Last weekend we participated in the 10th annual Bay Area Maker Faire. This year we collaborated with the Explainers, our stalwart staff scientists, the cinema arts program, and one very special toothpick artist, to bring the spirit of the Exploratorium down to San Mateo. Once again we set up outdoors, with the focus of our booth on building five Rube Goldberg inspired chain reaction machines with the public over the course of the weekend. It was challenging, sometimes chaotic, and a lot of fun!
As Luigi artfully documented in his last post, we created 120 linear feet of new tube wall for the occasion and it served as a barrier to the more dedicated workshop space. On the outside of the booth we put out the chain reaction example table for people who couldn't dedicate the time to build their own contraption.
Inside the tent, we had twenty stations for groups of kids and adults to work together to build one section of a chain reaction contraption. The completed reaction would connect with each of the other groups and span from Nicole's fish bowl timer to the ping-pong ball finale on the other side of the tent. We planned for three chain reactions on Saturday and two on Sunday with about three hours dedicated for building each one.
However, we ran into a snag right away, as the weather in San Mateo for the weekend was chilly, grey and most problematically windy. Building a chain reaction involves setting up intricate domino systems, precariously balancing balls to be hit down ramps, and other precise engineering solutions that are made much more difficult when having to take into account the wind. Out first chain reaction went through all right, but it was much more difficult than usual, and we were a little worried for the rest of the faire.
So when Nicole arrived in the afternoon, she immediately started working on homemade wind shields with the materials that she could scrounge around the tent. In about a half-hour, we had three of these ingenious baffles made from cardboard and 2x4s with water bottles as weights.
While this improvised solution worked pretty good, luckily it was only temporary, as the wonderful crew quickly arrived with a side wall for our tent which did an excellent job to protect the chain reaction builders from the elements.
With the environmental challenges settled, we could concentrate on the remaining two chain reactions of the day. Maybe there's something about the amount of time, the special nature of the event, or the surrounding experiences, but it always seems that people come up with really interesting and unexpected ideas at Maker Faire. As an example, Sebastian helped this group construct a catapult with a backboard and funnel to control the marble shot.
The project explainers have been facilitating chain reaction in the Tinkering Studio on the weekends, so it was also nice for them to work with visitors in a different environment and share some tips and tricks they've accumulated over time.
While inside the tube wall corral, makers were deeply engaged in the process of tinkering, the outside ring of exhibits and demos had a steady stream of faire-goers passing through all day long. Fred, from the Institute for Inquiry, spent some time working with guests at the new 'take a close look' microscope station.
Ron entertained the crowds with simple science tricks like a magnet moving slowly through an aluminum tube which also served as as the platform for two other classic 'exhibit snacks'.
Over the rest of the afternoon and evening we had two more successful chain reaction set-offs, which each culminated in a bowling ball launching dozens of ping pong balls into the large crowds that gathered to watch the spectacle. After the third chain reaction finished up, we were tired, happy, and excited to spend one more day working with makers at the faire.