Biomimicry and Mimosas with Juanita Schlaepfer

We've been interested in biohacking and biomimicry as possible ways to foster collaboration between us and the life sciences group here at the Explo and to expand the range of topics covered in tinkering studio. Over the summer, we collaborated with an artist-in-residence, Juanita Schlaepfer, who wanted to share some workshops that she has been experimenting with that coincidentally made use of one of the most popular residents of the exploratorium's east gallery.

But first, a little primer about biomimicry and biohacking and how those topics might relate to some of the projects and activities that we present in our tinkering workshop. A few weeks ago Chris Allen from Biomimcry 3.8 presented at the museum, although I didn't make it to the brownbag, I did some research about the group and think their site has a good description of the field which "is about looking to nature for inspiration for new inventions”. I also specifically like the blending of the fields of technology and biology. I think that tinkering, at it's heart, is about pushing the boundaries of cross-disciplinary collaboration and this seems to be an exciting way of expanding those possibilities.

Our first experiment with biomimicry and biohacking involved inviting Juanita Schlaepfer to the tinkering studio for an brief artist residency. I didn't know this before her visit, but Jaunita was one of the first women to work in the machine shop so her roots at the museum, if you'll pardon the pun, go deep. She is currently involved in planning workshops with a plant science education group in Zurich who want to figure out interesting ways to get the public thinking about plants. As a subject for one of her workshops, she's picked the mimosa plant, known for "rapid plant movement" which means it shrinks or folds when touched.


So we borrowed a few mimosa plants from the biology lab and set her up on a workbench in the tinkering studio. The biolab uses the plants in the exhibit "mimosa house" which rotates them so that visitors can experience the "shrinking" effects without over stimulating the leaves. She also wanted to check out the copper tape that we use for paper circuits and some of the colorful plastic bags that we use for fusing.


We were surprised and delighted to watch her work unfold in the studio and after a couple days we all came together to check out the ideas and discuss what she had tried and what ways we might contribute. The basic idea behind the project was that the copper tape connected to resistance detectors on the plant so that as the mimosa moved, different signals could be sent to a computer fan inflating a plastic bag sculpture. So the actual biological process of the plant's response to stimulus could be observed and transformed into a controlling mechanism for a synthetic inflatable art piece that would mimic or reverse the movements of the plant.


It didn't work perfectly but the idea was there. Juanita shared how in her workshops she has tried some kids focus lots of energy on the wiring up of the plants as well as manipulating the electronics and programming of the sensors while others worked diligently on the more aesthetically rewarding aspect of the plastic fused creation. This sounded like a lot of tinkering activities where people decide on their own starting point. I also liked how this type of activity could inspire more tinkering at home. Juanita showed us some results of a project she contributed to called bugnplay where kids worked on their own biomimicry inspired projects and developed some amazingly intricate devices.

I'm not sure where we'll take these ideas but it's definitely inspiring to get a glimpse at a different way of tinkering and brainstorm ways that we can take the topic and collaborate with people near and far.


Circuit Board Logic Gates

Last month when we traveled to Seattle for a tinkering workshop, we stopped by the Big Brained Superhero Club, which is a really cool after-school program where youth engage in all sorts of STEAM activities. We met with the program leaders at the amazing Ada's Techincal Books and Cafe and chatted about the similarities between our programs and ways to collaborate long distance.

And as a first attempt to work on something together, a week or two after our visit, we got a few example logic gate kits in the mail from our friends up north. As a admitted novice in the world of electronics I didn't previously know what a logic gate was but after some extensive googling, help from others in the LS and a few obscure philosophical references, I think I began to get an general idea.

So as far as I understand, logic gates are elementary blocks of programming where two inputs perform some sort of logical function. Or in terms that are more related to the circuit board set, an "or" gate would have two switches where either one could turn on a light. An "and" gate would be where both switches need to be pressed together to trigger a light. There's also a "nor" gate (an inverted "or" gate) where the light only turns on when neither switch is pressed.


The 'Big Brain' kits included a breadboard, wires, LEDs and instructions on how to put everything together. With our limited experience building electronic components it was a little difficult. But with some teamwork and careful placements of wires, we got the components working pretty well. There were three LEDs on each board that corresponded to the two inputs and the output and once everything was in order we were able to switch out the LEDs and switches for other inputs and outputs.


Building the kit was a good experience, but for me I wanted to mess around with something more basic and easier to understand. I looked up logic gates in Forrest M. Mims III circuit guide books and found a simple diagram of the "and" and "or" switches. I used two momentary switches and constructed two circuit board blocks that could be combined with the rest of the set. However, I am still a little unsure of the "why" behind doing this activity. While programing and systems thinking are interesting topics, I wonder what the intrinsic motivation for people to play with them could be. It would be nice to find an activity where people have a reason to use these systems and are not just building them because we tell them to.

Art of Tinkering Workshop

One possibility is using the concept of physical logic gates as an element in a chain reaction activity. I can imagine a part of the machine where something would need two triggers to get activated. Also there's the possibility of a "fail safe" chain reaction piece where either one of two inputs could independently activate the next step. As well, homemade switches built into the chain reaction could utilize these ideas electronically as part of their contraption. Once we start prototyping on the floor, we'll see if these boards could be an interesting addition to the activity.


Filling in engraving on wood!

We love laser engraving!
We've been laser engraving on wood and plastics and they have been great when we make signs/signage in the Tinkering Studio. Lately I've been experimenting with filling some paint in engraving so that the letters (or designs) will have additional uniqueness rather than just having scorched or burned color. And here is the method that I've found so far that seems working well, and want to share it with you!

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To seal the wood surface, apply varnish (I used "Stays Clear" from Benjamin Moore) and let it dry. Mask with blue masking tape.

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Laser engrave! This part requires some adjustment with the laser cutter setting, especially the depth of the engraved gutter is important. If it came out shallow, you can engrave the same piece one more time (but don't move the piece at all!) and make the gutter deeper enough to fill the paint in it.

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Apply the same varnish in the gutter. (I find this process is skip-able. Sometime, your tape gets too wet because of the varnish and won't work well later when you try filling the paint.) Let it dry well.

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Fill the engraving with paint! I used BreakThrough paint with a small brush (Q-tip also works well). BreakThrough is thick and quick to dry. I think any kind of acrylic paint would work. Let it dry.

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Carefully peel the masking tape. You might see the paint is bleeding.

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Some bleeding is ok! You can sand the surface with finer grit sandpaper (I did 150 first then 220), and you will get the clean outlines.

This is how it turned out!

The same technique could be used for more detailed drawings like this. White masking tape also worked well.
Just be careful not to make any gap between the tape (Avoid overlapping the tape, because that will make the gutter depth different).

I like how it turned out. It definitely takes more time than simple engraving, but gives a little more uniqueness to your design and make it less laser-cut looking. You can try it with different paint colors on various kinds of wood and find your favorite combinations!


Linkages - endless tinkering possibilities related to mechanical motion

Here's a little inspiration in the form of linkages -- from our friends, Gautham and Vanya, at the Shristi School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. When they were in residence with us earlier this year, we started talking about exploring linkages as part of our mechanical motion and automata work. They shared these beautiful videos of work they've done with kids in Bangalore. Their creations are so beautiful and expressive, and made with such simple materials. From a basic building set consisting of strips of wood, drilled and attached at different points, you can get such different movements and narratives. Enjoy....


They shared lots of videos with us, but these two were my personal favorites:
(Notice in one with the elephant -- they've even added a circuit!)

bos-link-rajP7260009 from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo.

Clip #68 from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo.

Another fun way to think about linkages is three-dimensionally.  Keith Newstead did a residency with us years ago and was the first to introduce us to this idea, since linkages are one of his go-to tricks for creating very sophisticated movement (that and the crank slider).

Some of his early work, like the Brassy Dragon seen below, used metal almost exclusively - he's masterful at manipulating that material. Most of the linkages are hidden, but see if you can spot a few:

Here's a collection of images showing automata Keith created out of trash - we want him to come back for another residency to work with us more on this idea. They're loaded with linkages:

Here's a video showing the frog in motion:

frog movie - Keith Newstead's trash automata from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo.


Cardboard Automata With High School Explainers

Hi my name is Mario and I'm the tinkering studio intern. I work closely with The Tinkering Studio and High School Explainers. I help lead workshops alongside the High School Explainers.
This past Summer, high school explainers have taken over the tinkering studio on the weekends. Last weekend we facilitated cardboard automata for the first time. We did an amazing job. On both days we had different results. Automata needs more attention and help because each automata is different, sometimes it's the motion and sometimes it's the story you're trying to tell at the top. With all the workshops, we've learned there's no one set in stone way of doing things, it's all based on trial and error. This was one of the things that we had to understand first as facilitators because most of us are still in high school and for some reason there's this institutionalized way of thinking that the teacher tells us what to do and how to do it their way and if we don't and we fail then that's bad. But here in the Tinkering studio we encourage people to march to the beat of their own drum and we will be here to help if they need anything.
Helping out with Automata
We used some tips that we learned from the Tinkering studio staff members in our workshop. One of them is just being friendly and introducing yourself, remembering names goes along away too even if they're only there for an hour or an hour and a half, or remembering ideas people wanted to do. Also since it was our first time we facilitated this workshop, we put out examples that weren't so complex. Examples that were easy for us to explain what's going on. We did not limit their automata though, and some of the times they wanted to do something different from the examples and the facilitator as well as the visitor had an awesome learning experience.
automata hse
A really big challenge we faced was the age limit. We had an age limit of twelve and up, ten with parental supervision. One of the main reasons why we choose twelve is because we had hot glue gun stations and we did not want children harming themselves. We had a lot of people come up with their kids who were not ten telling us that that their child knows how to handle a hot glue gun but we had to be strong and turn them away. At one point throughout the day our workshop space was empty and we used our best judgment to let in kids who were younger. The problem with this was when a parent walked by and we would see younger children they would point that out to us and say it wasn't fair and that we should let their child in too. Therefore we were bombarded with a bunch of little kids in the workshop. Having kids in a workshop is not a bad thing but it's much harder because most of the time it's the adults telling us their children want to do it but they don't, and we basically end up making it for them. We learned that we have to be stricter on our age policy. In the next upcoming weeks I'll be letting you guys know what's going on.