The Hero’s Journey & the Unknown

Author: Nettrice R. Gaskins, SCOPES-DF Content Manager

The Hero’s Journey is a metaphorical framework for creative practices that can happen in the classroom. This motif has been repeated across stories and cultures, becoming a common and shared experience (Georgas 2017; Campbell 1949). The journey begins with a regular person being called to an adventure, and, as you might expect, they have a hard time believing they can accomplish the task at hand. With the help of “guides/helpers” they find the courage to travel beyond their known world, facing challenges and discovering their true identity while completing their mission and eventually returning home.

Chart courtesy of dope(a)me.

In the classroom, the call to adventure might begin the moment a teacher or student steps into the school’s Fab Lab where they have access to the tools that ‘fabbers’ use (i.e., 3D printers and laser cutters) or technologies they use to control devices such as electronics (i.e., soldering irons, actuators). The project’s process and vocabulary are new, especially for teachers who have not had access and training to use the tools and equipment.

Members of the 2018 SCOPES-DF Leadership Cohort explore 3D printing.

Last year, SCOPES-DF — Scaling a Community of Practice for Education in STEM through Digital Fabrication — worked with two schools who were part of an Experiential Leadership Cohort. As a cohort, teachers explored opportunities to develop their adaptive expertise — motivational and real-world knowledge — in classrooms with digital fabrication (DF) machines. This included workshops that offered a logical and well-structured approach to solving open-ended complex design problems through various processes that are implicit in DF. Projects included building pinball machines at STEM School Chattanooga, Tennessee and making biomimicry book shelters at MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, Ohio. SCOPES-DF team members played the role of guides/helpers at each cohort school.

Teachers visit Neil Gershenfeld about “How to make (almost) anything” course at MIT.

The journey for our ‘hero’ teachers and their students began with accomplishing DF tasks such as 3D modeling and laser cutting. Next, small teams were formed for design and build sessions to apply new skills towards solving a specific problem. Teams were tasked with creating physical prototypes that required testing working models. Teams participated in design reviews, including group presentations, a ‘gallery walk’, and desk critiques. Important to this process was trial and error that can often lead to a growth in new skills.

MC2 teachers present and discuss their team’s work.

The SCOPES-DF workshop design process includes the desk crit (critique), a brief and casual working session to talk, or sketch through ideas that are causing difficulty for the student at that particular moment. Students typically work on similar or related projects, so they will often form questions for their peers that they themselves are working on. Regarding the design build and review process, SCOPES-DF Master Digital Fabricator Dan Smithwick notes:

And so we — the SCOPES team — went out to do so: in Cleveland and Chattanooga we introduced the idea of the design review to enhance the typical project based learning approach of learning by doing. There were some failures — on our part — but also there were many successes. In the design review you learn by talking about doing. And it’s easier said than done.

The ‘desk crit’ at STEM Chattanooga.
Two MC2 students present their team’s fabrication work.

The gallery walk allows student groups to see what other groups are doing in a setting where they feel safe and supported to offer feedback and share ideas. For this activity, groups set up project stations like a science fair that can include physical artifacts, print-outs, and sketches that help convey their ideas. Each group is provided with a worksheet with specific questions to be answered. See below for an example for the gallery walk worksheet to be filled out by students.

After our ‘heros’ made their way around the path from where they were before SCOPES-DF and where they ended up after learning from process, they encountered a revelation (the ‘Ah ha!’ moment) that transformations had taken place in the Fab Lab, as students became more self-directed and more adept at problem solving. In time, ‘hero’ teachers and students can absorb the changes caused by the hero’s journey to be fully “reborn.” Dan notes,

While at the two schools we witnessed many examples of these skills being developed and nicely executed. In particular I recall two students who struggled with forming descriptions of the work they were doing in a casual setting…once they got up in front of the class (with their teachers), they nicely delivered their presentation without just reading the text off their slides. In fact they stood out among the student groups in this aspect and their teacher nicely recognized this and praised them.

According to Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, America faces unprecedented change and uncertainty and teachers are ready to innovate in their classrooms.The process of moving from familiar school subjects to the unfamiliar was a challenge for many SCOPES-DF cohort teachers. In this changing world, the ‘hero’s journey’ to digital fabrication addresses what experts say teachers need to gain skills and employ new knowledge in their classrooms.

Preparing a prototype for the ‘gallery walk’.

As part of embedded professional development, cohort teachers developed strategies, action plans and timelines for accomplishing capstone or PBL projects in their classrooms, using digital fabrication. They modeled crossing over into the unknown for their students who gained implicit skills such as independence, presentation, communication, problem solving and perseverance. We at SCOPES-DF appreciate the teacher’s efforts and what it taught us about high school education.

A teacher appreciation gift: the ‘Chibi Chip’ electronic postcard.

At the end of the cohort year, teachers came away with new ideas (revelations) and were given some time to reflect on their journey. They returned to their usual activities in the ‘normal world’ and SCOPES-DF staff presented them with tokens of appreciation such as the Chibi Chip from Chibitronics that activated circuits embedded in postcards created by SCOPES-DF content manager Nettrice Gaskins. Gaskins created a lesson for anyone to learn how to make the postcard here. A SCOPES-DF webinar with Chibitronics founder Jie Qi is online here.

Read more about our rationale for this approach in the SCOPES-DF Reflection & Playbook. To prepare teachers as they support students for the 21st century, we have to rethink how we support teachers. This includes helping teachers build learning experiences that are collaborative, inquiry-based, and relevant to students’ experiences and interests.


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, [1949] 2008.

Georgas, Helen, Mariana Regalado, & Matthew Burgess. “Choose Your Own Adventure: The Hero’s Journey and the Research Process.” Association of College & Research Libraries Conference 2017 Proceedings.

Papert, Seymour & Idit Harel. “Constructionism”. Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1991: 193–206.

Lake, Robin. “Preparing Students for the Uncertain Future: Why America’s Educators Are Ready to Innovate — but Their Education Systems Are Not.” March 26, 2019.

Context into Account.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 4. (2009) 30–41.

facilitating & supporting growth of the international fab lab network

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