The Tinkering Studio as a physical space on the museum floor is the hub through which we prototype, test, and iterate all of the experiences we offer. We spend a lot of time with our activities at the prototype stage to craft an experience that has the qualities we care about, but whenever we are developing something new we try to bring it out on the museum floor and test it with visitors as soon as possible. We believe it is important to gather feedback on an activity early on, when it’s just baked enough to provide an experience worth having for our visitors, but not developed so much that we have already started cutting off some avenues of exploration and growth. There are three categories of elements that we share with the public in the Tinkering Studio: in-depth workshops, lightly facilitated activities, and inspirational installations.
Inspirational elements and installations
We believe in the Reggio Emilia approach maxim that the environment is a “third teacher” when it comes to learning situations, so we put great care and thought into everything that goes in the space itself, from the types of chairs we provide, to the shape of the tables and working surfaces, lighting, and decoration. Rather than relying on prescriptive charts, graphs, equations, or science and math formulas to convey “science content,” we prefer to surround visitors in inspirational and aspirational elements. From works of art by makers and tinkerers that have worked with us or inspired our activities, to work created by past visitors to the space, or odd and whimsical objects created by us, often as ways to explore materials, techniques, or technologies, the space communicates the kinds of artifacts and behaviors that it was built for. Whether it’s a chandelier made of clothes hangers, a slowly-revolving head created by gluing together dozens of doll parts, or a spindly skeletal flapping mechanisms operated by a wooden crank, these elements hopefully conveys a reverence for materials, process, experimentation, and the pursuit of personally meaningful self-expression (no matter how seemingly silly or bizarre-looking). We strive to highlight an aesthetic that privileges authenticity over cleverness, interest over beauty, and a slightly off-kilter sense of humor.
Outside of the workshop area, but still within the Tinkering Studio proper, we have developed a suit of tinkering experiences that do not need facilitation in order to be effective and worthwhile, but do benefit greatly from a facilitator being present. This allows us to have low-threshold entry points within the space where visitors can become engaged in something on their own and proceed through at their own pace, make discoveries along the way, and develop understanding and expertise as they try new things. These explorations are also great opportunities for novice and expert facilitators to practice facilitation skills in a low-stakes way, and build confidence in their own abilities.
Circuit Boards is an activity that we often use in Professional Development workshops as a fully facilitated exploration of circuits and electricity; however, it is robust and structured enough to stand unfacilitated on the museum floor. Visitors are naturally inclined to pick up the electrical components and try hooking them up together. Serendipitous discoveries happen all the time, and often lead to a more intentional exploration of the materials and meaning making. When a facilitator is present, however, those connections can be made deeper and wider, helping visitors to push past what they can achieve by themselves.
We have developed a stop-motion animation station as a way to introduce visitors to basic animation techniques, and allow them to create a short (or long, if very ambitious!) movie with the materials available. The station is designed not to hide the components that make it up: a computer, a webcam, and a monitor. We also built our own stop-motion animation software in order to make sure it had the characteristics we felt were essential: an ability to see the previous frame while working on the current one, simple controls to advance, backtrack, and start a new project, and most importantly the ability to share your movie on YouTube and receive an email with a link to it, so that visitors can have a record of their own project. We included a little monitor with some carefully crafted examples of animations designed to show basic techniques, and seed ideas about how to make things appear to move faster or slower, have different speeds, etc. This has created an experience that visitors can approach without needing a facilitator to explain what to do; conversely, the experience undoubtedly becomes richer when a facilitator is present to contribute ideas, troubleshoot tricky situations, or simply to serve as an external sounding board to articulate tentative ideas and questions out loud.
In-depth workshops are deep experiences with a core tinkering activity, an artist’s project, or special event. We have created an “inner core” space within the Tinkering Studio in order to provide a protected environment for a group of visitors to really delve deeply into tinkering and making. This space is meant for explorations that take time (depending on the activity it could range from half an hour to several hours, but usually around 45 minutes). These in-depth explorations include Scribbling Machines, or taking apart and carefully dissecting a toy, or building part of a large collective Chain Reaction.
A key feature of these long-term deep explorations is that they are always facilitated, by a combination of core Tinkering Studio staff and our Field Trip and High School Explainers. Facilitation is a crucial component of engaging visitors in tinkering activities; we see it as absolutely essential to realize our pedagogical goals. We work closely with both groups of Explainers to develop a set of shared educational goals, as well as a culture of facilitation that allows non-experts to be effective guides by thinking of themselves as co-learners rather than figures of authority. We also develop practical facilitation techniques, tips, and tricks that we share as a group and model for each other on a daily basis.