Embrace Your Tools: Soldering

Our public space give us the chance to introduce tools and techniques to museum visitors as they engage in the process of making personally meaningful artifacts. As we highlight the tinkering tenets for the national week of making, I wanted to write about soldering workshop as an example for “embrace your tools”.


The topics of soldering workshops that we’ve found to be successful like paper circuits and LED tiaras are playful and incorporate elements of art. They take into account the learners interest and give a reason for learning how to use the tool.

Copper Crowns

Soldering irons can be seen as an intimidating for lots of kids and I’ve noticed that young visitors are often apprehensive to get started. We always are careful to spend time in the beginning explaining how solder works (like glue for metal), which parts of the iron you can touch, and some general safety tips. I think it’s important to both be serious about the fact that it’s a real (and potentially dangerous) tool but also that we trust kids in the workshop to take it seriously.


As a facilitator, after the initial explanation, I spend a lot of time watching kids to see if they’re getting comfortable with the tool. It’s important to be attentive but not overbearing as kids figure out the technique.


Over the course of the project I’ve noticed kids becoming more and more fluent with the soldering iron. When they first get started they are usually tentative with the iron, unsure about how to hold the solder or where to melt the metal. But after fifteen or twenty minutes you can see the difference feel more confident, are enjoying the process and reevaluate their abilities and interests.

These are quick interactions on the museum floor that I can see having a long-lasting effect on some participants. A soldering iron is a pretty accessible tool, not too expensive and easy to set up in a small space, but it opens up such a wide range of projects and possibilities.

Maker Faire 2014

I feel that in contrast to a very step-by-step instruction focused on completing a circuit board project, activities where people define their own goals and take time to build their own understanding of a tool’s parts and purposes allow for a deeper relationship with the process. When we say “embrace your tools”, this starts from the beginning, providing opportunities for people to get introduced to tools in a friendly, approachable and generative way.


Collaborative R&D with Twitter, LEGO, and Digital Tools

Our recent experiments with LEGO tinkering have led to some quick and dirty collaboration, iteration, and research and development mostly over twitter using the hashtag #LEGOtinkering. It's been really inspiring to see the ways that other teachers, librarians, museum educators, and designers have taken initial ideas around art machines, sound makers, and linkages to new and unexpected places.

While this shared prototyping process can feel like a natural extension of our tinkering practice and gives us the possibility to work together with other educators and designers without the added step of developing formal networks, it's also based on having the proper tools and experiences to fuel the process. To me, our initial explorations suggest that not only are informal educators hungry for ideas, they also are deep wells of knowledge and can make substantial contributions when given the right invitations and provocations.

Searching through the stream of tweets can feel overwhelming, but I wanted to try and share a few examples that I think demonstrate different possibilities for collaboration through social media using the hashtag #LEGOtinkering. And as we celebrate the tinkering tenets during the National Week of Making, I wanted to reflect on some of the ways that these new (for us) tools allow us to redefine what it means to engage in rapid prototyping with a growing community of tinkerers.

Twitter allows us to document the process of iteration. Josh Burker, an educator we’ve been collaborating with, shared four versions of a single art machine in consecutive twitter posts. This real time documentation and reflection gives us insight about how increasingly complex ideas come about. And since LEGO allows for consistent and systematic building, it’s easy to follow along from a distance and recreate designs.

In the our own process of developing activities, we believe in sharing ideas and getting inspirations from others. Through the #LEGOtinkering posts, we are also able to share designs rapidly with a large number of long-distance collaborators like Amos Blanton from the LEGO Foundation. One example where we really took advantage of this is the base model for art machines. We went through a bunch of different versions of starting points for the mechanisms and we all could quickly post and try out new models.



In our workshop, we've been skeptical of 3D printers in general as a makerspace tool due the limitations of speed and reliability, but the #LEGOtinkering collaboration has made us rethink the usefulness of the tool. The first .STL file that we shared was the LEGO pen holder. This customized piece has allowed many more people to join in the art machines prototyping and it was really cool to see the physical part spread around the country.



We also shared a lasercutter file on instructables for an acrylic pegboard to use as a base for linkages. One of the coolest things about sharing the digital file was that it gave people like Colleen Graves, a librarian and maker educator a reason to try out a new tool that might expand possibilities for her learning space.

Another #LEGOtinkering collaborator, Patrick Ferrell, got the same file but turned it into something completely unexpected and delightful. We've found that with sharing digital files, it's more interesting to provide parts for exploration instead of finished products. This way, we are also surprised by the outcomes and can continue the circle of inspiration.



We use our workshop space on the museum floor as a R&D lab to inviting visitors to prototype not fully fleshed out ideas alongside our group. The #LEGOtinkering group explands that pool of testers and lets us gain experiences from trials in classrooms, festivals and conferences. The Freeman Library, Patrick's makerspace in Houston, TX, has been doing lots of LEGO tinkering workshops and we've been learning alongside them about where participants in the workshops can take the ideas next.



I think my favorite thing about our #LEGOtinkering collaboration is the way that it allows educators and designers to encourage each other as they share prototypes. Each time someone posts something new, there are a bunch of excited tweets celebrating the ideas!

Although we've started with the #LEGOtinkering hashtag and have developed a community around the LEGO activity prototyping, it will be interesting to see where the R&D process takes us. As collaborators get interested in other materials or products, do we branch off into different threads or is there some other deeper way to organize the tweets?



And lastly, as we continue to use these technologies to share the prototyping process, we have to respond to the challenge of figuring out how to include new educators in the community who have quesitons about materials, tools, and activities. It will be important to continue to expand the network of collaborators

Many of these #LEGOtinkering ideas are old but there's power in encouraging people to figure things out for themselves. And through that revisiting of topics, new ideas emerge almost magically. But I think there's trick to creating shared problem spaces that are open ended enough to allow for personal expression but focused enough that ideas are related and can spread quickly. Creating these types of social media collaborations can allow for both rapid prototyping and long-term investigations. Even if it seems messy from the outside, I think going through the tweets can show a lot of deep thinking and demonstrates social scaffolding in action, even in the online world.

Over the next few months we'll be continuing the #LEGOtinkering explorations with art machines and linkages, as well as starting sky parade, balancing objects and other new ideas. We'll also keep investigating the potential for twitter and digital tools so join in the process with #LEGOtinkering hashtag and help us develop these ideas further.


This blog post is part of a series of Tinkering Studio posts highlighting a variety of ideas during the National Week of Making. weekofmaking.org



prototype rapidly

One of our Tinkering Tenents is Prototype Rapidly, because when you have a new idea, it's incredibly helpful to get it out of your brain as soon as possible-to sketch a design or build a working model with stuff you have lying around. That way, you can make it real, work it out, and develop a concrete understanding of your problem and your next steps. Trying out an idea in a quick, low-stakes way gets you going, and sometimes, getting started is the hardest part.

We recently discovered a great tool for rapid prototyping, something that you can build with as if it was glued, and yet it can be easily taken apart and reconfigured into another idea. It's not a riddle, it's LEGO! You can quickly test out an idea, get instant feedback, make a change, change it back, or build something totally new.

Right now we are pretty excited about tinkering with linkages, and what do you do if you want to experiment with your ideas about linkages in a quick, low-stakes way, building things as if they were glued, but could easily be taken apart and reconfigured? We decided to make a custom laser-cut pegboard that works with LEGO technic pins and beams. When you combine them, the linkage possibilities are endless.

Here are just a few . . .

lego linkages from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo.



There are no elves at the Exploratorium (nor do we have a basement)

Making is not a new phenomenon, and the Exploratorium has been celebrating the process of making since the museum’s beginnings.

Aerial view of the machine shop, early to mid 1970's © Exploratorium, All rights reserved www.exploratorium.edu

Van Der Graf Generator, Pam Winfrey, Dave Fleming, Joe Ansel and Stan Axelrod, 1983
Pam Winfrey, Dave Fleming, Joe Ansel and Stan Axelrod working on the Van Der Graf Generator, 1983, Photo Credit: Susan Schwartzenberg © Exploratorium, All rights reserved www.exploratorium.edu

Not only are our exhibits created on site at the Exploratorium – they’re created right in the middle of the museum! (To get a glimpse of the Exploratorium’s machine shop – one you can’t even get when visiting in person – check out this virtual tour.)

Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium’s founder, recalled an experience he had while visiting the Munich Museum that significantly influenced the way the Exploratorium’s exhibit making process came to be viewed:

“Everything [in the Munich Museum] was so well-crafted there that I think they must have been made by elves in the basement. Yet I noticed that one man had come up out of the subterranean shop and was using one of the exhibits, a fancy milling machine, to do something he couldn’t do in the basement. It was so nice to watch him that I think that incident first suggested to me our policy of having the Exploratorium machine and carpentry shops open to public view.” (1)

Diane Whitmore, shop staffPhoto credit: Gayle Laird © Exploratorium, All rights reserved  www.exploratorium.edu

Since there are no elves magically creating our exhibits, visitors get to see the entire process of exhibit creation. They see exhibits being prototyped, fabricated, tinkered with, maintained, and fixed in the midst of the rest of the museum. They hear the way stainless steel sounds when cut on the lathe or smell wood smoke when someone feeds the saw too quickly. The machine shop is not a stage for a rehearsed demo, so the work seen is at times slow, imperfect, full of setbacks, and definitely marked with prototyping.

Shop staff Diane Whitmore, Erik Thogersen, Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough, Maz Kattuah, Paul Stepahin, 2012 Photo credit: Gayle Laird © Exploratorium, All rights reserved www.exploratorium.edu

The Exploratorium is a museum, yes, but the way we approach our work can also make the place seem like a giant laboratory. Pat Murphy, a former exhibit developer noted that,

“Few exhibits emerge from our machine shop fully formed. Most evolve over time, shaped by the ideas of the exhibit builder and staff and the recreations of visitors. In a sense, all the exhibits at the Exploratorium - even ones that have been on display for years - are prototypes." (2)

Jessica Strick, 2012Photo credit: Gayle Laird © Exploratorium, All rights reserved www.exploratorium.edu

Often, exhibits under development will be placed on the gallery floor immediately outside of the machine shop. As visitors use these exhibits, the exhibit developers can observe how visitors interact with the exhibit and can then quickly pull the exhibit just a few yards back into the machine shop to make changes based on this visitor feedback.

Photo credit: Amy Oates © Exploratorium, All rights reserved www.exploratorium.edu

Frank explained,

“We find that the very process of fabricating an exhibit is full of discovery and that even after an exhibit has been out on the floor for a month or even a year, we discover new things in it. It also is especially remarkable and wonderful that our visitors keep discovering things that we haven’t yet discovered and tell us about them...” (3)

In this way, visitors are empowered to make discoveries, to understand what’s going on, and to contribute to the exhibit design process. We hope that they begin to see themselves as capable of understanding and contributing to the world around them.

Removing all the notions of “elves in the basement” is central to becoming an explorer, discoverer, maker, a tinkerer, and creator. By demystifying exhibit building process and inviting visitors into the prototyping process, we hope that people leave the Exploratorium more inclined towards seeking to understand and then make the world around them.

(1) Oppenheimer, Frank. "Exploration and Discovery," Acceptance speech for the AAM Distinguished Service Award. Delivered on 21 June 1982. San Francisco: Exploratorium. Print.
(2) Murphy, Pat. “The Evolution of an Exhibit.” In F. Oppenheimer et al., Working Prototypes - Exhibit Design at the Exploratorium. San Francisco: Exploratorium, 1986. Print.
(3) Oppenheimer, Frank. "Exploration and Discovery," Acceptance speech for the AAM Distinguished Service Award. Delivered on 21 June 1982. San Francisco: Exploratorium. Print.

This blog post is part of a series of Tinkering Studio posts highlighting a variety of ideas during the National Week of Making. weekofmaking.org

Humor and whimsy as portals to making

“Try a little snarkasm

During this National Week of Making extravaganza, let’s take a moment to celebrate the sillier side of tinkering, and indulge in remembering some of the less practical and most fun projects that have come out of the Tinkering Studio. But first, a slightly more serious note.

Tinkering is a highly engaging form of making and thinking with your hands, it encourages people to pose their own goals and define success for themselves, but at the same time it can put learners in a vulnerable position, that of not knowing: the right answer, the next step, whether they’re doing it right. It is important that we create an emotionally safe and personally friendly space to allow visitors to navigate those feelings.

One shortcut to connect with learners at an emotional level is through considered use of humor and whimsy, which are always present in Tinkering Studio offerings in one way or another. We enjoy unusual juxtapositions of topics, like sewing with circuits or using familiar materials in unfamiliar ways, and use humor to lower the barriers for entry for those who might approach the activities more tentatively. Playful and whimsical aspects of activities set a tone for what we value beyond "capital S" Science, and hint that these tinkering experience might embrace more than traditional didactic science learning. They are a way of presenting ourselves as fully rounded human beings, rather than idealized “experts,” but they also encourage visitors to feel that we will accept all aspects of them, including the silly and fun ideas they might have.

Cabinet of Curiosity @ ASTC 2001

We often refer to this quality of our work as “snarkasm,” a term that suggests perhaps a more cutting tone than we intend. It originated in the occasion of the 2011 ASTC conference, the first time we really presented our work to a large and important audience of our professional peers, creating the first Cabinet of Curiosities which collected artifacts and artwork created over the course of the last few years. Perhaps recognizing that at first glance a lot of these objects might seem silly, frivolous, or pointless, we reacted by embracing and reclaiming our point of view with humorous “toe tags” describing each item in funny ways. I wrote approximately 50 snarky descriptions for things that we loved for one reason or another. Unfortunately my documentation skills failed me at the time and I did not take any clear photos of the toe tags in action, so I will just have to recreate some of my favorites.

You get the idea… it’s about having a perspective on your own work that allows you to take the work as seriously as possible, while still not taking yourself all that seriously, staying open and delighted by the strange and idiosyncratically quirky places the work takes you, and celebrating the awkward. In fact, we have a long running series of blog posts titled “tinkering moment of zen” that try to capture just that. Sometimes it’s Tim Hunkin eating a self-portrait carved into a banana. Sometimes it’s Scott Weaver juggling frisbees into the toothpick sculpture that took him 35 years to build. More often it’s funny little moments that are part of this strange job, like an ironic juxtaposition in the elevator, or an impromptu bit of pumpkin juggling (what’s with all the juggling, anyway?), that time when Nicole decided to cut a cake with a jigsaw, or the wimpiest pushup competition ever (Lianna totally won).

But more often we express humor and whimsy directly in the artifacts and details that we create and share with our visitors. These are objects that permeate the Tinkering Studio environment, usually without a sign with a description or explanation (unless they are a sign, in which case they are their own sign). They reward visitors’ curiosity, exploration, and sometimes low stature. Here are some of the highlights over the past few years!

Tinkering and Learning Studio Tour
A chandelier made of clothes hangers adorns the Tinkering Studio. It is fun to see the moment when a kid realizes what they are looking at, and are compelled to tell all their friends. (Bonus: here is a photo of Nicole prototyping the first version)

A bearskin rug made of cardboard, created to complement a cardboard fireplace frame for a monitor. As you do.

Open MAKE: Tools
A set of giant cardboard tools made by Scout Tran-Caffee originally to make large scale stop motion animations. They now hang from various spots in the Learning Studio, along with a giant Kraken tentacle (that one was made by a different cardboard artist, Jesse Wilson)

This too shall pass
A drawing by the über-talented illustrator Iris Gottlieb that is our way of communicating to visitors that the marbles we use in our Marble Machines area are not a choking hazard…

A “fire alarm,” inspired by the circuitry work of Forrest M. Mims III, which hangs in the Tinkering Studio right next to the actual fire alarm.

My dog Pepper comes to work with me sometimes, and she likes to sit by the large glass doors that face the exhibit hall. Often kids (and adults) try to interact with her through the glass, it almost feels like she’s one of the exhibits. So I made her a label.

The fact that we have a tinkering vending machine in our space is funny enough, but after going back and forth about whether we should have a “small parts disclaimer” on it, and what language we should use, this is the sign that stuck…

Finally, here is a little treat for the shorter visitors: all the drawers’ handles make little faces. Of all the “easter eggs” hidden in the Tinkering Studio, this is perhaps the one that is noticed by the fewest people.