OCRI: Fall 2010 Kickoff

The Value of a Project Kick-off

Welcome to the first in a series of posts about the work I’m doing this semester with OCRI. I’ll have an update like this every two weeks until the end of January, usually on Fridays (this one is a day late).

Every year, before we go into the classrooms to help students learn how to write working software, we have a big, group kick-off. The invite list is all-encompassing:

It’s a pretty diverse group.

There are a few introductions, and usually a speaker (Marcellus gave a fantastic talk this time around about innovation in technology), and then we all get to work on our task for the day. It isn’t brainstorming ideas or programming lessons, and in fact it has nothing to do with software development: we all get together and take apart a bunch of old computers.

If this seems odd to you, you’re not alone. It took me a few times to realize why this is a really, really important part of the kick-off, but at this point, I think I’ve got it figured out. Taking apart computers together builds a sense of community between the mentors and the students. Specifically, there are a few reasons why this works really well:

It gets the students into a co-operative mindset. Some students we get have done this many times before, but the majority have never seen the inside of a computer. Since we only have about a dozen computers, we set the students in groups of four or five, and they tackle it together. This allows the experts to show off how much they know, and the newbies to learn a few valuable skills. Of course, the mentors are running around helping each group and explaining neat things, so none of the groups are on their own.

It lets the mentors gauge the students. By the end of the day, I have a pretty good idea of which students will be enthusiastic about the program and which might need a bit more of a push. I know which students are good candidates for helping out their peers, and which ones might need that help. All of this will be useful over the coming weeks as we move on to developing software.

It lets the students gauge the mentors. By choosing a task that the mentors are good at, we can show the students that we’re both knowledgeable and helpful. Even the hot-shot kid that has been building computers since he was 10 can’t explain to me what a CMOS battery is for, so it shows them that they all still have something to learn. And the students who don’t know a hard drive from a CPU find out that we’re there specifically to demystify whatever they don’t understand. This builds rapport, and positions the mentors as experts, which will be important at that first programming session in a few weeks.

Most of all, the kick-off really is a fun time, and it gets everyone fired up for the start of the program. After all, isn’t that what a kick-off is for? I already can’t wait for our first visit to the classroom next week.

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