Mission Control: Behind the Scenes of Our First Virtual Teens Summer Program

DATE:  June 24, 2020     CATEGORIES:  Classes, Current Classes, Education, Robotics

Calling all junior engineers and roboticists: Help us colonize Mars! Artisan’s Asylum is embracing the virtual and has relaunched our summer teen program, incorporating creative role-playing with a trip to Mars. We’re ready for teens to aid a team of astronauts arriving on their mission to build the planet’s first, life-sustaining structure. During the two-week program, teens will be challenged with daily missions, building robotic arms, modeling and constructing habitats in TinkerCAD, and more—all while having fun, learning and creative problem-solving. 

The Martian theme was inspired by the rapid shift to using online platforms as our main means of communication. Anyone who’s used Zoom to connect with family or co-workers since the pandemic began may have felt a little like Captain Kirk, Hans Solo, or any countless other space explorers seen in movies or television. We have become so familiar with the classic sci-fi’s depiction of space communication via screen that framing our class with this type of story makes it feel almost—dare we say—normal. 

Initially, our teen programming was scheduled to launch at our Somerville facility this August. After the pandemic forced Artisan’s to close to the public, the team met with the education staff to brainstorm a virtual program that integrated into their initial plans, but under a new theme. Space exploration seemed the most engaging candidate for adapting some of the existing projects and exciting everyone. 

Three experts will lead the missions, teaching different aspects of programming, robotics, engineering, and 3D modeling and construction: Mike Beach, Nick Anastasia, and Sal Mancini—all long-time Artisan’s Asylum members and instructors. 

“Because we’re all stuck inside during COVID-19, it seemed like fun to imagine we were stuck in a small spaceship to Mars,” says Mike. “[Any] issues [that occur with the] online platform—delay, broken audio—well, that sure looks a lot like being an astronaut or pilot. It accidentally improves the role play experience.”

Nick agrees. “Mission control and astronauts … can only communicate via voice, video and file transfers. So we’re leaning into the idea that the students and the instructors are separated as such, and need to solve problems regardless.” 

The online experience will, of course, present challenges, and the team has designed the curriculum to adjust to any issues that arise. Typically, instructors would demonstrate how to use a tool close-up and help students troubleshoot at their side. But in this program, students will be challenged to come up with the design first, test out their models at home and then send their designs to the team after they’ve found a strategy that works. This inversion of a traditional pedagogy allows the instructor and students more time for troubleshooting remotely.

“We thought a lot about working backwards to ensure students have plenty of hands-on time, even though they’ll be working on their designs at home. Rather than spending so much time on Zoom walking students through step-by-step and having difficulties with all the troubleshooting, we’re letting students explore and discover on their own. The team is there to provide guidance and insight, rather than dictate instructions,” says Education Director Anne Wright.

“Online we will all have to move more slowly and ask more questions,” Mike says. But with two weeks and several missions to complete, the team is nimble enough to deal with the challenges presented by the virtual environment.

Mike, Nick and Sal all have experience teaching adults and teens, and are excited to engage with students who are curious about technology and how things work. Mike teaches electronics and soldering at the Asylum and helps host Circuit Hacking, which is now also online. He’s also tutored middle school students in math and has volunteered for after school programs. Nick has been teaching kids and adults Parkour since 2013, and currently teaches bike repair and fabrication at Artisan’s. Sal specializes in woodworking and teaches in Artisan’s woodshop. He also  spent many years as an instructor for YouthBuild, which provides vocational education, counseling, and other life skills to underserved students.

“I like teaching anyone of any age,” says Mike, who enjoys helping folks figure out how to make their ideas become a reality. “A big part of why I like teaching through Artisan’s—it’s a hands-on, experimental, experiential learning environment.”

During the program, students will be challenged, but also inspired. Mike says, “I’d like [our students] to learn that it’s okay to make mistakes. To show how to observe what went wrong and iterate toward better—whatever ‘better’ means to [their] project … I’d also like the students to surprise themselves by what they can do.” 

Nick hopes the program will encourage students to experiment with new technology. “I want to inspire teens to find their passion for working with their hands and making things. I wish I had access to programming like this when I was younger,” he says.

This two-week program is scheduled to run in both July and August:

Sign up for Mission 1: July 20, 10 a.m.–July 31, 3 p.m.;  or
Sign up for Mission 2: Aug 10, 10 a.m.–Aug 21, 3 p.m.

Artisan’s Asylum is dedicated to ensuring great education and creative opportunities are available to everyone—growing our community and diversity. For Mission Control, we are implementing a “pay-what-you-can-afford” model, enabling equitable access for families of any income level. Simply sign up for the program online, and pay an amount that makes the program affordable for your family. 

All we ask is that, if you can afford to contribute more, please do. Your generosity will ensure programs such as this one will remain affordable for all members of the community into the future.

For more information on our other Summer 2020 Online Youth Classes, visit https://artisansasylum.com/youth2020/.