Over the last couple of years the Tinkering Studio embarked in the exploration of a rather challenging topic: how can we meaningfully make use of digital technologies in the context of a tinkering learning environment? The question we have been and continue to be intrigued by is how to think of technology and computation as a means to expand and deepen the investigations and possibilities of tinkering, rather than thinking of it as an end in and of itself, something to be “taught” to children for its own sake.
We’ve dubbed this approach computational tinkering, as a riff on the computational thinking approach, and explored it largely thanks to a project called Tinkering in the Digital Age, or TiDA for short. Our explorations spanned many different phenomena and approaches, and we produced six documents at the end of the project that summarize our experiments and findings, and provide some ideas for trying these lines of inquiry for yourself. So this is a roundup of all the guides that resulted from over two years of work with the Tinkering in the Digital Age project!
This work was supported by a grant from Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation
This project was made possible through the generous support from the LEGO Foundation
Recently, while having a dialogue with colleagues visiting to learn more about tinkering, the conversation shifted toward the specter of “science misconceptions,” and what our philosophy is about them. The worry, as I understand it, is that in a hands-on museum—and even more so within a tinkering practice where the exploring and learning of scientific concepts is left to the learners’ discretion—that some people could come to scientifically inaccurate explanations for a phenomenon and then carry around that “wrong” idea with them, or even worse, maybe pass it on to their children. What can we do about that? How can we prevent the emergence of scientific misconceptions?
“At least they saw something and figured it out, and got something that nobody had given to them. Something that was just their own.” – Frank Oppenheimer
This is a big question, and one that doesn’t have an easy straightforward answer for me. I think misconceptions in science are always a possibility, at all levels, and full-time professional scientists themselves are not immune. Our own understanding on scientific “truths” is always evolving, so I don’t think we can ever say that we know that something is 100% accurate. That’s why science deals in theories rather than in statements of certainty.
Children and lay people should be allowed to go through that same process. For me what’s more important is to set up a context in which people are encouraged and are given tools to figure things out on their own, ask their own questions and probe a phenomenon directly to try and reveal some answers. It is that process and spirit of curiosity that I care most that visitors come away with, not a narrowly-defined “correct” understanding of a scientific concept.
To give a real practical example: we often offer in the Tinkering Studio the chance to play with our Circuit Boards activity, where visitors get to tinker with electric components and try to make working circuits with them. There are no instructions. In my view, visitors will be richer after exploring the activity if they have engaged with interest, agency, and even joy in making circuits, testing ideas, getting things wrong (and right, of course); it is not so important that they can recite back correctly the textbook definition of series and parallel circuits. If in the process of figuring the world out for themselves they somehow land on a misconception, that’s ok, that’s part of the process of doing science. We want to set up a context where those misconceptions can then be probed, tested, and hopefully debunked—and of course if facilitation is available that’s another powerful tool to offer ways of going deeper when a misconception arises.
To stay with the Circuit Boards example, we have a bunch of multicolored alligator clips freely available; this is important so people can use different colors for different parts of their circuit if they need to trace what goes where. But sometimes children come to the conclusion that the color of the wire matters, that this particular connection will only work with white wires, or that they need to find a black wire to go with the black motor lead, and a red one for the red. Is that bad? It’s a minor misconception, and a facilitator can pick up on it and easily offer a way to test it (“Can we try this other wire and see what happens?”). But getting hung up on the fact that they are “getting something wrong” I think overshadows the fact that here is a child forming their own theories and models for how circuits and electricity works, with autonomy, agency, and even enthusiasm. And that’s much more exciting and longer lasting!
Encourage and feed that aspect, and the experimentation will continue, and eventually the misconceptions will take care of themselves. We are playing the long game, and that kid might even, because of that process—misconceptions and all—start thinking of themselves as a science enthusiast, and eventually, perhaps, a scientist.
This short documentary from 1974 shows various aspects of life at the Exploratorium. It's worth watching in its entirety, but there is a particularly relevant bit starting around 13:30, where Frank Oppenheimer gets into an argument with an exhibit developer about the risk of kids coming to the wrong conclusions. It's so strong that it concludes the documentary. Here is the relevant bit transcribed:
“Alright, what’s wrong with that? That’s science. For them. That’s science: they’re figuring something out. They’re not just getting someone out there dishing it out for them. There’s enough in there that they actually made a connection themselves. Now, they don’t go ahead and do a whole another lot of experiments to see if it’s right, but that’s hard to do in a museum. But at least they saw something and figured it out, and got something that nobody had given to them. Something that was just their own.”
As Lianna mentioned yesterday, we have been exploring the idea and practice of expanding some core Tinkering Studio activities for an earlier audience, specifically thinking about how to create an environment and set of materials that would encourage exploration and investigation for 2-6 year old tinkerers.
The first activity we tackled was Marble Machines, perhaps the oldest and most established of our core activities. We typically invite learners to explore this activity in professional development workshops, where we are able to dedicate a long period of time to it, have lots of expert facilitation on hand, and can offer an expanded palette of materials to work on daring and unusual ideas. On the other hand, we also have an unfacilitated area on the floor of the museum, outside of the Tinkering Studio proper, where visitors can immerse themselves (literally!) in a collaborative Marble Machine wall; however, the tradeoff there is that there is no facilitation, and the materials available for building are drastically reduced—the most conspicuous change being the absence of tape. How do you go about homing in on a set of materials that is appropriate for younger tinkerers while still allowing for a rich exploration of physical phenomena?
As our R&D process often goes, we started with what we had available, provided an expanded palette of materials and options, then noticed what worked and what didn’t, rich areas for refinement and further exploration, and then proceeded to simplify and eliminate options that were confusing or difficult to use.
Initially we set up a commercially available product called Haba blocks on a couple of custom-made table tops that were at the right height for younger visitors; we also added a few big blocks that were left over for Kazu Harada’s After Dark event a few months prior.
We noticed some interesting explorations, like comparisons of size and weight of balls, exploring the sound-making properties of some of the materials, and some problem solving when trying to make sense of some of the more complicated materials on offer.
But we also noticed that the Haba tracks presented an unexpected element of confusion for this age range: they are meant to be stacked flat on blocks, so the slope of the track is built into the block itself. This is counter-intuitive to a young learner, who intuitively wants to angle the track itself downward (and often very steeply so!) to make sure the ball runs down, and it resulted in very unstable and frustrating constructions.
In the end we decided to simplify, go big, and reduce the number of variables to focus investigations better.
We narrowed down the set of materials to:
Big and simple tracks—a combination of wooden tracks and long cardboard tubes cut lengthwise—available in three different lengths
Lots of Kazu Blocks™, which we produced with a standard base for all of them, and in three or four different heights
Three sizes of otherwise identical wooden balls
A couple of sets of stands with holes in them, a commercially available item from Kodokids, affectionately nicknamed Swiss Cheese
A few elbows to allow for 90 degree turns in construction. We initially made them form corrugated tubing but later switched to smooth plastic pipe connectors because balls kept getting stuck
A few metal bowls to hold marbles and provide an implied end goal for the marbles, should the kids choose to do so
We immediately saw improvements in the types of investigations kids were doing, the scale really encouraged immersive engagement with the activity and a broader range of ages could find ways of getting into goal setting and problem solving.
We also cut holes in the sides of the Kazu Blocks to encourage alternative uses for them, and indeed we saw quite a variety of solutions using the holes. It also made it possible to create small sandbags that could be dropped into the blocks to stabilize them if necessary.
And we occasionally found them used in ways that we couldn’t have anticipated but which nonetheless delighted us and the kids in the space.
It’s been an interesting process to be very intentional about the kinds of interactions and investigations that we want focus on with this activity, and how effective reducing the available materials has been to achieve that goal. Next I will talk about a couple of special elements that we created specifically for the lower end of our young tinkerers!
This project is supported through a generous grant from the Early Learning and Care Division at the California Department of Education.
The Tinkering Studio presents some unique design challenges when it comes to creating experiences for visitors to the museum, but perhaps the most pressing is time. We allow visitors to choose the length of their engagement with us, which impacts design in two major ways. One one hand, we have to design activities to have a quick entry point which allows visitors to have early successes; we refer to this as providing a low threshold for the activity. At the same time, we have to design activities to have enough depth that over the course of a prolonged engagement — say, 1 to 2 hours — a visitor can “complexify” their exploration as they get deeper into it; we call this providing a high ceiling.
To accomplish all of that in a drop-in setting, we have found that it is crucial to rely on abundant examples in the space. As visitors approach the Tinkering Studio and then start building and making, examples serve both to inspire and spark their initial curiosity — to get them in the door, so to speak — but also as quick starting points to guide initial experiments and directions. Without examples, visitors don’t know what the activity is about and why they should dedicate a good chunk of their time to it; but also, as they sit at the table to make something, having a few examples or models can soften the “blank slate” effect, that feeling of not knowing where to start and what to do with the materials available.
However, there is an art to creating and displaying the right kind of example for a tinkering activity. It is tempting to come up with and display beautiful, clever, polished pieces so that visitors can fully grok the potential of the activity and be inspired to create their own equally ambitious project, but we have found that this can easily backfire.
We were confronted with this phenomenon with particular force during this winter’s long engagement with Cranky Contraptions, an activity that by nature skews a little more product-focused than others. Our initial approach to offering examples was to try and go for interesting, stimulating, and whimsical contraptions that showed a variety of ways to work with simple mechanisms and linkages. Unfortunately, we saw that a high percentage of our visitors took them as models to copy rather than starting points to generate their own ideas.
Inspired by one of Keith Newstead’s Trash Automata I made a cranky contraption version of an elephant that rears up when the handle is cranked. The mechanism is interesting, with the pivot point being all the way at the back of the elephant and the crank slider at the front, so it’s a good example to include. But the elephant is too complete a narrative element, it looks like a finished piece and so it can function as a substitute for creative expression rather than a spark for it.
In an effort to minimize copying while preserving the mechanism I made a version that used less “attractive” materials, like plain cardboard, a less polished construction and general appearance, and what I thought was a weird enough look — some sort of vaguely rhino-esque beast but with feathers? — that nobody would want to make another one of that specifically. I was wrong. It got copied verbatim too!
A frog, a penguin, and pipe cleaner flowers all got copied many many times. Of course, this is somewhat unavoidable: providing inspirational examples is important and some percentage of people will always choose to make life easier for themselves, or simply feel more comfortable starting by copying something as a way to develop expertise and facility with the activity. But it is worth thinking about the balance between those kinds of examples and other types, which don’t lend themselves to copying so much while still providing valuable information to visitors.
So, what are the qualities of a “perfect” example? I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and here are a few thoughts:
I think a very good example should contain a hint of narrative, the equivalent of an opening paragraph, but leave the ending very open. The bowler hat example above has a little bit of a story in it (“man says hello by lifting his hat,” perhaps) which could be reinterpreted with different characters or props — it intentionally doesn’t have a face, and following versions also did away with the suit decoration to leave just a plain cardboard trapezoidal body.
It should show an interesting idea, but one that can be expanded or adapted in many different ways, not a closed finished piece. The penguin example looks great and moves beautifully, but it’s very complicated and hard to understand as a system. It’s hard to isolate just one element of all the linkages and movements in it and adapt it to a different idea. The bowler hat man does one thing, so if you need that type of motion in your unrelated project it’s easy for me as a facilitator to bring this example over and suggest it might be adapted to your needs.
It’s easy for a visitor to see how it could be improved upon. This is a big one: the best examples have fairly obvious shortcomings that generate ideas for improvement. An ideal reaction from a visitor is to think: “Oh, cool. But look, you could also just do this…” Which indeed means that the perfect example is, actually… imperfect.
The example itself can be tinkered with and used as a model to work out something about your own project. This is not always possible, depending on the activity, but for Cranky Contraptions I tried to make a couple of examples that were meant to be working models to figure out relationships between pivot points and constraints — this idea was also inspired by the way Keith works out his own automata.
This strange little device offers little in terms of narrative, there isn’t much that invites copying, but the three articulated pieces are made with several possible pivot points (the various holes in the craft sticks) and the constraining wires can be anchored at different points along the base — by moving the skewer sticks around — and at different lengths (notice the double loops at the end of the wires).
In fact, the whole idea behind this was that it could be manipulated by visitors to experiment in a low-consequence way with those relationships until they got to a movement they liked, then translate that into the narrative of their choice, as you can see in the examples above. Nothing in the example suggested “fish,” that was completely learner-driven, but I would say that without spending a good amount of time familiarizing herself with it it would have been almost impossible to create the amazing articulated fish that resulted.
So, somewhat painfully, we decided to go on an example purge and put away all the ones that only showcased how clever the person who made it was, and only kept the ones that allowed room for the learner to "fill in the blanks" with their own ideas, imagination, problem posing, and personal expression, and the experience of the activity on the floor was better for it. As you set up an environment for tinkering, it is worth thinking carefully and critically about what type of examples you populate it with and why they are there.
We are hosting automata maker Keith Newstead in conjunction with the newly opened Curious Contraption winter show at the Exploratorium and, in Tinkering Studio style, we immediately put him on the spot. During our first group meeting everyone went around writing down one idea for an automata — suggestions included “man lifting a car,” “a luchador,” and “vote them all out.” Keith picked the winner, which was “Man drinking tea and sticking out his tongue because it’s too hot,” and immediately started sketching the way he would go about building it. Watch the video for a glimpse into the mind of a master automata-maker, and stick to the end to learn the secret he sworn he would take to the grave, but ended up revealing.
It's amazing to me to see the facility with which Keith transforms abstract ideas into a concrete plan of action, the language and vocabulary he has clearly developed for thinking through his ideas, and expressing them in visual form. Now all that's left is to actually build the thing!
In anticipation to Scratch Day we have been experimenting in the Tinkering Studio with the awesome video sensing ability that is built into Scratch 2.0. As usual, we have spent some time playing and prototyping ideas that make use of video sensing internally before trying it out with the public, but one of the big hurdles in the context of the Tinkering Studio is how to get visitors engaged meaningfully, within a short time, with something quite complex—programming an interactive animation using an unfamiliar environment (Scratch) and making use of advanced tools (video sensing from a webcam). Here is the way I approached it today.
I started with a simple program running: a parrot is flying on the screen and when “captured” by the net it disappears. To make it reappear you have to shake the tree with the net. This is achieved simply by having the sprites responding to the color of the net (off white). I first encouraged kids to play with the program as it was set up and pointed out the various parts, like the camera, the virtual sprites, and the code that was animating the parrot. After a while I asked if they would like to add their own character to the animation and make it do something. They all enthusiastically said yes! I encouraged them to make their own using the construction paper available.
Once a character was created I helped them bring it into Scratch using the camera function and magic wand to get rid of the background. Having a camera already mounted pointing straight down at the stage made this super easy and fast. Having a character that they created in physical form be transported inside of a virtual world was at once magical and meant kids were immediately invested in what happened to it. I asked a pretty open ended question: “What would you like your character to do?” and gently nudged them if necessary toward thinking about movement first. How should it move?
From there I pointed out the Motion section of Scratch and had them drag a couple of initial blocks (like move 10 steps and turn 15 degrees) onto the stage, start clicking on them and notice what happens to the sprite. I encouraged them to play around with the values, notice how the movement changes. I encouraged them to snap two or more blocks together and see what happens when you string commands together. Finally I revealed the repeat and forever loops as a way to avoid clicking repeatedly on the code and making the character move autonomously. This led to a more intentional phase of experimentation with values and blocks to see what kind of movement they could get out of their character. I found it very interesting that every kid had a clear idea of how their character should move, determined by the nature of the character itself, and that led to very different bits of code and behaviors. A butterfly moves very differently than a dragon, naturally!
Once the visitors were satisfied with the movement of their creature, I re-introduced the net from the beginning, asking them now what should happen to the character when it is captured by the net. Once again, every kid had a different idea in mind for what their character should do in that situation!
Jade’s butterfly moves erratically and very fast on the screen, and when captured by the net it disappears for 10 seconds, then reappears.
Jailen and Jayden’s dragon (the similarity between all the kids’ names is purely coincidental!) glides smoothly on the screen and when captured it breathes fire. Of course a dragon’s fire breath is blue, didn’t you know? In this case it also required a trip to the Costumes tab where the kids duplicated their sprite and hand-drew the flame, then we worked out how to switch costumes based on whether the net was touching the sprite or not.
The most interesting part to me is that when introducing the net as an interactive device, the first thing kids said was something along the lines of “I want it to do X when the net catches it.” When I pointed out that the computer doesn't know about the net, it can only detect either color or motion, everyone autonomously came up with the solution of having the sprite react when touching “white.” I think this is a good example of abstracting a high level goal into a set of instructions that a computer can understand and work with.
All these interactions were around 20 to 30 minutes, and I think that for such a short engagement it resulted in meaningful and authentic exploration of programming, Scratch, and a fairly sophisticated technology such as video sensing. This is definitely a more scaffolded and guided approach than we usually adopt in the Tinkering Studio with lower threshold activities, but perhaps in this case it is the better approach. I also noticed that many of the parents who were not previously aware of Scratch were very impressed with how easy it is to introduce programming concepts and practices and mentioned wanting to continue playing with it at home. The fact that Scratch itself is free and this particular approach only uses a webcam and readily available materials certainly contributed to them feeling they could do so easily.
This work was supported by a grant from Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation
This project was made possible through the generous support from the LEGO Foundation
We have been experimenting with ways of collecting and exploring interesting sounds. One of the first attempts at tackling this activity idea was to dust off our collection of piezo microphones, and try out a number of different ways of capturing captivating sounds from everyday or unexpected objects.
A piezo microphone is also knows as a contact mic, and will amplify tiny movements and vibrations of any surface it is in contact with—hence the name. We have been thinking about it as a “magnifying glass for your ears.”
As often is the case, before trying an activity, especially a new one, with the public, we like to immerse ourselves in it in the Learning Studio. So we mounted a few piezo mics on sticks, connected them to portable amplifiers and donned large headphones, and went on a sound harvesting “safari.”
One of the first things we noticed was how immersive it is to listen to highly amplified sounds, especially with headphones on. We became floating listening vessels focused on our own experiences to the point of isolation, occasionally looking up to find, to our mild surprise, that there were other people in the room. We were all having very immersive experiences but no way of sharing them with others, you'd look up grinning because you had just discovered a delightfully unexpected sound from something really tiny, only to realize nobody else can hear what you can.
Amy tried modifying her mic and interact with it by blowing on appendages.
Meg tried squeezing air out of packing bubbles, and others tried listening to their own heartbeat, experimenting with metal bowls with different size balls in them, etc.
We also tried recording the sounds in a prototype version of Scratch that allows for more sophisticated sound manipulation than the currently available version. We had initially imagined that we would spend little time exploring sounds and digitally manipulating them, and the majority of time actually building some kind of project using those sounds. An initial idea was to have several colored dots on the screen, each of which could be assigned a sound, and then interact with those either with the mouse or with another sprite, triggering sounds in rhythmical ways.
Somewhat surprisingly we discovered that the initial part, the sound harvesting and exploration, was rich enough and complex enough to hold our attention for the whole duration of the prototyping session. There was much to discover and get lost in when looking for sounds, and no clear stopping point. Some people set little challenges for themselves, like making a long non-repeating sound for example. Others spent a long time with the sound editor in Scratch experimenting with slowing down or speeding up, adding echo, and distorting it.
We’ll keep experimenting and trying to find a good balance between exploration and construction. Meanwhile an early test in the Tinkering Studio revealed itself successful! Kids stayed a long time and were very interested in this new “set of ears” that the piezo mics provided them with.
This project was made possible through the generous support from the LEGO Foundation and the Simons Foundation.
The Art of Tinkering – A three day workshop about tinkering, making, thinking, and learning – September 19-21, 2017 @ the Exploratorium
The Tinkering Studio team is excited to announce a hands-on tinkering workshop at the Exploratorium! The workshop is designed to investigate together how tinkering and making experiences support fundamental STEM thinking and learning, and is aimed at educators from all backgrounds, settings, and experience levels. During three days together we will explore tinkering and making activities that blend science and art explorations, exemplify best practices for critical thinking, and incorporate creative ways of becoming active participants in the process of tinkering and making.
The workshop is articulated around core tinkering activities designed to build upon each other over the course of three days. We will alternate between delving into making and tinkering with a learner’s mindset, and then carefully reflecting and deconstructing those experiences through an educational lens. At the end of our work together you will be equipped to formulate a practical action plan to take the logical next step to implement tinkering in your practice, whether you are just starting out, or are interested in expanding an existing plan. You will also meet other educators from all kinds of backgrounds interested in the same work, and will make lasting connections to support each other!
“How do I apply?”
Send a letter of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org! We ask that you commit to the full three days of the workshop, and we strongly encourage you to come with a colleague or thinking partner. There is a fee for this workshop, which will cover:
All supplies, tools, and consumables materials used during the workshop
Continental breakfast, snacks, and full lunch each day of the workshop
“Having an understanding and confidence to move back and forth between directing and allowing space is foundational to making tinkering really work for learning.” — workshop participant
The Art of Tinkering workshop will be led by Tinkering Studio educators who have worked with over 100,000 learners of all ages, in settings as diverse kindergarten classrooms, graduate school courses, community centers, public schools, Tibetan monasteries, science museums, and cultural festivals around the world.
The fine print: Workshop participation is limited, and applications will be processed on a first come, first serve basis. The workshop fee does not cover costs associated with travel, hotel, or meals and incidental personal expenses.
Meet Benji. He's a 12 year old history buff, with a particular affection for wars. Mostly American Revolution, but also other stuff, Civil War and the like. He's been into it for a long time, in fact it turns out that Deanna was his counselor when he was six, and remembers him asking her for a face painting about the war of 1812.
He brought his own ziploc back full of plastic soldiers from home with the intention of making a war reenactment movie on the stop-motion animation station. He has a YouTube channel devoted to his war stuff and wanted a neat addition to it, although he has made those kind of movies at home before.
When he saw the Light Play setup, though, he decided to pivot his plan and make light and shadow versions of his war reenactments instead. He has also brought some Keva blocks that he used to set up a stage, and slowly started building a tableaux of characters.
His arrangements were very intentionals, here's a snippet of him talking about his creation:
“What I am attempting to do here is to create a kind of cross zone between this light right here and then this light here with the climax in the middle.” I think it's clear that there is an aesthetic intentionality at play that serves to highlight the drama of the narrative being deployed. One of the possible directions we discussed about Light Play considered it being used for stage lighting, and I think this gets close to that kind of use.
Later he created a completely different arrangement depicting another battle, this time adding motion with a rotating platform, and using the lights to create a clear separation between the blue side and the red side, signifying the two factions at war.
There are many different approaches that can be explored with any of our tinkering activities, and in our constant effort to develop and refine our own practice we like to vary our own ways of presenting things, and try out new stuff. Taking a page from an approach we tried in the past, during a recent PD workshop with teachers from La Scuola International School we adapted a thinking routine from Agency by Design’s Project Zero called Parts, Purposes, and Complexities in this manner.
We gave participants example movements with the sides covered up, a big sheet of chart paper, and a single colored marker. We asked participants or use the marker to sketch all the parts of the box they could see, identify their purpose, then try to imagine what mechanism might be inside the box to create the movement above, and make a sketch of their hypothesis.
Immediately sketches and ideas started forming and being represented on paper, and we saw interesting strategies being used to figure out the mystery mechanism.
One popular strategy involved using all the sense and the body to enact movement and communicate with partners ideas and key observations. Sound became a powerful clue, and I noticed several people taking careful note of when the paper covering up the sides bulged out during the rotation of the crank, or whether the triangle moved smoothly throughout its arc or had sudden “jumps” up or down.
Others modeled what they thought they would find inside with found and improvised objects to scaffold their thinking.
After some time we collected all the green markers and switched them for black ones, allowed the participants to open up their boxes, and instructed them to observe the mechanism inside, sketch the differences from what they imagined, and also carefully note which parts of the construction were glued to each other, and which were allowed to move freely. We were working with 50 teachers at once, and this activity typically requires a lot of facilitation, so we were hoping that by structuring this initial observation phase more rigidly it would help them avoid making costly mistakes when it came to building their own.
After that, we opened up the activity to freely build, and the teachers were quickly engaged in their own ideas, goals, and aesthetic choices.
If you are experimenting with Cardboard Automata, or are planning on facilitating the activity with a large group of people, this might be a helpful approach to pursue. Try it out and let us know in the comments how it went!
Some highlights from the day below.
From planning phase to finished execution: a tinkering sign holder and a Neapolitan scene.
A peacock’s tail feathers opening mechanism.
A fantastic owl, and celebrating a success just as time was running out.