Creative Learning

Creative learning during COVID-19

Unstructured Studio

Background story

With COVID-19 lockdowns starting mid-March, and schools and after-school programs shutting down temporarily in a lot of cities all around the world, we decided to pause development on one of our side-projects that needed a few in-person pilots and a bit of traveling for its next phase. For a few days, we engaged our siblings and cousins, who were time zones apart from us, online in learning fun topics outside of their course curriculum. We started wondering how we can offer these fun sessions and our time to more kids, to kids of our friends and colleagues, who may cherish them.

This led us to kick-off the Spandan Workshops project–a free, online, hands-on, creative workshop series for middle and high-school students. The word “Spandan” comes from Sanskrit. It resonated with us, as it means heartbeat–a lifeline to learning in the times of a pandemic. As part of the Spandan Workshops, a month-long series that ran between March 28th–April 28th, we conducted 8 workshops with help from 6 facilitators for 5th to 12th-grade students. These workshops focused on fun and creative topics such as app development using the MIT App Inventor, character designing, programming with Scratch, designing circuits with Tinkercad, robotic programming concepts, etc.

Spandan by the numbers

Around 63 students signed up to participate in these workshops, and about 27 (~42.8%) students joined online from all over the world–United States, Canada, India, Jordan, South Africa, Portugal, and the UK. At the time of registering, we asked students to choose up to 3 workshops to attend. Out of the 27 students, more than a third participated in 2 or more workshops. In a few of these workshops, we saw parents' participation as well with their child to assist them in using the technology or engaging them in the workshop activities. A diverse pool of facilitators led these workshops, the majority of them work in the tech industry in North America.

Workshop design

Through these workshops, we wanted to focus on topics for which there isn't otherwise room in schools for students to learn. At the beginning of a workshop, students would convene in an Unhangout lobby. After quick introductions, check-ins about the required materials, and waiting for anticipated participants to join, we would jump into a video room together. We encouraged facilitators to keep their topic overviews, demo time short, and focus more on engaging students in a hands-on activity online. The workshops were typically 1.5-2 hrs long. We were mindful that this transition phase due to a pandemic might be challenging for some students. So, our goal was not to make these workshops stressful but an overall fun experience in which students get introduced to a topic, they spend some time on the hands-activity in the same room as their peers, and make progress on it with their help. Besides, if they experienced aha and wow moments, we would love and try to foster those, as that we thought would motivate them to build upon that work after the workshop. For every workshop, students would receive at least two reminders before the event. We used Mailchimp for organizing our email campaigns as it was easy to set up and provided us metrics about how people were interacting with our mails.

Collaboration is the key in making workshops, and an online hands-on workshop is not a well-known concept yet. So, we weren't ourselves sure how we would run these workshops. First, we chose topics that didn't involve tangible materials. Second, we limited the participation to up to 10 students per workshop. The latter ensured that facilitators pay attention to all the students equally well, and students actively participate and better interact with and support their peers. In most of our workshops, students would get introduced to a topic for the first few minutes, and then would begin the individual tinkering part. Students would screen share often to share their progress and ask questions when they were stuck. All students received a follow-up email after the workshop encouraging them to reach out to the workshop facilitators for asking questions and share their projects to be featured in our small community on Facebook and Twitter.

Snapshot of Robotic Programming Concepts workshop with Daniel Fitzgerald

Key outcomes

Just right off the bat, the most important outcome of these workshops were the smiles on the face of young learners across the globe. However, some tangible effects that we observed were as follows:

  • Translating emotions to sketches and cartoons: One of the first workshops we ran, was aimed at bringing the skills that are involved in creating cartoons to kids. It gave an insight to kids on how their favorite cartoon characters are made and how emotions on faces are translated to cute little characters they could now draw - happy, confused and some smirks even. Throughout the workshop, kids kept on drawing and sharing their work on screen with us.
  • Empowering learners to build mobile apps easily: Playing with mobile phones and engaging with apps is second nature to kids these days. A workshop on building mobile apps using the MIT App Inventor tool introduced kids to the entire process: setting up the development environment, designing, testing, packaging, and sharing apps. During the hands-on activity, students picked an idea for an app and designed the home screen for it. Kids gained confidence in creating their own apps for the first time, as well as seeing it working live on their phones.
  • Teaching circuits, programming and geometry in a fun format: It felt important not to lose the fun aspect while teaching concepts that are important in traditional education as well. An example of this was the Robotics workshop, which helped kids grasp the practical elements of geometry and see it being used in daily life such as in a house cleaning robot!

Success stories

Nothing is complete without some amazing stories of the impact and engagement of the attendees. We indeed were fortunate to have many such stories, some of which we are excited to share here. One of the most interesting ones involves a 3rd-grade student from Toronto - Bhavishyaa Vignesh. She started interacting with us via our Twitter channel and quickly enrolled for two of the workshops where she enthusiastically engaged and built an app using the MIT App Inventor tool.

Being active and interested in gaining knowledge, she quickly completed a Udemy Course on Programming with Scratch and agreed to be a facilitator for one of our workshops around Scratch. This was the cherry on top! We were excited to see peer-learning in action with our youngest instructor taking the reins in our last workshop.

Our App Inventor was well-received across the globe. A few students from the same family in India jointly participated and shared their work with us post-workshop:

Another exciting moment for us was also the heartfelt thanks expressed by a student. This is what they had to say after attending the Tinkercad Circuits Design workshop:

I enjoyed a lot in the class. The best thing about you is the way of teaching us. I love my first designing circuit class....Your class was excellent. Thank You A Lot

Words like these give us the energy to move on! It was a pleasure to see each and every student play around, gain skills, and while we are humble about this, we are also proud to see their work and projects they created! This is what drives Unstructured Studio :)

What’s next?

Stay tuned as we plan to do a Round 2 of these workshops towards the end of this year! You could sign-up as a student or facilitator here: We have identified a few key areas in which we would like to improve in the next round. A few of these are promoting peer learning even more by bringing students from the Round 1 workshops as facilitators in the Round 2, inviting parents to participate with their kids, introducing new incentives for increasing participation, and documenting workshops. Looking forward to another series of fun soon! :)

Thanks to Anna, Hayley, Bhavishya, and Daniel for their massive help with facilitating these workshops!

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