Parts, Purposes, and Complexities with Explainers

Over the past year or so, we have been experimenting with visible thinking routines developed by the Agency by Design group which is an initiative in the larger Project Zero project. In our trainings and workshops, we spend a lot of time planning the the materials and environments that are best suited for tinkering and recently these thinking routines have given us a great starting point to turn our attention equally to how we organize reflections and conversations for professional development workshops.

In the Tinkering Studio there are a group of about fifteen high school explainers who have self-identified as being interested in learning more about tinkering,setting up the space and facilitating activities on weekends and evenings. This group participates in weekly trainings where we try out activities together and spend time analyzing our role as facilitators. It not always easy to develop a reflective practice, so we've experimented with lots of different ways to prompt discussions about facilitation like looking at photos, watching videos, coming up with challenging topics, and delivering more specific presentations. For the first discussion with the new group this semester, I was interested in trying out a thinking routine to help make their ideas more tangible and make it easier for them to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with each other.

IMG_4167 A routine that we've tried previously in a modified way as a framework for toy dissection called 'parts, purposes, and complexities' allows participants to slow down and make careful observations about an object or system. In this exercise, participants are asked to look at something and write or draw all the pieces or components, the purposes of the parts, and think about how it's complicated between the purposes and the parts. IMG_4168

In the tinkering workshop area, the project explainers are currently making cardboard automata with visitors on weekends. So I thought we would start the training with a warm up to get used to the thinking routine by analyzing the physical automata examples. We divided into pairs and started observing the parts of the mechanism (cams, cam followers, shafts, cranks, frames etc...) the purposes for the parts, and the complexities inherent in the system. We recorded these three aspects in different colored markers on white paper covering the tables. While I planned this originally as simply an introduction to the thinking routine, I think it could be a really effective tool on it's own for allowing facilitators to really reflect on the objects that visitors are creating and deconstruct the ways that they successfully (or otherwise) making something to meet their goals.


After we spent about thirty minutes analyzing the physical objects, we turned to the more difficult task of using the routine to reflect on our role as facilitators. For this part of the workshop, we had the group divide up into three groups that would each focus on spark, sustain, or deepen (three phases of facilitation that we have introduced previously). For this discussion we had to slightly redefine the categories. First we talked about the 'parts' of facilitation, which includes all the things that we say or do in the space when interacting with visitors. Each group wrote down their ideas and shared their thoughts for their phase of facilitation. We allowed time for others to add comments about what they have tried or ask questions of the group. The we got into "the purposes of the parts" or the whys for actions of facilitators in the space. Some of these seemed to be more straightforward, for example smiling helps to create a more welcoming atmosphere. But others facilitation moves like "asking questions about their work" could have multiple purposes from better understanding their contraption to building self efficacy. I hoped that this discussion would begin to surface some of the goals that the group had for participants both during and after the activity. IMG_4176

For the complexities part of the discussion we focused on thinking about the ways that these moves and purposes are complicated by the reality of the floor. There are many issues related to time, space, parents, and younger kids. Through surfacing some of these things that we spend a lot of time thinking about and coming up with strategies to deal with, we could start to think up more in-depth topics for future trainings.

For me, the hope in this type of training is that these explainers will be able to look at their facilitation in the space as something where they are constantly prototyping, trying new techniques, and learning from us and each other. But for that to happen, we have to be clear together about the goals for the visitors to the space and some of the foundational techniques that help to support the learning that happens through tinkering. I plan to continue tweaking this and other thinking routines so that we can be engaged in a continuing conversation together about facilitation in the tinkering studio space.


Cycloid Drawing Machine

Very much inspired by Joe Freedman's Cycloid Drawing Machine, we decided to build a simple version of our own. First we designed some gears, using gear generator software, which we then laser cut. The gears are set on a steel plate, using strong neodymium magnets as axes. This way the gears can be set up in different configurations very easily.



Changing the two gears on which the felt pen holding bar rests, makes for totally different patterns. These are just examples of changing one of the gears (we kept the left one to 58 teeth).



Toothpaste comes to the rescue!

Earlier, you could read about the search for reusable materials to use in the Wind tube. By now, we've found a pretty nice, as well as surprisingly simple material that can be bend, twisted and connected to itself with simple plastic paper clips. By the title you might know what we are talking about: sheets made out of toothpaste tubes. 




One random Tuesday morning, brushing my teeth, I realized that the features of toothpaste tubes - being lightweight, rather easy to get by and safe - might be useful for experimenting in the wind tube. (Funny fact is that in the Netherlands, where I'm from, there's no aluminum in toothpaste tubes, but only plastic). So I squeeshed out twenty toothpaste tubes (I know, not the most environmentally friendly choice, but fast, though) and cut the tubes into different sheets. They behave very well and surprisingly in the windtube. You can make objects that float, rotate, twist and twirl.  

video windtube

You can also combine the sheets with floam (make sure to spray something like Rain-X on the inside of the tube, preventing it from sticking - thanks to Dana for the tip). The only downside of floam though, is the mess it creates. The same applies, unfortunately, for the little plastic paper clips we used to connect the sheets. You can also use iron paper clips (that are easily taken from the ground with a magnet), but the toothpaste tube sheets ended up being punched through withe end of the iron paper clips.


So far, it seems that toothpaste sheets and plastic paper clips are interesting materials to experiment with, and pretty reusable. At the same time, our hopes of finding something that could be used stand alone, have not been met, since the wind tube (not surprisingly) ends up blowing stuff around, which makes for some mess. Perhaps we'll experiment some more with a mesh on top of the wind tube. 



Prototyping with Grove Kit and ScratchX


On Tuesday, our group spent some time at our weekly meeting exploring Seeed Studio's grove starter kit. Sebastian has been messing around with this set that allows tinkerers to connect inputs and outputs to arduino in a plug-and-play interface. We're interested in the possibilities of pairing a kit like this with the SratchX to significantly lower the bar to arduino programming while still using authentic materials. Over the years we've done a few experiments in this regards like mounting circuits boards from dissected toys on wood, spring breadboards, and Nicole's recent xylophone experiments. IMG_4063

Sebastian started with a quick introduction to the tools and materials of the grove kit and showed us some of the useful commands in the version of Scratch that can interface with the arduino board. Most of us have spent some time working in Scratch and BeetleBlocks so while there were a few new things to learn, getting started was pretty straightforward.


Normally when prototyping with arduino, there's a lot of fiddling with jumper cables, resistors, and bread-boarding to get inputs and outputs working right. The grove kit gets around most of those difficulties by making all the lights, motors, and sensors easily connectable. One block lets you plug in an LED which got us wondering if it would be possible to connect other devices like toy mechanisms and light play materials to the shield. IMG_4076

Our group tried to program a system where a sound sensor triggers the LED to turn on. After accomplishing that relatively easy task, we tried to figure out how to make the LED into a 'counter' of sorts where every five times, a servo motor would rotate. Luigi, Ryoko, and Mike worked to make an interaction between an LED and a light sensor to create an interesting pattern.

All of us were able to achieve some small successes in the relatively short amount of time we had to work with the materials and were motivated to continue working on the projects. There's a lot more experimenting that we need to do before we can feel comfortable troubleshooting the tools on the floor with visitor, especially since these two techonolgies are complimentary but not specifically designed to work together. I'm also interested in finding prompts that help to get people excited about the programming and can allow for personalization. I think that Nicole's scratch instruments could be a good starting point that allows for some innovative and whimsical creations.




Paper Circuits with Magazine Collages!

Last weekend, the Tinkering Studio participated in Barnes & Nobles Mini MakerFaire. The event was held in nationwide local Barnes & Nobles stores, and we joined the one at the El Cerrito store.

Since we love iterating on existing activities to find a new way of doing it, we took this opportunity to try something new – Paper Circuits with magazine collages! We brought paper circuit materials with tons of magazines so that people can create Paper Circuits along with the images and words that they cut out from magazines as a means of personal expression.

The space was a little bit tight (we were having two tables in the middle of the bookstore!), but it actually felt ok to work with others with such a proximity as it allowed interactions among participants and cross pollination of ideas easily.

IMG_7930 IMG_7929
Making eyes light up was people’s favorite way to get started.

Due to the space, we could serve only 4 or 5 people at once, but while people were waiting for a seat, they spent their time browsing magazines to pick and cut out images or words that they want to use for their paper circuits. By the time a seat becomes available, they usually had a couple of cutout collages in hands and had some idea of what they want to create with circuits.

For example, there was a girl bringing a cutout image of gift boxes and saying “I want to light up here, here, and here!” Like her, a lot of people were already having ideas for their paper circuits when they sat at the table because they already had clipped out images while waiting for a seat and had been looking at those light up cards that other people made.

This felt a bit different from our usual paper circuits activity. In our paper circuits activity, people usually try building a simple circuit first, then from there they either continue exploring to build more complex circuits or adding decorations to the circuits. In that process, people don’t necessarily have an idea what they are going to create (or decorate) on the card, the ideas are often emerging as they build the circuits. But I often hear people saying “hm.. what am I going to make??” “but I can’t draw!” “I’m not artistic.” Or, on the other hand, I also see people spend really long time decorating their card with intricate cuts using x-acto knife and sophisticated drawings. Using cutout images for paper circuits seemed to be helping get people started with ideas and plans for their creations and have them focus more on building circuits. We noticed that people spent less time on decorating or coloring their cards and were more motivated to build successful circuits to accomplish their ideas with the cutout images.

Zen-like image with black and while cranes with 8 white LEDs!

Eyebeaming LeBron James made by Ryan.
This is a great simple example because the image is not completely glued down, so you can flip the image and see the circuit below.

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6 year old girl building a holiday card with her mom.

Over all, we had a great day reaching out to the local community in El Cerrito. I was a little bit surprised that a lot of people didn’t know about the Exploratorium, so it was actually good to meeting and connecting with those people who hadn’t been to the museum before and found us as a place that they would like to visit soon.

Now that holiday season is coming up, making light up cards with paper circuits will be a great activity to try in the class, home, and the museum. Using magazine cutouts for creating paper circuit cards is something we would like to try more in the Tinkering Studio. We’ll continue iterating on this activity and post more findings as we try it out!