The blog post below comes from Vivian Altmann, who directs our Community Educational Engagement efforts.
I’m planning for my upcoming week with the elementary-age summer camp program at 826 Valencia here in San Francisco. The camp is called “Exploring Words” and the focus is on literacy, as is the main focus of all of 826 Valencia’s year-round programs. It’s a national program started by author Dave Eggers and most of the San Francisco site’s students live in the immediate neighborhood of 826 Valencia. It’s a neighborhood with a strong Latino population and a good amount of immigrant families. A lot of the students are bilingual in Spanish and English and their writing is encouraged in both languages. The idea is to make them confident and articulate in expressing themselves, as well as supporting each student’s progress in school.
I worked with 826’s San Francisco site last summer as well. The staff there has been incorporating more science, tinkering, and making into their summer curriculum for the past few years because, hey—it’s fun and brings out the best in kids. And, from my perspective, experimenting, tinkering, and making are so very rich as sources of inspiration for creative writing. I like to say that science is poetry.
Scientists, artists, and poets all look at the same world, try to make sense of it, and then communicate what they learn, observe, or discover to others. Scientists and poets may use different tools and different language, but they are all exploring the same things. Interpreting scientific phenomena through the lens of poetry and creative writing is one way of making meaning.
So in the context of last summer at 826 Valencia, quite possibly the only thing better than making a kaleidoscope or building a scribble bot is to then also write a wild story or freeform poem about it. Since 826 regularly publishes student work, those making-inspired creative stories and poems get read by folks way beyond the “walls” of 826 or the Exploratorium.
Last summer the 826 students (and interns) made Scribble Bots, aka scribbling machines, with me and Leslie Hernandez (one of my Exploratorium colleagues from the Explo’s XTech Program) during week five of camp. (We did other stuff the prior four weeks.) 826 has some particularly smart, funny, and energetic kids so I was expecting some cool Scribble Bots. But their focus, attention to detail, and building skills resulted in the kookiest and sturdiest (sturdiness and balance is a big factor) Scribble Bots I’ve seen. A number of their resultant Scribble Bot stories and poems were published in “Turquoise is Waiting Until Midnight,” the student book of written works that came out of the 2015 Exploring Words summer.
This summer I won’t be spending the full five weeks of camp with 826, but we will spend one week on both stop-motion animation and “Nature Bots.” Looking at the idea of reinventing old technologies, certainly the next iteration of last summer’s Scribble Bots will be Nature Bots. Making Scribble Bots required a lot of tinkering with balance so that the bots would scribble without falling over. Not that tough with marking pens for legs since you can balance a bot on a nice tripod or quad of evenly-placed pens. But gathering materials like branches and leaves and pine cones and who-knows-what and then adding the weight of a motor and a battery will mean that these students will have to take their creations to the next level and really think about balance and motion in a more complex way. Plus making something far more freeform like a Nature Bot means opening the creative floodgates for each to have a unique look, mobility, and personality. The 826 Valencia staff and interns will be great at guiding the students toward translating the freeform of a Nature Bot into freeform poetry.
Stop-motion animation likewise will be the next iteration of our work on visual perception from last summer. We learned some of the basics of how the human eye and brain work in summer of 2015. Making actual short animated films this summer will build on the simple activities (flipsticks and thaumatropes, anyone?) we did then.
So I’m thinking about the other part of this blog’s theme that I am to consider—discovering new technologies—and I am leaning toward the idea that what’s old is actually new for a lot of younger kids. The best way for me to explain this is via an anecdote from an experience I had at the end of 2015. A reporter with WNYC asked me this question during an interview about another project:
“With younger people having grown up with digital, portable, wireless technology as a regular part of their lives, does the work you do become harder? Is it more difficult to get the signal through the noise? Or are they perhaps more receptive for some reason?”
An interesting question you pose – in essence is the medium of technology blocking the message?
In general, I think that people are people and having genuine human experiences that don’t involve modern, digital technology is always going to be compelling. Especially if they’re surprising, counterintuitive, and just plain fun.
But your question does bring up an anecdote about an experience I had just last week. A colleague and I were part of an event for SFUSD elementary school children sponsored by our Mayor’s office at City Hall.
One of the artifacts I was demonstrating and with which I was engaging kids in conversation was something called a Mirror Mirage—basically a flying saucer-shaped thing with both inside halves of the “saucer” coated in reflective material. Two mirrored parabolic dishes that fit together.
When a tiny plastic object (in this case a little plastic frog) is placed in the center of the lower mirrored dish, one sees what’s called a real image that seems to float just above the small opening in the top mirrored dish. Almost every school kid that day said, “It’s a hologram” or “It’s digital and you have tiny cameras in there.” And when I showed them that no, it was just two parabolic mirrors and a little plastic frog, but that these things created a 3-D reflection in mid-air, it elicited a “Whoa! No way!” from each and every one of them. The real trumps the digital because in a generation that takes technology for granted, something so viscerally experiential and seemingly so simple becomes the true surprise. And again that spark, that surprise, might generate further curiosity and observation. That’s the goal, anyway.
This blog post is part of a series of Tinkering Studio posts highlighting a variety of ideas during the National Week of Making. weekofmaking.org