Earlier in October, Deanna and I traveled to Milan, Italy, for something that has become somewhat of a tradition for us in the Tinkering Studio: we hosted a workshop at the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (MUST from now on). We have been working in partnership with the museum in various forms since 2012, averaging a workshop every couple of years, and there opportunities have transitioned over time more from Tinkering Studio-led introductions to tinkering, to a collaborative effort to guide specific audiences that MUST works with locally, and help them implement a tinkering practice in their respective institutions. This time we focused on an audience primarily of secondary school teachers, and tried a couple of new things in our tried and true 3-day workshop approach that are worth reporting on.
We usually devote the afternoon of the first day in the workshop to an exploration of circuits in various form. We typically start with our Circuit Boards activity, and very deliberately and slowly scaffold it so that participants follow a steady progression, from simple basic circuits to more advanced connections with multiple outputs and different types of switches. This is a structured exploration of a problem space that meets learners where they are but quickly allows them to leave familiar territory and try more ambitious connections. However, it doesn’t allow for making in the stricter sense of the word.
We decided to transition from Circuit Boards to another activity that focuses on circuits but more directly asks participants to make their own personal and inventive switch. We call this activity Homemade Switches, and although we have done it before in professional development workshops, recently we have discovered that it is a good complement and progression from Circuit Boards. We quickly introduce the idea of a switch being a break in a piece of conductive material (like aluminum foil) that can be restored when the break is connected again, and briefly show some examples that explore with the concept in playful ways. Then we ask participants to think of a switch that has a function or solves a specific problem, real, imagined, or silly. Like “a switch to detect if someone steals your food from the fridge,” or “a switch to alert you when it starts raining so you can bring in your laundry.”
What I like about this approach to deepening the exploration of circuits, aside from the fact that it is an activity where learners gets to make something, it is that it feels like a quick prototyping session. Because participants only have about an hour to create something, and because of the nature of the materials we make available — cardboard and other easily manipulated materials — rather than focusing on making something polished we found that most people rough out their ideas, they build objects that approximate a finished product, hint at what it could look like and work like without necessarily trying to solve allthe problems with their idea, and rather concentrate their efforts on the switch part of their contraption. I like that attempted solutions are as easily discarded as they are generated when they don’t work, and goals for the activity shift fluidly according to what is tried, what works, what’s too hard right now, and what people have time to accomplish.
I think this approach has created a comfort level with the idea of creating switches, rather than trying to focus on developing expertise. Thanks to the narrative framing it has infused a playful approach into a difficult topic, which is a big win in my opinion.
Another notable change stemmed from a specific request from the MUST team to touch upon the topic of computation and computational tinkering in this workshop. Deanna and I decided to introduce a new activity that we prototyped within the last year or so, called Programmable Pets. The idea is to animate a real stuffed toy using Scratch and a connected micro:bit device. We knew there would be a wide range of expertise level when it comes to programming, with some participants approaching it for the very first time, so Deanna prepared a more intentional introduction that felt almost (but not quite) like a demo, in which the basics of what Scratch is, how you control characters, snap together blocks, and talk to the micro:bit were covered.
All participants delved into the prompt with enthusiasm, and although for some the connection to the toy came later into the activity than others, eventually everybody worked on some idea that translated a real world change into a digital event. Once again narrative played a big part in providing motivation, inspiration, and helping push ideas over the inevitable bumps. Programmable Pets took the spot that traditionally has been reserved for Toy Dissection in the workshop progression. I really liked that, similarly to Homemade Switches, this took an activity that was more about de-construction and made it more about construction, while remaining in a similar domain aesthetically and thematically. It also seemed to support a rich conversation about Learning Dimensions and how they applied to this activity specifically, so for me it is something to revisit in future workshops for sur
Connecting to Chain Reaction
Typically the culmination of a three day workshop is a large collaborative Chain Reaction activity, and we structure the activity in the preceding days partially in order to build skills that can be applied to it. We were hoping that adding a computational element to day 2 would bleed into Chain Reaction for some participants, and we were not disappointed!
As part of our general introduction to the activity, Fabio (one of the MUST facilitators) mentioned that one could use a combination of micro:bit and a WeDO motor via Scratch to translate a physical input (like a block falling) into a physical output (a motor pushing something else, for example) without a physical connection between the two. One group took up the challenge and spent the entire time trying to implement such a connection, with positive results.
I really love being able to iterate on something already solid and established like our Professional Development workshop; it is an opportunity for us to tweak slightly the goals to better fit the audience we are serving, and expand our own definition of tinkering and our image of the educators who come to us for their own professional growth.