This is a guest post from our summer intern Lucy!
If you had told me a few months ago that I would spend the greater part of my summer researching and curating exhibitions and activities for the number one museum in San Francisco (according to TripAdvisor), I would never have pictured quite so many pipe cleaners. But now that I’m wrapping up my time here at the Exploratorium, I’m recognizing just how valuable pipe cleaners--and their playful material peers--can be. Even when compared to the 19th century oil paintings that line the walls in some of the lower ranked institutions in the city (please do not mistake my snark for disrespect. I love me some fine art).
Take my most recent project: the early childhood wind tube. I was compelled to pull out this more accessible wind tube--an iteration of the common TS activity--because I had already had excellent exposure to activity design and facilitation through the astute conversations I heard throughout the Learning Studio over the span of the summer. Since I had never participated in the previous wind tube activities, this was a chance for me to try out the tricks of the trade. Everyone at the TS has inspired me with the pointed decisions they make about materials and set up for every activity. I’ve been so impressed by their thoughtfulness in creating activities that encourage both engagement and curiosity and leave room for innovation. Notably, I’ve been struck by this idea of “creating tension,” or staging a problem or challenge for a learner to tackle through the process of discovery. This could be putting a light source too close to an object in order to create a blurry shadow or asking the learner to figure out how to get their scribbling machines moving with only a spinning motor. This is, of course, the balance that every educator strives toward, but at the TS I see so much more value placed on the process of discovery than the product.
So, in my curation of the wind tube materials, I tried to emulate this tension. I included a lot of objects that wouldn’t move in exciting ways when placed in the tube--from ping pong balls to washers that didn’t budge, to paper airplanes that tended to take immediate, damaging nose dives. Once I had also collected free floating objects like coffee filters and paper wads, I tested my luck on the floor with kids seven years old or younger. It was truly amazing to watch them troubleshoot. I saw a lot of variations of parachutes, some two-tiered or clunky, some simple fabrics anchored at only two ends. Some kids would simply--and successfully--use an object that floated more successfully, like a cup or a piece of fabric, to propel the immobile object up the tube. I ran through like 15 pipe cleaners per hour. In every case, the kids were grappling with concepts like weight and air resistance based on their own, internal motivation to fix whatever issue they had encountered.
It was incredibly rewarding, not to mention super cute, to watch the thought processes of the younger kids who engaged with the wind tube. Though I would love to continue to experiment with ways to guide kids into their own realizations of the deeper physics of wind and gravity, I’m constrained by both their time on the floor and mine in the Tinkering Studio. Nonetheless, it was such a rewarding exercise to think deeply and methodologically about how to use a limited palette of familiar materials to create a truly productive--and fun!--activity. So, even though my days of museum curation are stymied by my imminent departure, it’s been such a pleasure to (nose) dive into them at such a wonderful institution.