Guest post written by Ryan Jenkins, co-founder and managing director of Wonderful Idea Co, an experimental studio that explores art, science and technology through making and tinkering. Ryan was a core member of the Tinkering Studio from 2009 to 2017 and is excited to return for a new project with the team to develop open-ended, unfacilitated (or lightly facilitated) tinkerable experiences using a wide range of tools and materials.
I just finished up the second week of my residency at the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio. We’re deep in the process of creating new unfacilitated experiences for the museum floor. This week we really embraced the process and took a deep dive in the several different themes including balance, ramps/rollers and sound automata.
This first really interesting exploration happened on Monday morning when Ryoko started messing around with the sound making rollers that the team explored during the pandemic period as an experience for early learners. I put together an adjustable ramp and right away, we all began experimenting with different variations.
We were really excited about the ways that the arrangements of dowels, washers and wooden balls placed inside the rings could create many different beats and rhythms.
Things could roll in many different orientations, creating new and surprising effects. We spent about two hours just playing with the parts and talking about possible materials to add to the set. When we get motivated to work with the materials ourselves, that’s often a sign that there’s a compelling seed of an experience that visitors may connect with.
Additionally on Monday, we worked with adding new clip based parts to our balancing structures activity. We had found the previous week that pushing and pulling parts together was too difficult for constructing the delicate sculptures. We hoped that adding clothespin weights and decorations to pre-made tomato stake skeletons could help visitors experiment with balance more quickly and easily.
Luigi and Sebastian worked through some of the challenges of the rhythm automata project. We identified the quality of the instrumental sound as a very important element to the success of the activity and have gone through many iterations of guides and limiters to make the mallet strike precisely. There’s a fine line between fragile sculptures that are too fragile for the museum floor and those that are over-engineered to work every time making the tinkering unnecessary.
On Wednesday, we tested out the new iteration of balance in the Tinkering Studio. We found that visitors could more easily adjust and play with the sculpture. We added the motor piece (and a fan) to activate the structures with a bit of motion but still we observed that many people had a bit of hesitation to get engaged.
We’re continuing to approach this problem by adjusting the environment and activity design to make it more intuitive, adding graphics, videos and physical examples to give prompts and by amping up the narrative part of the interaction.
On Thursday, we took a break from floor testing and worked more on the activities in the Learning Studio shop. Ryoko continued to try different materials for rollers, Sebastian and Luigi fine-tuned the sound automata prototype and Steph and Deanna joined remotely to talk through different possibilities for the fourth activity - a shadow remix exploration.
On Friday, we were back on the floor prototyping out the ramps/rollers experience with visitors. We set up in the museum concourse with a large ramp, a couple of adjustable testing stations and little signs to prompt visitors. It was a slow day and we didn’t get too many takers, but it felt good to try the experience in the museum.
We figured Saturday would be a busier day so we decided to set up in the Tinkering Studio space for the weekend. We made many adjustments to the environment like adding a video of examples, making the large ramp more prominent and color coding the building elements.
There were some encouraging signs like people making comparisons to other sounds in real life saying things like “it's like a heartbeat, stomping, or bells”. The video and the central ramp seemed to help draw people in and for many young kids, once they tried the first tube, they wanted to keep putting different rollers down the track. It seems important to try to figure out ways to 'loosely direct’ the flow of experience and provide a easier entry point to making our own designs.
Once again, during this week it’s been so fun to be working closely with the Tinkering Studio team (as well as exhibit developers Jessica Strick and Sam Haynor). Some of the group are joining remotely and we’re getting a lot of new ideas from chance encounters in-person. I’m confident that this combination of a collaborative environment and iterative testing with visitors will lead to better experiences and I’m looking forward to continuing these project in the second half of the residency.
The LEGO Playful Learning Museum Network initiative is made possible through generous support from the LEGO Group.