pick these people out (they often don't seem apologetic about being unprepared, for instance), and to adjust the accommodations you are willing to make accordingly.
At some point during the class one of the 3D printers is going to jam, or one of the laptops is going to freeze up, or someone is going to manage to get the serger threads in a thoroughly impressive tangle. If you are not confident that you can fix most things that might go wrong, then before the class it is important to get the contact information of someone who can, and who will be available during the class.
Before a class always make sure you know the location of things like first aid kits and fire extinguishers. Also be sure you know who to contact if something serious happens during the class.
Part of the job of the instructor is to alert people to potential hazards and help them work safely, and most of the time most classes should be injury-free, but accidents and mistakes do happen, and it is the part of the prepared instructor to know how to handle them.
Things taking longer than anticipated
Sometimes one person just takes longer to do things than average, sometimes the entire class just takes longer than the instructor anticipated. As part of preparing for the class, figure out what your options are should this happen. Can the one person stay late to finish? Can they leave the project and come back to work on it later? Will the instructor be available if they do so? If the whole class goes late, does someone else have the space reserved after the class is over, or can things go late without problem. If someone has to leave when the class was supposed to be done, what options does that person have?
Teaching a class
Every instructor has their own teaching style and their own personality, but there are a handful of things that it is important to stay aware of during a class.
Keeping people on task without being a taskmaster
Taking a makerspace class is a social experience, and there are people who enjoy taking classes as much for the social element as anything. If you teach many classes at the same location you will quickly learn who those people are. They generally sign up for lots of classes, and spend at least as much time talking as they do listening or working during those classes. There is nothing wrong with people enjoying social time during a makerspace class, but as the instructor it is important to be sure that these people do not take over the class with their desire to talk, and that they are not getting on the nerves of people who are not as overpoweringly social. It is frequently important to gently redirect them or sometimes tactfully cut them off in mid-story, and occasionally even necessary to physically relocate them to a different table or part of the room (in as friendly and tactful a manner as possible) in order to ensure that everyone in the class is able to have a productive class time.
Sometimes an entire class goes wandering off on detours. If there is plenty of time and everyone seems happy with it, by all means let them enjoy a detour. People who sign up for makerspace classes are generally doing it for fun, so let the class have fun. But as the instructor it is also your responsibility to ensure that everyone in the class walks away with what they signed up for – a completed project, or an acquired skill, or whatever it may be. Generally, the best way to get people back on task is to meet them where they are and then lead the way back to where you want them to be. Join in the detour briefly and cheerfully, and then model getting back on task.
Handling divergent levels of skills and abilities
Unless a class is a straight lecture, which is not the norm in makerspaces, different people are going to move through a project or grasp the skills being taught at different levels and different speeds. If the class is one where it is fine for people to move at different speeds and the instructor can bounce around to different people as they are ready and give them help as they need it, then there is no problem; but sometimes a class format requires everyone in the class to finish Step A before the instructor presents/explains Step B, and in these cases you generally have some people who finish a step quickly and are bored and twiddling their thumbs while others are feeling like they are being pushed faster than they are comfortable going.
Staying aware of how people are doing
If it is possible, circulating through the class and seeing how people are doing is the best way to stay aware of people's progress and difficulties. If this is not possible, and you need to stay aware of people's progress by asking questions of the entire class, phrasing of the question matters. If, for instance, you ask "Is everyone ready to move on?" about half the people who really are ready to move on simply won't bother to respond. But if you phrase the question "Does anyone need more time?" then the people who do need more time will almost always indicate it. No doubt there is some fundamental psychological law or other at work here, but for whatever reason, it is a waste of your breath to ask "Is everyone ready to move on?"
Allowing people to move at different speeds
Again, where possible you should always try to allow people to move at the speed that is comfortable for them. If you do need everyone to move at more or less the same speed, there are some things you can do to level the playing field a bit. One valuable tactic is to enlist the help of people who finish quickly. If you see someone who is done, ask them if they would mind giving a hand to a person who is having more trouble. Makers are generally friendly, sharing types of people, and the person who was done quickly often gets a bit of an ego boost out of being asked to help someone else, so this usually works well, but if either of the people involved seems uncomfortable with the situation, then let the idea drop.
Resisting the urge to do things for them
Often, one of the hardest things to do as an instructor when a person is struggling with a step of a project, is to resist the all-but-overpowering urge to take the project out of their hands and do it for them. It is important to remember here that it is really about the person, not the project. In makerspace classes we are building makers, not filling the world with completed projects. Give your class members the space they need to learn a skill for themselves.
That being said, there are times when a class member honestly does need you to do a step for them – generally when time is running short and their frustration level has reached the point where they are no longer able to learn – but these times should be the exception rather than the rule.
Handling the unexpected
If you have prepared for the unexpected as discussed above, then you should be more or less ready to handle most of the "standard" unexpected things that can go wrong while you are teaching a class. Sometimes, however, things happen for which you were not in any way prepared. There is unfortunately no magic fix for this; there are times when you just have to roll with what comes. The most helpful thing in this situation is to have a second person available onto whom you can shove the crisis while you keep your focus on keeping the class running as smoothly as possible. Whether the crisis is "can you run off five more copies of this handout for me?" or "can you call an ambulance?" having a wingman is a tremendous help.
Evaluating a class
In order to continue to strengthen your makerspace's class offerings, it is important to get feedback from the people who took the class. It is also helpful to get feedback from people who didn't take the class, to find out what classes they wished you offered, but that is a topic for another time.
During the class
Most people have been taught to be polite rather than honest, and will lie through their teeth rather than tell you to your face that they think your class was a waste of time. There is only just so much useful feedback you can get from a class while the class is running, especially with everything else that you as an instructor are having to keep in mind and pay attention to while you are teaching a class. You can try to keep an eye on people's body language, and be alert to spontaneous "oh, wow, this is so cool!" type statements, but the best feedback usually has to be given anonymously, unless you happen to have some amazingly blunt people taking your class.
After the class
A simple one-or-two-question survey handed out at the end of the class, asking very open-ended questions (for instance, "was this class what you expected it to be?" or "what are some ways we could improve this class?") can often elicit valuable feedback. Usually about half the people in a class can't be bothered to fill these out, but that is fine – it still gives the people who have something to say a way to say it.
It is also helpful for you as the instructor to take a few minutes after a class to think about and make notes of what went well and didn't go well with the class from your perspective. If you teach many makerspace classes, these notes will be helpful in making both your classes and your teaching style better.