Our activity development process often starts with the exploration of a physical phenomenon, it often stretches over long periods of time and the development never stops even after an activity has been shared and documented many times. Activities continue to evolve as we try them out ourselves and with others which means every workshop we do with visitors in the Tinkering Studio also plays a role in our activity development. I will share some thoughts on the activity development work we are recently undertaking in an area we call Computational Tinkering (more background here).
As part of our TiDA (Tinkering in the digital Age) project we are investigating interesting ways to combine computation and sound explorations. Mechanisms that make sounds and rhythms have often caught our attention. Inspired by artist's work (Pierre Bastien, O Grivo) that felt really in tune with the tinkering spirit, we decided to try our hand at making sound machines ourselves using everyday materials and easily accessible tools. We also learned a lot about interesting ways to use code and programming to control motors and other motion from our partners at (LEGO Idea Studio) during the last year. We decided to invite our visitors to explore coding with MITs Scratch software (Scratch) to activate a set of whimsical sound makers.
During the first stage of activity development we put ourselves in the place of learners and spent time tinkering with a broad set of materials. Over a couple of months of intermittent group and individual tinkering sessions, we created a variety of sample programmable sound makers. Some simple, some more advanced, some silly and many of them driven by specific interests of our team members.
THE CREATIVE LEARNING SPIRAL
The process we went through as a small group to develop these examples and the activity idea that goes with them could be described as an iterative process where we go through these stages: Imagine - Create - Play - Share - Reflect. The repetition of this cycle has been described by MIT professor Mitch Resnick as the Creative Learning Spiral. Often there is a blurry mix of creating, sharing and reflecting, but these elements are all present when our group engages with materials following their ideas within a broad theme, like our Sound Making Machines.
One of our goals at the Tinkering Studio is to let visitors experience that same creative learning process alongside with us and that's why we like to share activity prototypes with visitors as soon as possible. In other words, we include visitors in our prototyping process by sharing half-baked ideas with them.
WHAT DOES PROTOTYPING WITH VISITORS LOOK LIKE?
As we start prototyping new activities with our visitors, we provide an open exploration space for them that allows them to define their own goals and explorations while they are focused on a theme. The invitation we extended to introduce visitors to this activity was “Coding with Scratch to activate a set of whimsical sound makers”.
During the early stages of our prototyping, we have a certain intuition about what might be interesting and rewarding to explore, but our process relies even more on observing visitors, carefully noting which materials, examples and explorations they find interesting and delightful and what leads them to tinker and develop their own goals and questions.
OBSERVATIONS - LEARNING FROM VISITOR INTERACTION
Once we see what visitors engage in, we let those observations guide us to shape the activity. We might learn about particularly fruitful areas within the exploration space or find that there are even richer avenues for tinkering if we shift the space towards an adjacent topic of exploration. Whenever we see visitors take the activity in an interesting direction that aligns with our goals, we work on ways to support investigations in that area with materials and prompts that make it easier to get started and encourage digging deeper.
The sound machines activity saw many changes from the first initial experiments with visitors over a year ago:
Our first activity prototyping sessions were focused on experimentation with mechanisms. After working out a mechanism, visitors often wanted to add variation and sequence sounds of different instruments, however the single motor and limited code of the Scratch Junior software made it hard to turn individual sounds on or off and create sequences.
After many other experiments, we transitioned to the full version of Scratch with 2 motors and a stage showing a visual along with the rhythm. With this set up, we see more interest in combining different sounds, deeper explorations of code as well as collaborating with others to compose.
In another recent version of the activity, we are using the sound machine examples together with Scratch software as an invitation to create "Sound Stories". With this new version of the activity, we encourage visitors to find a visual or story that connects with the sound of the sound contraption they pick and create an animation on the virtual Scratch stage that accompanies the sound. Using WeDO distance sensors, visitors have the option to make their story interactive by programming it to respond to their hand movements.
This visitor testing stage or better "prototyping with visitors" is where we spend most of our time and effort. We typically take a couple of months developing each new activity with visitor input in our Tinkering Studio workshop in the Exploratorium.
REFLECTING AND MAKING CHANGES
Based on our reflections and group discussions that follow the tinkering sessions with visitors, we implement small and sometimes big changes to the material set, starting points, environment and facilitation prompts before we take the activity to the next round of visitor testing. Through many cycles, we shift towards more of the rich investigations we are interested in. Since we started our first experiments, the original sound automata idea has generated a number of activity prototypes and new activity ideas which we will continue to evolve and document with visitors here at the Tinkering Studio and with our extended network of educators and Tinkering aficionados.