Please set ten minutes aside to watch this video love letter to one of the most versatile and sturdy of prototyping materials. It is both lyrical (“measuring is when plywood and steel first kiss”) and informative, and very slightly NSFW around the middle…
We have been doing chain reaction in the Tinkering Studio for the past couple of months, and it feels like it's really starting to come together. I wanted to share some of the things we have done to make a great space that works.
This is a picture of the current set-up. There is a low wall with a gate surrounding the workshop space, which is super important. The wall protects the fragile and complicated contraptions that visitors are working on, while still letting people outside the space watch them evolve. We've been setting the whole machine off twice a day, and the low wall also allows people to watch the spectacle.
Just outside the workshop, on the other side of the low wall, there is an example table. It is re-settable, but it uses the same elements available in the workshop. The example table gives people a chance to try the activity in a low-stakes way, to see if it is something they are interested in spending more time on. Building a chain reaction takes most people at least 45 minutes, and frequently much longer, so it feels important to give them a chance to try it out before committing to building their own.
The example table is also great for kids who are too young to build a chain reaction (we have a 10 and up age limit, it's just too much for most younger kids to build their own chain reaction in the workshop) Really young kids love setting the example machine off over and over again, and even though they can't build their own, they get to have a genuine experience with the same materials and ideas that older folks are experimenting with in the workshop.
The example table is also really good for school groups, who can't spend 45 minutes in the workshop, and people who don't get to build because the workshop is full. It's sad if you can't build, and having the example table outside the wall, open and accessible to everyone makes it feel much better, for us and for the visitors.
The tables are set up in a meandering, snakey lay-out. Each table is one section of the chain reaction, and big enough for two people to comfortably work together. The tables all have two blocks, an input and an output block. Visitors are invited to build a chain reaction machine that starts when the input block is knocked over, and ends by knocking over the output block (which knocks over the next table's input block, which triggers their machine, which knocks over the next block . . . ). This set-up means it is super easy to scale the collaborative chain reaction up or down to fit your space. Right now we have 5 tables, which feels right for our workshop space, but it could easily be bigger or smaller if you changed the number of tables, and materials.
Finale! Super important. We have done a lot of different finales for different chain reactions, and we wanted to have one for the workshop. Less explosive and dramatic than past finales, but a clear goal to work towards. For the workshop chain reaction, we decided to use a hot-wired alarm clock .
Whoever builds the last section of the chain reaction has the challenge of finding a way to set off the alarm clock. The finale could be lots of different things, but I really like using an alarm clock. It is a nice tribute to Rube Goldberg (making a ridiculous,complicated machine to do a simple task), and it makes a great noise when it goes off, so everyone (inside and outside the workshop space) knows when it goes off.
Materials . . . you can't make a chain reaction without pizza face. At the back of the workshop space, we have a table full of weird, and hopefully inspiring objects to build with. Some of them are challenging to figure out how to use, but also really open-ended since you are using familiar objects for a really unusual purpose. These objects are often a good starting place for people, and seem to help them get started thinking creatively. A blank table might be intimidating, and sometimes a silly or weird object can spark an idea that gets you going.
We also have two rolling materials carts. It takes a lot of stuff to build a chain reaction, and we need a flexible, easy way to bring materials in and out of the space. I made these carts to be easily moved and re-configured, and so far, they are working really well. They use accro bins that clip on and come in lots of different sizes. That is really helpful when you need tiny things like marbles, and big ones like blocks. The vertical materials display makes it really easy for people to see what they have to work with. We have had the same materials on tables, and they tended to get messy and disorganized really quickly. Plus the set-up and take-down was a pain. Now all we have to do is wheel the carts in and out of the workshop.
There are also a bunch of toy mechanisms, motors and fans, batteries to turn them on, alligator wires to connect them, and tinfoil to make switches. Electrical elements are really nice for chain reactions, once you figure out how to make a switch, you have a way to make something spin or vibrate or dance around, perfect for triggering the next thing in your machine. We help people get started by showing them a really simple way to make a switch with tinfoil.
Once you have that down, it's really open ended, and there are a million ways to connect those two pieces of tinfoil. Like knocking something over . . .
Or rolling a ball down a ramp . . .
There are many, many others. Those are just starting points. The fun is really in thinking up new ways to make connections! That is my favorite thing about building chain reactions. The same materials get re-invented every time, with every new person. It's silly, collaborative, creative, challenging, and fun. New ideas are constantly emerging, materials get re-purposed, ideas spread, and everyone gets to be a part of it.
Go build one!
Last week we continued experimenting on the toy dissection activity for professional development workshops. The Field Trip Explainers joined us for a training in the Learning Studio where we carefully took apart singing and dancing toys. We tried the Project Zero/Agency by Design thinking routine that we first prototyped in Milan where we asked Explainers to use a black pen to record all the things that they could see, hear, and feel before taking apart the toy. After a few minutes we encouraged them to add the "purposes" for these parts to their sheet of paper.
We hoped that this would encourage the Explainers to do some careful noticing before diving into the dissection and make some predictions about what they might find inside. It was nice to see the partners speculating and at times disagreeing about how the mechanisms might function.
Explainers found different ways to record the movements of the toys, I really liked this 'comic strip' version that demonstrated the progression.
We also hoped that the act drawing would be a way of communication between partners as well and something that they could use to communicate ideas to one another.
After about twenty minutes, we handed out the dissection materials and traded the black marker for a green one.
As the groups were taking apart their toys, we noticed lots of moments where one person was dissecting and explaining what what inside and the other person was listening and drawing the parts.
And there were many moments where both participants hands were on the toy, which also gave participants the chance to switch roles from dissector to documenter.
It was interesting to hear which of their predictions were accurate and which things that they didn't expect to find on the inside. I think it was a helpful tool to have the posters as evidence of the group's thinking over time.
We'd like to use the experience as a way to talk about 'social scaffolding' as a dimension of learning that happens on the floor in the tinkering studio. I think this was a really nice tool to create a visual record of the process of the pairs working together, but also a way to share the results with the larger group who were engaged in a similar exploration but may have gone down different paths. I look forward to delving deeper into the implications for our work as facilitators together.
Plus the explainers created some beautiful artwork! Here's a link to a slideshow with each of the posters that they created over the course of the hour workshop. They are extremely detailed and quite beautiful!
Tomorrow, we're planning to host a public workshop with Erik Thorstensson, the inventor of Strawbees, a flexible connector used to make constructions with straws. We first met Erik in his native Sweden in 2013 when he crashed our pop-up makerspace at the ECSITE conference and filled the room with laughter, energy, and some truly amazing creations. Since then, he has been on a mission to develop Strawbees as a different type of prototyping toy.
We'll have over 10,000 straws at our disposal for our tinkering workshop and will be messing around and figuring our interesting ways of construction throughout the day. At Maker Faire this year, people collaborated to build some huge creations and hopefully we'll be able to work together to make some gigantic structures
Erik's newest project is working with a team that's creating a computerized add-on to the Strawbees set that incorporates motion, lights and sounds into the inventions. We'll also have a few of those on hand to test out and see what we can build. It should be a lot of fun to have Erik with us in the studio and see what kinds of amazing structures we can create.
March 25th at 11PST A Look @ Linkages
We're hosting a hangout that's all about linkages as part of our ASTC Community of Practice for Making and Tinkering in Museums. This hangout highlights our ongoing interest in mechanical motion -- and a fun way to connect with STEM-rich learning (literally).
Keith Braafladt kicked off the CoP’s enthusiasm for this topic at last year’s ASTC workshop. Keith and Joe Imholte, his colleague at the Science Museum of Minnesota, will talk more about what they’ve tried at SMM and share some useful tips for facilitating this experience.
Noga Elhassid is a longtime friend of the Tinkering Studio and will share what she’s done with linkages as part of her Moving Toys Workshop half-way across the globe, in Tel Aviv. She's preparing for an official residency with us at the Exploratorium in late May where we'll be exploring this idea further.
Trevor Taylor with the Oklahoma Museum Network will share what they’ve been up to across the state of Oklahoma and how he spreads an activity idea across an extended state-wide network.
Folks from the Tinkering Studio will share a few things we’ve tried, but more importantly offer an invitation to join us in a summer of R&D around linkages that begins with Noga’s residency on May 26th.
We hope this hangout gets you excited -- and can't wait to see what literal and figurative linkages get made this summer!
I hope you can join us for what should be a lively and imaginative session Thursday, March 5th at 11PST _____________________________________________________________________
Have an idea for something you'd like to see us address on a hangout? Shoot us an email --> firstname.lastname@example.org