Questions and Reflections from “Programmable Puppets” Teen Workshop at Cal Academy

This past weekend, one of my teammates and I led a youth workshop called "Programmable Puppets" for 15 Bay Area teens at the California Academy of Sciences. The purpose of this workshop was to expose teens to a couple of fun digital technologies and have them explore their interests in animal behavior through the process of creating a tech-powered puppet. In addition, this was a pilot project for my team to explore how to create short but impactful introductions to science and technology for teens at our museum.

We had the major pieces of the workshop pretty much worked out prior to the workshop, since we've done other similar activities before. But there were still lots of programmatic challenges and questions that we confronted. 

One of the challenges of a one-off workshop is that you have little time between meeting your kids, engaging in some initial activities, and working toward the main goal to analyze the situation and come up with the optimal approaches. Sometimes you get a group of teens who are just super jazzed to learn science and dive deep into whatever technology you throw at them. And sometimes you get a group of teens who came because their parents' made them, who don't really care about science that much, and want to do the absolute minimum amount of work. And most likely, you get a mixture of both kinds of teens.

One of the questions we had was what is the right balance of independent work and group collaboration to organize for these teens. For this workshop, we favored mostly independent work time, but with opportunities for collaboration and teamwork that kids could take advantage of or not. This seemed to work out quite well.

For most of the time, teens worked diligently and happily on their own projects, without much interaction with their peers. There were long spells of quiet, focused activity, broken only by the occasional question for one of the facilitators.

That said, we did see some spontaneous collaboration happen. Unprompted, we witnessed kids jump up to help out other kids with a particular programming problem or a design issue with their puppet circuitry. We also limited the supply of some technology so kids had to share access to some of the tools, which encouraged communication and negotiation. We didn't see the typical gender divisions in the room in seating or teamwork. We saw at least three mixed-gender teams working together on similar projects, helping each other and chatting amiably.

Integrating late-comers is an ongoing and ever-present challenge with teen programs. We had one girl come rushing in, flustered and nervous, an hour into our workshop. "Sorry, we overslept," she explained, sheepishly. Jeff, my co-facilitator, suggested we put her with a table of kids who seemed to be working well together. I asked one of the boys to show her what he was doing, and help her get started. They ended up happily working together the entire time, and made one of the most creative puppets of the entire group.

We also wanted to support kids working at different speeds and employing different strategies to get to the goal of a programmable puppet. We did this through giving fairly cursory introductions to the tools, and encouraging the kids to explore on their own how those tools worked through trial-and-error and sharing their findings with each other.

We observed a number of different approaches to tackling the design challenge. One kid spent a lot of time playing around with the code and the devices before starting to create his puppet. Other kids wanted to get into the actual puppet craft-making quickly and figure out the circuitry along the way. Two kids spent most of their time coding an entirely different program to interact with their puppet unprompted, and produced some cool animations that synced with the motions of their puppets.

We also had kids with different levels of interest and engagement, as you might expect for a drop-in workshop.  

At least a couple of the boys were focused on getting done with the tasks as quickly as possible and doing the minimum amount of work. I gave them the option of going deeper, or doing a harder challenge, but they chose to just "chill out" while the rest of the kids finished their puppets. In other kinds of programs, I would have sat down with those kids and tried to find ways for them to be meaningfully engaged. But for such a short, drop-in program, that is probably going to be a regular occurence.

It didn't make me feel great seeing them basically sitting in the corners playing with their phones for some parts of the workshop. But that was their choice, and I had a roomful of other kids who were excited to do the activities and competing for my attention.  That said, I do wonder if there is more we could have done to re-engage those two teens.

By contrast, we had a couple of kids who went beyond the original design challenge and invented their own challenges for themselves. One teen decided he wanted his puppet to trigger an animation on the computer screen when it opened its mouth. Another teen who was adept at coding spent much of the time helping other kids with their projects.

For the future, I'd like to offer more of a pathway for kids who were excited about particular parts of the workshop to go deeper, either on their own or as part of an organized program offered by the Academy of another institution. We're still working on that part. But we do have connections to these youth, many of whom we believe had a very fun and educational day with us.

Overall, I was very pleased with how this pilot workshop went, and think this is evidence that we are on the right track in programming short, fun introductions to technologies and science for our youth community. In the coming year, we'll be doing a lot more of these, and definitely will have a lot more data points to learn from, so we can best serve our teen audiences.

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