Chain reaction is an intuitively simple concept, but one that allows for an incredibly complex and deep investigation into something we experience every day: the relationship between cause and effect. Chain reaction is always done as a collective contraption: each participant is given a chunk of real estate on a table onto which to build a sequence of events. The only constraint is that it has to set off the contraption built by the next participant: in the end this will result in a continuous chain reaction that goes from start to finish seamlessly, each section having been contributed by a different participant.
What are the qualities that we value in this activity?
It’s a playful and inventive approach to learning about cause and effect
This is a playful and inventive way of exploring gravity, electricity, motors, circuitry, friction, acceleration, and hypothesis testing.
Ideas build on one another
By making observations about the ways in which objects behave in relationship to one another, new designs can be realized, constructed, and immediately tested.
New uses for everyday objects
Seeing common objects such as motors, ramps, toy parts, and kitchen utensils behave in surprising ways leads to unexpected experiments with, and new tests of these things.
Diverse Solutions to a Shared Theme
There are several different, individual solutions and creative designs, all sparked by each participant's interpretation of a common theme.
Having to trigger the next participant's contraption, and sharing the final collective "run", are good ways for participants to contribute to the group’s understanding of the activity.
Perhaps more than any other Tinkering Studio activity, this one challenges us as facilitators to follow each participant's own path of discovery and investigation. To limit the field somewhat, and spark creativity at the same time, we often center each Chain Reaction around a specific theme; these can be profound (like “love”) or silly and whimsical (like “Texas”!), but importantly they provide an anchoring and starting point to start envisioning possibilities. These initial choices also inform the selection of materials that we put together to be used, and so truly impart a very different "flavor" to each event. If you've been part of a Chain Reaction build in the Tinkering Studio chances are we took a video of the "set-off" and posted it online. The best way to find it is to look here.
The Tinkering Studio organized a “love-themed” collective chain reaction at the Exploratorium's After Dark: Heartworks event. Visitors built chain reaction contraptions on section of a heart-shaped pathway, each triggering the next one. After two and a half hours of build time, the whole contraption was set off to activate a grandiose finale that brought together star-crossed lovers: a rat and his beloved rubber duckie.
We are passionate about sharing our work and developing a community of people interested in these activities, practices, and ideas. The guides below are free to download and use to help you get started with tinkering, whether it's at home, or in your school or educational institution.
Chain Reaction activity videos
The following videos are from our Motions and Mechanisms online course.