Learning to Tinker

         Hello! My name is Melissa. I’m a museum studies graduate student at the University of San Francisco, and this summer it has been my privilege to intern at the Exploratorium in the Tinkering Studio. My background is in classroom education, but my present passion is museum ed. I knew I would learn a great deal about informal learning environments during my time in the Tinkering Studio. (And I did, of course!) I did not expect to learn so much about myself as a tinkerer and learner, so that’s what I’d like to write about today in the form of three overarching lessons.
Lesson 1: Overcoming Creativity Blocks
       I was, perhaps, most surprised at how scary tinkering can be. Working with new materials, around new people, in an unfamiliar setting can be intimidating. In my case, I found the work of my colleagues to be beautiful and intricate but beyond my capabilities. Indecision and a feeling of “Am I doing this right?” stunted my project building. I have found a combination of practice and encouragement to be the cure. Over time, I was able to come out of my shell creatively. I wish we had more time with visitors to see them through this same process, but sensitivity to their struggles is the best we can do in limited time.

       For instance, the Tinkering Studio itself is designed to be a welcoming space with plenty of light and colorful creations on display, and the Studio is only partially separated from the museum with a half-wall. For each activity, we provide a variety of examples, including complex staff-made projects, simple staff-made projects, and visitor-made projects. As a facilitator, I try to greet visitors who are looking in or passing by, and I’ll invite them to join. I also like to ask visitors “What have you been working on so far?” instead of “Do you need help?”. I will have the same opportunity to understand their process and make suggestions, but visitors won’t feel that they’re doing anything wrong.

                  Ryan's arms | by zabelmelissa         my sailboat | by zabelmelissa       

In this linkages brainstorm, Ryan made amazing arms, and I made a three-piece sailboat. I was only beginning to wrap my mind around tinkering.

Lesson 2: Consciously Iterating
       As an inexperienced tinkerer, another hurdle for me was pushing myself to make changes and improvements instead of leaving a project I deemed complete. When I first experimented with linkages, I ended up with a series of small linkages, and none of them worked very well. I suppose I was afraid to make changes because I didn’t want to mess up or waste materials. Some activities lend themselves flawlessly to iterative design. (I’m looking at you scribbling and marbles machines. If materials are held together with rubber bands and tape, that’s the easiest to change.) The TS staff have some useful techniques for encouraging iteration in the rest of the activities, and those helped me a lot. (Punching a bunch of holes in your cardboard when you first start building a linkage. Taping down your LEDs before soldering them in paper circuits.) Over time I have been able to internalize that my first draft is not my final draft. Experimentation can only make it better.
       I see visitors struggle with iteration as well. A girl might spend a lot of time decorating a top, but when she tests it, it doesn’t spin. That can be heartbreaking. I try to remind everyone I work with to Test / Change / Repeat.

scribbling | by zabelmelissa        paper circuit | by zabelmelissa
Using tape before a more permanent adhesive can allow for easier iteration.

Lesson 3: Multiple Entry Points
       If I were forced to choose, I would identify myself as a “science person” than an “art person”. So, you can imagine my surprise when I found myself drawn to experimentation for the artistic aspect. I learned that I like paper cutting, and I spent much more time cutting the paper for my linkages and paper circuits than in building the linkage or circuit. I really enjoyed embroidery. I prefer making tops if they can draw. This highlights for me the importance of activities that spark a variety of interests, or even just keeping activities in your arsenal that appeal to different passions.
       One Tinkering Studio challenge this summer has been iterating on the design of the spinning tops activity. If visitors are presented with materials that can be quickly turned into tops, the activity is not very tinkerable. (A visitor’s first prototype will likely spin well, and there won’t be much motivation to change the design.) I find inspiration in drawing tops. Changing the stability of the top and the angle of the surface on which it spins will create a different design.

2015-08-09 08.04.39 | by zabelmelissa         flat surface | by zabelmelissa         angled surface | by zabelmelissa
A drawing top; Scribble created by drawing top on a flat surface; Scribble created by drawing top on an angled surface

       Overall, I feel that my experiences learning to tinker have improved my skills as an activity designer and facilitator. Many visitors who enter the Tinkering Studio are new to tinkering, and they come with different levels of comfort and confidence as well as different areas of interest. My ability to relate to their perspective allows me to create a better experience for all the tinkering novices who enter the space.


homemade switches

There are a lot of ways to make a switch, and they can be a lot of fun to play around with. The trick is finding a way to make two conductive surfaces touch and turn something on or off in an interesting way. Anything conductive is fair game, and all sorts of surprising things can make great switches. Some of our favorite switch-making materials in the Tinkering Studio are feathers, tinfoil, springs, paper, cutlery, water, play-dough, pencils and balloons, but the possibilities are endless! Here are just a few . . .

switches! from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo.


First Tinkering Studio BeetleBlocks Workshop


We've been spending a lot of time in our R&D space, continuing our experiments with beetleblocks and watercolorbot. We've been thinking about ways to start introducing these tools and technologies to visitors to the Exploratorium. As normal, we decided to start out slow, only working with small groups of participants to prototype how programming and digital fabrication can run as drop in activities in our public workshop space. IMG_1456

We made the environment a little more cozy than our usual setup so that we could really focus on faciliation with a limited number of participants. We put two computer stations on the round table and had a tall workbench for the watercolorbot, a vinyl cutter, and a third computer dedicated to controlling those tools. There was also one extra table set up for cutting the sheets of vinyl
to load into the cutter.


The first part of the workshop was introducing the beetleblocks program to learners. Quite a few of the kids had some experience with either scratch or another visual programming tool which was helpful for our introduction. I had a couple cards with the 'program' for basic shapes on them to help people get going. The programming alone seemed pretty interesting to people and many spent anywhere between thirty minutes to an hour messing around with the coding. IMG_1487

One interesting thing that we noticed from observing the kids experiments with beetleblocks, was that many of them created a couple blocks of code to use almost as drawing tools, pressing the blocks to create interesting patterns. This was a nice way of testing things out but was a little challenging for us as facilitators because we couldn't necessarily trace back the pattern.

Another thing that we saw was that people didn't have a lot of context for what numbers went in the blanks in the blocks. For example, there's no way of knowing that the 'rotate' block needs an angle between 1-360, the grid is 10x10 and the number of repeats can quickly multiply to be something that will take a prohibitively long time to paint on the watercolorbot.


We thought that having the choice of watercolor bot or craftrobo vinyl cutter to bring peoples designs in the real world would be good for a couple reasons. First we thought that different designs might work better on one tool or the other depending on if people used lots of colors, how intricate the designs were, and the learners' interest. Also it was helpful to have two tools that could be running simultaneously so that in case there was a really long job on the watercolorbot, people could still make a sticker. IMG_1485

The vinyl stickers (especially the glitter ones) were really popular and it takes quite a bit less time and space than any of the other digital fabrication tools which is an advantage on the museum floor. One drawback is that there's a little more 'tweaking' of the file that needs to happen by us in Illustrator which takes away a faciliator for a longer amount of time. Overall the switching between computers, USB drives, and programs still feels a bit clunky and is something that we'd like to work on streamlining and possibility putting more in the hands of the participants.


Just testing out the activity for the first time gave us lots of ideas and things to try for future workshops. The first thing that I'm interested in changing, is making the 'handouts' more open ended but also more descriptive. Instead of showing people how to make something like a triangle or circle, I now feel it would be better to give the general structure (same for each) and describe what the black spaces mean, allowing people to do the experimentation for themselves. I could imagine several 'example' handouts that introduce some of the aspects of the language like random numbers, variables, or repeating patterns.

Additionally I think it will be good to experiment with the way we introduce the connection between the programming and the digital tools. I think on one hand it's a really nice experience for people to take something from the digital to the physical world, but I'm still unsure how the limitations of the tools or materials either add to or take away from the tinkerability of the activity. It will be really fun to continue to test out the programming, design, and digital tools in the Tinkering Studio as we experiment with different ways of running the workshop.


A Look @ Linkages - Round 3!


August 27 at 8AM PDT  A Look @ Linkages

This summer there's been a flurry of activity at science centers, workshops, libraries, and kitchen tables around exploring mechanical motion. We're excited to capture and share out some of these explorations in part 3 of our A Look @ Linkages series this Thursday! (In case you missed them, you can catch Part 1 here and Part 2 here).

As part of our ASTC Community of Practice for Making and Tinkering in Museums, this hangout will highlight new developments folks have tried inspired by our initial hangouts earlier this summer, as well as ways people are continuing to delve deeper into linkages.

Our friends Gautham and Vanya from the Srishti School of Art and Design will be joining us all the way from Bangalore to share their current linkage explorations related to movement and interaction. The motion comes from linked cranks and levers and the interaction comes from incorporating S4A (Scratch for Arduino). 

Annalise and Reid from the Maker Space at NySCI have been tinkering with different materials and dimensions, trying to get visitors to engage with the movements as much as the story they design. They'll be sharing tongue depressor linkages that their visitors turned into a super amazing three dimensional linkage structures. They've also been focusing on themes as a way of directing linkage creation like Bug day or an animal dance party; they can't wait to share more of their experiences, successes and failures with you on Thursday!

From Scienceworks Hands-On Museum, Dana Schloss will be sharing her recent prototyping experiences with linkages, including her thoughts on the pros and cons of googly eyes as a material.

And from the Tinkering Studio, I'll be sharing the latest developments and changes in our prototyping process, including new examples and iterations on activity design.

I hope you can join us for what should be a lively and imaginative session

Thursday, August 27 at 8AM PDT


To register for this hangout - use this link.  If you'd like to learn more about the
ASTC Community of Practice for Making and Tinkering in Museums, here's the link for that.

Have an idea for something you'd like to see us address on a hangout? Shoot us an email --> tinkering@exploratorium.edu


MIT Media Lab Light Play Residency


Last week, long time Tinkering Studio friends and collaborators Natalie Rusk, Robbie Berg, and Tim Mickel visited our group for a two day deep-dive into the light play activity. Natalie and Tim work at the MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten program, which develops creative technologies for learning, and Robbie is a physics professor from Wellesley College who has worked with the team on projects like PicoCrickets, LogoBlocks, Scratch and Scratch Jr.


Our goal for the two-day visit was to play together with the idea of adding programmable elements to light play. Robbie brought some homemade circuit blocks with arduino boards and customized shields that could interact with an experimental version of Scratch. He also made some color changing lights that had red, blue, green, and white LEDs on board which were capable of being programmed to display a wide range of hues. Some of the components also have wireless capability which we thought would be a really helpful addition to the light play set.


Our smaller working group started with a simple set up of a screen with one shadow making object. Robbie and Natalie gave us a little bit of info about how the software worked. It was really nice to be able to change the direction of the motor and the color of the lights through moving around the blocks on scratch. Even in such a pared down set-up, the programming seemed to add an extra dimension to the activity. MIT Media Lab residency

Our guests brought two different versions of the software to try out with the light play set. The first was a modified version of regular scratch that ran on a laptop and the other one was an adaptation of Scratch Jr. that worked on an ipad and had simpler commands. We split into small groups to start exploring the possibilities of the technology.

IMG 3834 from Robbie Berg on Vimeo.

Karen, Tim, and I created a light play scene using Scratch Jr. to make the colored lights to trigger in sync with sound effects that we pre-recorded on Scratch Jr. It was a little bit silly, but showed some of the potential of the combination of light play with programming. I also really liked the feeling of working with Scratch on the iPad. It felt more collaborative than using a computer as we could easily pass the tablet back and forth as we worked on our scene. Each group worked on some really interesting projects and we ended the first day energized about the mash-up.

IMG_1273 2

The next morning, we started with a tour of a few of the Exploratorium's light exhibits with the inimitable Paul D who shared how shadows behave with colored lights, multiple light sources, 3D objects and mirrors. I think looking at some of these classic exhibits really inspired us to take these ideas and incorporate them into the afternoon activity. IMG_1337 2

After the tour, we spent about three hours as a larger group experimenting with programmable brick and classic light play materials to make our own light play scenes. I also liked that Natalie and Tim created some 'handouts' for the Scratch Jr set-up. We are currently experimenting with what information to give people as we prototype beetle blocks and scratch activities with visitors, so it was good to get some quick and dirty ideas for ways of introducing the ideas.

IMG 3857 from Robbie Berg on Vimeo.

Each group made some really cool creations that took advantage of the increased programming capabilities. Flo and Melissa created a mesmerizing light and shadow scene that never repeated the exact same pattern since they used 'random blocks' in scratch to time the three lights fading in and out.

IMG_1333 2

Ryoko and Sebastian used a row of lights, programmed to turn on and off in sequence, to create the illusion of animation with their surfer figure. It was a really cool and complex idea to create a sense of motion from a stationary object.

Light Play with Bruno Munari slides from Natalie Rusk on Vimeo.

Luigi and Karen took things to a more narrative level with transparencies from a Bruno Munari storytelling kit that had many different colored images. They used Scratch Jr to change the color of the light which seemed to tell a story when combined with simple cartoons pictures of cars, rain, and clouds.

IMG_1342 2

At the end of the day, we all got together for a final debrief to discuss our thoughts on the activity and the possibilities for next steps. All of us felt that the elements of programming didn't take away from the tinkerable aspects of the activity but instead gave an extra element of narrative and construction. We felt that it would be interesting to continue to explore both Scratch and Scratch Jr as platforms for the activity, but many of us agreed that the iPad felt more collaborative. And hopefully we'll continue to refine the hardware and the software as we continue to experiment with this new avenue for tinkering activities.