3 Lessons I Learned as a Mentor

Girls Learning Code Swag

Last week I volunteered as a mentor with Ladies Learning Code’s Wearable Technology camp for Girls Learning Code, and it was an incredible experience.

At the beginning of the week the mentors were all assigned to specific groups of girls, who we would remain with throughout the week to support them in creative learning projects. My role as a “Marketing Guru” was to answer any questions, help them with issues, encourage them to be creative and not give up when tasks were challenging and to learn right along with them.

On day one, each group of girls was assigned a persona for an alien from another, mythical planet. The challenge was to spend the rest of the week creating wearable technologies their alien, with its unique personality traits, would find useful and enjoyable as visitors to Earth. Talk about teaching audience insights at an early age!

Each day different experts came in to present tools and technologies for the girls to use to develop innovative wearables for their aliens. As a mentor, this was an excellent opportunity for me to learn right alongside them, not to mention getting inspired by their energy and enthusiasm.

Lesson 1: It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers

I learned very quickly that we would be using tools I was not familiar with and that combined with the innate curiousity of kids ages 8-13, meant that I would be faced with a lot of questions I didn’t know the answers to. The truth is, the best thing you can do as a mentor is be honest. It’s okay to let your mentee(s) know you don’t have the answer, but that you are more than willing to help them find it.

Here are some of the tools we used:

Makey Makey

Makey Makey is a very cool tool that enables kids to create controls for computer programs using alligator clips and conductors. The best way to understand the almost endless possibilities of Makey Makey is to watch the video below. In the video you’ll see that a conductor can be made out of everything from bananas to stairs, but in this case, the girls used tin foil, which they taped to their wearable creations and used to control a computer program called Scratch. The idea was that their aliens could use the controls to communicate. Makey Makey was pulled out many times during the week and some girls even used water as conductors, while others used their inventive conductors to play Minecraft!

Made with Code

Another tool the girls loved was Made with Code, which enabled them to design an LED dress for their aliens. We all learned about some of the ways wearable technology is manifesting in the fashion world in the form of dresses, clutches and rings, to name a few. This is a great example of the evolution of wearables to blend more seamlessly with fashionable clothing and accessories.

“Most wearables are notoriously unattractive and clunky, especially fitness trackers and smart watches, but companies are making a big effort to slim them down and provide accessory alternatives that could be dressed up for a fancy evening” – Mashable

Some of the LED clothing and accessories appearing on runways is truly beautiful. The Galaxy Dress by Cute Circuit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry is a stunning example.

Google Cardboard – Virtual Reality

Mid-week, the girls had the opportunity to test out virtual reality with Google Cardboard, a tool that enables you to drop your Android phone into the cardboard container fitted with lenses. Once you look through the lenses and launch an app, you are virtually transported into another word. In my case, a very real, very rickety roller coaster in the middle of what appeared to be a lush, South American jungle! The girls then used Scratch to design a Google Cardboard scene for their aliens resembling their home planets for when they’re inevitably feeling homesick on Earth.

The girls (and I) learned that virtual reality is when you are transported somewhere else completely separate from your surroundings, whereas augmented reality is when a computer-generated image is superimposed into your real-world view.

Google Glass – Augmented Reality

One of the highlights of the week for me was the chance to try out augmented reality in the form of Google Glass. Placing the extremely light-weight specs on my face and using subtle movements with my right finger to zoom in and out of my surroundings, take a photo, or search directions, I knew I was in the future. Though I can’t quite imagine walking around wearing and interacting with them day to day, it’s easy to imagine the potential for these types of technologies to improve and simplify certain experiences from retail shopping to medical procedures.

Google Glass
Me nerding out with Google Glass

Lesson 2: Effective mentors listen

To be helpful as a mentor, sometimes the best thing you can do is lend an ear. It can help when trying to find a creative solution to a problem or when trying to get to the bottom of a spat between two stubborn nine-year-olds.

Soft Circuits

A challenge was presented near the end of the week when the girls had to sew soft circuits using conductive thread to make two LEDs light up. It was an inventive project and the approach was simple enough, but some of the younger girls had difficulty managing the needle and thread and understanding how to connect the positive and negative threads to get their lights to shine. Listening to the kids’ frustrations and helping them talk through solutions helped all of us to remain cool headed and finally resulted in getting our LEDs to light up!

Lesson 3: The mentor/mentee relationship is mutually beneficial 

The best lesson I learned is that no matter the age of your mentee(s), you will learn from each other. I think more people would willingly become mentors if they understood this. The girls in camp grew up with technologies I could never imagine at their ages and they were able to show me ways of using technology I didn’t even know were possible. It also goes without saying that the unquenchable enthusiasm of kids is infectious, and though it was an exhausting week it was also an energizing one.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the week was helping the girls to hone their presentations skills in preparation for showcasing their unique creations to their parents on the last day of camp. By that time we had all gotten to know each other well, been inspired, and learned a lot about the endless possibilities of wearable technology together.

I highly recommend volunteering with Ladies Learning Code. They are doing something very special and important in creating an innovative, supportive learning space for ladies, girls and kids to become comfortable with technology and to push the limits of what they think they can do.

warm fuzzies
Warm fuzzes from the campers and fellow mentees

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s