Over the last six months, we explored a variety of tinkering activities for a LEGO pull-string motor through a collaboration with partners from LEGO Idea Studio (Amos Blanton, Liam Nilsen), Care for Education (Brent Hutcheson and Duncan Beaton), and Quarterre (Nick Mannion). The motor has a variety of possible building points: a hole for a LEGO Technic axle, a disk with LEGO studs, and more studs throughout the body of the motor. The pull string activates the spinning axle and disk, no power required. We honed in on two activities: critters and their environments and automata (more on that in another blog post).
In this activity, we asked participants to create a critter that walks, scoots, or wiggles across a rugged landscape. Critter bodies consist of a LEGO pull-string motor and are made from a combination of LEGO and everyday materials. The habitat drives the investigation and encourages frequent testing and iteration on ideas. I discussed initial observations of LEGO critters at the East Bay Mini Maker Faire last fall. If you're interested in trying something similar, LEGO offers a wind-up motor that offers similiar functionality.
One activity design consideration we made was to avoid materials that are wheel-like that can be made into a car. This is not what we would consider to be a critter. Rough, jerky motions create more personality than a smooth, even movement. That being said, we’ve found that gears make for interesting wheels because they are more robust and can traverse rough surfaces.
We’ve found that adding non-LEGO materials supports variety in critter characters and their unique motions. Wings, antennae, and silly expressions are all possibilities with paper. Paper is an especially effective material because it is lightweight and can sit between beam-and-pin constructions and move flexibly. Paper crafting as an entry point into a LEGO activity also supports learners who are newer or less-fluent in LEGO materials. Seeing a familiar material used in an unfamiliar way can bridge the divide into using the new material. We’ve seen learners who have little to no experience using LEGO Technic pieces create elaborate and creative critters by channeling their paper crafting skills and experimenting with LEGO pieces.
Rich critter habitats are crucial for this activity. A lush landscape of textures changes the ways critters move and sparks imagination and idea generation for fantastic creatures and characters. Rough surfaces like sand paper provide friction to propel a critter forward, while a slippery sheet of plastic may afford only a small glide. Critter designs can be greatly impacted by the surfaces they encounter, so a variety of types is essential.
To get started, build one of the three base model options below. These starting points can also be given to learners when they are first introduced to the activity as places to build from. A base model provides enough information to begin creating a critter while also not finished enough to feel complete.
Option 1: The Arm and Linkage (LEGO beam 1 x 2 with axle hole and pin hole)
This LEGO beam provides a strong connection for the cross-shaped axle as well as a pin hole. A pin can affix this beam to another, longer beam and allow the two pieces to rotate relative to one another. This loose connection facilitates building linkages from the axle to build onto. The two pin length is also too short to propel the motor forward, requiring the learner to build onto the beam in some fashion.
The 1x2 beam can be given as is, but we often find that this is not substantial enough of a starting place. We add a simple linkage to the beam using a pin connector as a base model to build from. A linkage creates an interesting mechanical motion that can be easily modified.
Option 2: The Cam
A non-circular shaped piece cut out of a rigid material. We laser cut wood with an axle hole to attach to the motor and tried a variety of shapes. We like seeing asymmetrical cams added to critters because of the way critters wiggle and wobble as they propel themselves forward.
Option 3: The Brick (LEGO Technic 1 x 2 brick with axle hole)
Similar to the arm, the technic brick is a great building-off point for many different ideas and is too short to propel the critter forward. The two studs on top make easy brick-to-brick connections and other types of fixed (or non-rotating) connections.
The orientation of the motor can inspire different pathways for exploration. Similar to the previous options, the motor can be placed horizontally. It can also be placed vertically with the spinning disk touching the tabletop. In this orientation, the motion of the critter changes and harnesses the disk as well as the axle to propel it forward.
Tinker with motion and movement
After building a base model, pull the string and notice its motion. You may find that the motion is not wholly satisfactory. Consider different extensions that can be added to these base pieces. Add another piece and notice the new motion. Explore adding various LEGO pieces and observe how they impact the critter’s movement. You may find that not all additions prove fruitful, and frequent iteration is necessary to produce interesting motions.
Test in the environment
Before making too much progress on the critter, it’s important to bring it over to the testing environment. This environment can be built before any critter creation or as a result of critter explorations. The ways in which the critter interacts with its environment can inform modifications and enhancements to its design.
Mixing LEGO with non-LEGO materials were an important part of this activity. The contrast in materials created friendly and personalizable critters. Similar to the LEGO automata activity, paper cut outs were attached with hole punches and double stick tape. Adding eyes is an important detail for a critter; we saw many learners give their critters a face, making it that much more realistic.
Decoration can lead into storytelling and narrative development around a critter. The narrative emerges from the experience of creating the critter; learners generally do not know what type of critter they want to create ahead of time. The critter personality is a product of trial and error with its design.
We built a compelling tabletop testing environment for critters to roam around in. These surfaces had a variety of textures and changes in elevation, resulting in a rich environment for exploration. Critters wiggle their way across the different materials and learners will find that their critter works better on some surfaces than others. This understanding informs modifications and design considerations as learners continue to build and iterate on their idea.
The textured testing area is an open-ended exploration space and is separate from the building station. We set up a build zone where LEGO pieces and building materials are within reach. We find that having these two distinct areas helps learners to be intentional about which area they are in. When they feel that they have a complete critter, they are able to go and test it in an area dedicated to wandering critters. And if they feel changes need to be made, they are able to access the complete library of materials back at the starting station. At both stations, learners can easily see what others are doing and have access to inspiring projects from their co-learners. Seeing others’ work encourages collaboration and we value when participants build on the ideas of others.
Tunnels and sloping mountains are interesting challenges for learners to encounter with their critters. We made a mountain like a topographic map with gentle, cardboard steps that were easy to climb. Tunnels are an interesting addition to see if critters walk in a straight line and if they can make it to the other side.
It’s important to clarify that this is not a race track or an obstacle course. The purpose of adding obstacles is not for competition, but instead to encourage learners to make purposeful design choices as they build their critter. It may do very well in one area of the table and less so in another, and we value when learners set their own goals for their critters.
Switch it up
We like to encourage learners to design and modify environments for critter exploration. The process of switching back and forth between creating critters and building environments allows for opportunities to build confidence with a range of materials, express intentionality in their designs, and applying unique solutions to their specific environment.
This project was made possible through the generous support from the LEGO Foundation