Posted on the 4th October 2019
Written by Patrice

Makerspace launches in Alpha

We’re excited to share the launch of our digital educational platform ‘Makerspace’ in Alpha. After a solid six months of development and consultation with industry, educators and young people, we now have a platform to support team learning throughout the season.

What’s Makerspace?

Makerspace is our learning management system (LMS). It houses our educational resources and provides a place for teams to interact with each other. With a comprehensive learning experience, Makerspace features a variety of content, developed by our fabulous summer interns and HQ team, to guide all teams from day zero to hero post-championships.


Why did we want to build Makerspace?

Last season was our pilot year where we learned how to deliver the FIRST Tech Challenge programme. We spent a huge amount of time developing our community, highlighting resources available and supporting teams on the ground. This year we’ve scaled substantially, we’ve more than doubled the number of organisations we are working with and supporting.

While we’d love to visit teams on the ground like last year, there aren’t enough days in the season. So to improve the level of support each team receives and to give us time to make the programme awesome, we decided to support teams digitally, where and when they need it. That means we can make the most of our face-to-face time at Scrimmage events (informal meetups) to focus on the important stuff and rest assured knowing that everyone can progress independently.

Team is discussing roles allocations at last season's kick-off event in Stoke-on-Trent

We were also worried the FIRST content from the US may have overwhelmed our new teams who had a steep learning curve to navigate. The feedback received at the end of our pilot year confirmed our assumptions that they found the content extremely valuable, however parts were lost in translation. So we looked into building an LMS that provides educational content in a more digestible and engaging format, to both enhance the learning experience and free up more time for building robots.


What’s Alpha?

You may notice many tech companies launch products in ‘Beta’, indicating the product is ready to be used at a small scale, however, some key features may be added later on and those using the product may experience a few glitches. Think of it as a toddler finding its feet, while Alpha is the newborn.

Products in Alpha have been developed over several months from scratch, following lots of theoretical application and testing in a relatively controlled environment. Now released into the world, it can be tested by the people who will benefit from its service. Launching in Alpha allows innovation teams to test with their users which features are useful, which are less popular, what needs refinement and where problems emerge, such as bugs in the software. This is where Makerspace is at. 


Why are we crazy enough to launch in Alpha and not Beta?

There’s a method to our madness. While it sounds silly to launch in Alpha knowing there may be a few kinks it’s actually a much faster way to develop tools and innovate in the tech industry. Imagine this…

You spend 100 days at home building a model robot, conducting lots of research, prototyping, redeveloping and iterating as you go. The chances are you’ll have a pretty decent robot you’re happy with. Now spend 20 days building a robot, working with others who are experts, then release that robot over 10 days to 100 willing customers who can give it a test drive. When they return you’ll receive feedback from each one, some useful and some not so useful. You can take away that rich feedback, work on your robot for another 20 days and by day 50 have a robot that’s a lot more advanced than the one you built alone in 100 days.

That’s why we’re releasing Makerspace in Alpha. By 2021 we may have 400+ teams who need our support. If Makerspace is twice as good as it is now, everyone who takes part in FIRST Tech Challenge UK benefits from its progress. There may be features that aren’t developed properly until a later stage of maturity, but that’s ok because we’ll be pretty confident those features are what our users need, instead of a wacky idea we at HQ thought would be cool to develop.

We believe Makerspace provides our teams with more value than holding it back for another season. As it stands, you can access our digital content wherever you have an internet connection. You have your own secure login with content tailored to whether you’re a team member, Team Lead or a mentor. That means fewer emails, less chance of missing important stuff and the opportunity to review the content at your own pace.


How did we build it?

We partnered with Arm School Program, who are experts at producing learning material for young people to understand how to optimise a platform that enhances the learning experience. We made important decisions early on, such as which level of support to offer, whether to make content embedded, downloadable, interactive or all of the above. We considered accessibility and spent a lot of time ensuring Makerspace lives up to our safeguarding standards.

Season welcome session on Makerspace with interns Mackenzie and DomWe also collaborated with others. Over the summer we opened our offices to a fantastic bunch of interns who wanted to experience working at HQ. We don’t believe in giving made up tasks that won’t create an impact. Instead, we gave our interns the opportunity to produce content that supports our new educational framework. Playing to their strengths, some developed software tutorials, communications missions, technical instructions and engineering processes.

Read more: ‘We truly do things that matter’ – Jasmine reflects on her FIRST internship

Read more: ‘I don’t like robots but that’s why I loved interning at FIRST UK’ confesses Jacob

Most interns had experience with FIRST programmes, so knew how to present material that would have been useful for themselves when they first joined the programme, while others were new to the programme and helped us to see our content from a fresh perspective.


So what can you expect from Makerspace now?

You can watch tutorials, videos from industry, download templates, follow missions and session plans, message HQ in chat and interact with other teams.

And in the future?

We aim to develop Makerspace so that it’s a one-stop-shop for all seasonal material, with a foray of interactive tools to aid learning. We’re in the process of forming focus groups to help us channel and respond to feedback. If you’d like to be considered, contact us!


How can I provide feedback?

If you have access to Makerspace, there’s a ‘Message FIRST HQ’ chat on the ‘FTC season’ page. Send us anything you spot that requires our attention and of course share any ideas you’d like us to develop too. At the end of each term, we’ll review the features teams are asking for and those in highest demand will take priority in our next development phase.


When is your next development phase?

We’re taking a break for now so teams and mentors can get used to the system. In December we’ll review the level of feedback and schedule another development sprint in the new year. We’ll share dates nearer to the time once scheduled.


For now, enjoy Makerspace! 

From the content team at FIRST UK HQ.

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