Mentoring tips

The role of a Young Maker mentor is to help one or more project teams find a project vision if they don't already have one, and then to help them realize that vision for exhibition at Maker Faire. Along the way, we encourage mentors to exploit the teachable moments that naturally occur during making to expose the underlying math, science, and engineering principles involved. We also expect mentors to pass on their knowledge of proper tool usage and safety. Finally, an important role for mentors is to demonstrate to Young Makers the importance of failure as a means to success. That is, to expect and embrace failure as a normal part of the making process.

It is difficult to be a good mentor. While there is no simple recipe for how to do it, there are a number of tips that have been gleaned from effective mentors. This page is intended to present a number of these -- please add comments to this page to pass on lessons that you've learned.

  • As a Young Maker mentor, I found it beneficial to give the participants free range in choosing their project and then helping them narrow the scope through planning and experimentation.  Part of the Maker's process is dealing with the realities of time and budget as well as developing new skill sets, and it's more fun to watch the kids think through their goals than to give them "assignments".  For example, if a Young Maker said they wanted to build a spaceship, I'd definitely encourage them (and agree how cool that would be), but then ask some probing questions about what part of the experience they're most interested in so we could adapt the project accordingly.  If they wanted to physically crawl into a box and perhaps feel a sensation of weightlessness, then maybe we'd start a discussion about constructing an isolation/flotation tank.  If they were more interested in propulsion, then maybe a scale model rocket might be an appropriate starter project.  Interested in the view looking back down onto the earth?  Start an exploration about the possibility of a remote camera attached to a balloon.  Encourage the kids' wild ideas, but then engage them in thinking about where you might find the construction parts, and whether they would need to be purchased or could be salvaged or recycled.  This kind of discussion will lead the Young Makers to their own realizations about what might be practical but still allow them to fully define their own project goals.
  • Let the kids fail, while monitoring their safety.  Occasional failure, and the accompanying recovery and adaptation, are an important part of the learning process.  If you think you see something faulty, point it out (in advance if possible), but try to avoid insisting things be done a certain way unless safety is an issue.  You'll be surprised how many different paths lead to the same goal, or what new ideas are developed by accident.
  • Encourage your Young Maker(s) to keep a notebook for jotting down their ideas.  Low-tech, affordable by all.  Graph paper is a useful tool for discussions of physical scale: OK, you want to build that... say one square represents six inches... draw how big you imagine it.  (Or one square represents one decimeter... let's talk about the potential benefits of metric units.)  Ideally, the notebook would have rings or a pocket for inserts, pages printed from a computer, etc.  A notebook is also a useful tool for keeping track of tangential ideas that can't be explored right away for the current project, but may be good fodder for next year.
  • Unrealistic expectations about time-budgeting for projects happens all the time with Makers young and old. In this program, building the projects usually happens outside of group meeting time. Individual projects will mostly be developed by the Young Makers during evenings at home or on weekends in a collaborative workshop setting with available mentors.  This may be a scheduling challenge for kids with a lot of extracurricular activities like team sports, music lessons, etc. but the kids get out what they put in over the duration of the program.  For Young Makers who won't see their mentor(s) on a more frequent basis, weekly phone chats or Skype check-ins might be useful for trying to build momentum early on so (hopefully) all the work doesn't fall onto the last weekend before Maker Faire. (And this help with project management can come from Club Managers and Parent Volunteers, perhaps more so than the Mentor. But when all is said and done, this is the final responsibility of the Young Maker!)
We also adapted some tips from the Mentor Handbook of the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network. 

Michelle Hlubinka,
Dec 4, 2010, 4:14 PM