As part of the cardboard automata workshop environment in the tinkering studio, we are hoping to present a collection of different types of experiments with motions and mechanisms. I got inspired by a box of wooden kit parts from cabaret mechanical theater to make a smaller "exhibit-like" way to explore the activity in a way that requires less facilitation. I also remembered seeing some similar ideas at the lawrence hall of science and the houston children's museum and wanted to see if we could come up with some way for visitors to test out different cams and cam followers and experiment with one of the aspects of automata making.
Here's a video of how the cabaret mechanical theater set works. This was a great start, but we still wanted to make a couple changes like adding a hinged top to the box to make the easier for visitors to play around with the mechanisms and quickly adjust the set-up. We also made the boxes a little bigger and took away a few parts that made the activity more stable but less conducive to tinkering.
We built three boxes and made a selection of cams, cam followers, and axles. The laser cutter was a useful tool for us to quickly prototype different shapes and sizes of cams. We also made a first attempt at instructions along with some challenges.
Taking some inspiration from our circuit board set, we wanted to make the materials friendly and approachable. It's a challenge to create exhibits with lots of loose parts so we also wanted to simplify the setup as much as possible.
So after setting up a quick prototype station, we rolled the table out to the Tinkering Studio to see how visitors would interact with the parts. It was a challenge not to interfere as this would eventually become an unfacilitated experience. As could be expected, it was somewhat difficult for many visitors to figure out how to use the materials, but we stood back and observed and most people eventually figured out the set up. A couple positive things that we noticed was that once people got going, they tended to spend quite a lot of time working at their automata. At the end of the experience you could tell kids were proud of what they did and said "I made this" or "can you take a picture?" which doesn't usually happen at exhibits.
Since we noticed in initial trials that people had a hard time figuring out which parts they could manipulate. Lianna made this great diagram to show the way the pieces can be moved which we hope will make a difference. We also added handles to the top to indicate that you could lift the top of the box as a first step toward rearranging the machine. As with all new exhibits, one of the trickiest parts is coming up with the right language.
So far it seems like the exhibit will be a good addition to the space. It's quite cool to have a place to experiment with the same phenomenon of cams and motions near the cardboard automata area for those who are too young or don't have enough time to build their own automata in our workshop. One of our goals in the Tinkering Studio is to create several levels of participation so that visitors can be experimenting with the same artistic and scientific principles on different timelines and scales. We'll test the exhibit a little bit more and if it seems promising we'll begin to figure out how to make the parts sturdy and robust enough to survive the floor while still keeping the personality and character of the experience in tact.