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A Summer in the Tinkering Studio

A Summer in the Tinkering Studio
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Guest post by Bárbara Yarza, a designer and educator from Mexicali, Mexico. She loves discovering and making unexpected connections between different disciplines, people, and stories, and her work centers around joy, exploration, and play. 

Back in the summer of 2019, I had the amazing opportunity to be in the residency program of the Tinkering Studio, where I had the experience to be part of a wide variety of activities:

  • Designing and developing new learning experiences
  • Being part of the weekly dynamic meetings 
  • Tinkering along the team with new ideas and artifacts
  • Creating learning materials and props at the Makerspace
  • Cleaning a giant storage room full of cool artifacts and historical objects 
  • Tinkerer experience facilitator at the daily exhibits
  • Walking around the Exploratorium and chatting with inspiring staff members
  • Eating cookies from the museum snacks cart 

As a person who loves remembering details (all senses involved!) I am always carrying around a small notebook, so I can take notes of everything that catches my attention. 

It’s very special to look back into your notes once in a while, and re-discover a special moment in time, often highlighting conversations, ideas, and observations. 

Visitors of all ages, the museum staff, the Tinkering Studio team.  What would be of the Exploratorium without those meaningful conversations, ideas, and observations? 

The following sections don’t have a chronological order but seek to share the spark that evolved into explorations and projects while my residency at the Tinkering Studio.

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“Playing is for everyone. I’ll always be a child.” - Grandma

Who sat down on the floor to play with her daughter and grandson


As a part of my weekly tasks, twice a week I facilitated activities and got to tinker with visitors of all ages from around the world! At that time, the current exhibit at the Tinkering Studio was Light Play (My personal favorite). 

This activity has been part of the museum for over 50 years, but there are always new things to explore and discover. Despite being an iconic activity, for the first time we were trying out ideas in order to make the experience more accessible for preschool children.

Previously, the light sources that were usually used are difficult for children to manipulate. To create a friendlier experience for children, we designed a lamp in the shape of a wooden block, which also worked as a construction block, to develop an interest in playing with light.

“Where did the shadow go?” - 5 year-old

While playing with a wooden block lamp, the kid noticed that suddenly the shadow was gone 

What if we can create a more controlled environment that could contain all these stories and explorations at the same time?

A great example of a controlled environment is the exhibition called “Tactile Dome”, a geodesic dome structure, that I used to see every day on my way to the Tinkering Studio. With this as a reference, it was time to create a paper prototype to explore and visualize the idea. 

The result was a laser-cut modular cardboard dome, attached with cardboard joints, that can be assembled and disassembled without the need for tools or any glue. 

The dome created a more closed and controlled environment, which turned out to be a great space to explore with colored lights, textures, and movement. 

“Shape, move, repeat!” - Turtle Art Coding blocks

A computational thinking exploration

As part of the tinkering sessions with the team, we were exploring how we can introduce computational tinkering to the visitors. 

One of the potential paths was using the Turtle Art software, which uses coding blocks to create art. I noticed that similar to other design softwares, it allows you to create simple to complex forms by using coding blocks and parting from the basic principles of geometry: shape, repetition, movement and rhythm- that often leads to a beautiful pattern. 

We test out some options to replicate those concepts through unplugged activities from block stamp printing to coding cards to shadow patterns. 

“The triangle likes to dance!” - 7 year-old

Said this kid while playing with a triangle shape as he was moving it around (my favorite way so far to describe movement and rhythm)

Being inside the Tinkering Studio workspace feels like being inside a fish tank, due to its large amount of windows. The team often uses some of the windows to communicate activities, display projects, and current research topics. 

I was assigned the task of designing a window display that communicated one of the current explorations about computational thinking. I like to think of window displays as a framed story that only makes sense when the viewer interacts with it and adds their personal experience. 

As you can imagine by now, my love for Light Play is strong (and it will always be!)  - so I didn’t put it aside for this task, so my challenge was to integrate all the stuff that was going on at the time in a single exhibition.

The principle of the window display was to bring the digital experience of making patterns to the physical world. 

Taking advantage of the current Turtle Art exploration, I generated different shapes and transformed them into vector files that I can laser cut using different colored cardboard. Followed by mounting the designs on different layers hanging from the ceiling of the window display - Looking like a floating garden.

To showcase the exploration of computational thinking patterns through light play, I created a focus point by using some screens, suspended shapes, and light projections. A marvelous thing about Light Play is that very complex objects are summarized into a simplified shadow, so this was a great way to represent how a complex object (shadow) is made through the basic design principles.

“You can do a lot of things. But you can never un-tinker your sister's tinker." - Dad to daughter 

One of the most remarkable things during my residency was the opportunity to observe and be amazed by how people interact with the museum and with each other, having different experiences and giving a whole different meaning to them, as they created their own learning and shared with their loved ones. 

Thanks to the Tinkering Studio team for opening the doors and letting me create my own experience of the Exploratorium and contribute to creating it for others as well. I will always be grateful.