"And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it." — Roald Dahl
Why Teeny Tiny?
This activity started as a way to newly engage with ordinary materials and act upon our everyday environment. Being a person in the world means sifting through all of the noise of daily life for little glimmers of meaningful input. So it's natural to slip into dismissing the materials and objects that we pass by all the time. Unless something is startling or different than usual, I don't think much about my morning commute anymore. But I always appreciate the joy and creativity that's sparked when I take the time to notice.
Introducing a tool like a microscope that lets you look at the world on a totally different scale can reveal the spectacular in the ordinary — and can prompt new kinds of construction. Through an activity called Teeny Tiny Tableaus that we've been developing, we're thinking through how a shift in scale can prompt us to explore and be surprised by the everyday. We had the chance to try out the activity and brainstorm alongside maker educators at the November 2019 Bay Area Maker Educator meetup.
We connected microscopes to a laptop as a camera input that could be used with various photo and video capturing applications, including both Quicktime and Photo Booth. Using tools like tweezers, pipettes, and scissors, we worked to build an image or tell a story under the microscope. We turned the lenses of our USB microscopes on small containers of:
- natural materials (like plant cuttings, sand, and water);
- scraps that might otherwise be thrown away (small pieces of fabric, thread, paper, and pencil shavings),
- and colorful supplies like food coloring, clay, LEDs, and markers.
The Accidental Stuff
Initially, much of the attention was on exploring different materials and looking at them under the microscope. Exclamations of surprise and delight filled the room. "It's like looking at clouds," voiced one educator. Some groups dwelled on this exploration stage, preferring to take close looks at various materials or create movement in unique ways, like introducing magnets and static. Others moved quickly into constructing abstract or concrete representations under the microscope, finding ways to take advantage of what one participant called the "accidental stuff"they discovered while playing with materials to create something more intentional.
We worked in pairs, and sometimes recruited more hands to achieve our artistic visions. For example, one group constructed an elaborate and collaborative setup (left) that involved attaching a pompom to a piece of wire so that it could be suspended to block an LED in order to create a video of an eclipse (right):
Another group blew on dry ice (left) to create an atmospheric effect as the sun set over their mountain (right):
So far, we've found tinkering under the microscope to support the playful interrogation of familiar materials, objects, and phenomena on an unfamiliar scale. It's also the kind of activity that seems to spark conversation about rich ideas for future directions. So far, some directions I'm particularly interested in continuing to explore include:
1. Tinkering with Code: Sebastian set this scene using a USB microscope as an input for Scratch. He used color sensing to make sure fish didn't swim onto the cat's perch, creating a dynamic scene with the USB microscope and coded interactions.
2. Adding 2D and 3D Elements: I used colored pencils to clarify my vision, since the original marble and slinky image (left) didn't quite achieve what I was going for (right). We also talked about creating a microscope scene as a backdrop for added drawn or sculptural elements.
3. Microscope Images as Raw Material: We also talked about creating textures and patterns under a microscope and then using them as raw materials for other projects, like cutting designs on a vinyl cutter.
Inspired by the Museum of Jurassic Technology's exhibition of The Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian and my time playing under microscopes at the Nature Lab, I'm excited to see how this activity continues to evolve. Please keep us posted if you're doing any tinkering on teeny tiny (or really giant) scales!
This work was supported by a grant from Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation