Tinkering with Computational Thinking at ASTC

Never before has computing education felt so important. As President Obama’s CS for All initiative exemplified earlier this year, educational stakeholders (from politicians to policymakers to parents to administrators to teachers to students) are recognizing the importance for all youth to be able to access computational thinking skills for both their future and the future of our country. And not just so that everyone can be a computer scientist and work in Silicon Valley. But so that everyone can if they want to while gaining the critical thinking skills necessary to create with technology in whatever their passion/interests/work, rather than be relegated to being passive consumers of other people’s creations.

This topic is particularly close to my heart. Before joining the Exploratorium, I worked closely with the Exploring Computer Science project that is focused on democratizing access to quality computer science education in all high schools. And when we said “quality,” we didn’t mean simply providing access to your typical coding or Javascript courses, but rather ensuring that all youth can experience rich computing learning that is culturally relevant and draws from diverse students’ wealth of cultural, experiential, home-based, out-of-school knowledge through hands-on inquiry-based activities.


And this is why I was particularly excited by some of the sessions that emerged out of this September’s Association of Science - Technology Centers (ASTC) conference in Tampa, Florida. There were many there who care about the educational experiences of learners of all ages in relation to technology and computing.


It was inspiring to see folks come together around the potential that tinkering and making have for teaching computational thinking. While some of the earliest computer scientists were tinkerers in their own right, the explorations of how tinkering and making today can be combined with computational thinking felt really different and new in the ways we discussed it at the conference. This happened specifically during a standing-room-only session on “Computational Tinkering” led by our very own Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich of the Tinkering Studio alongside Scratch co-creator of MIT Natalie Rusk. In this session, folks from all over the world tried out new tinkering/making prototypes that the Tinkering Studio has been creating in collaboration with MIT, Reggio Emilia, and the LEGO Foundation’s Idea Studio. With both digital and analog materials, people explored computational thinking concepts and practices (such as decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, etc.) that came to life through the heartbeat of tinkering/making that includes idea generation, design, personal expression, creativity, iteration, and more. People tinkered with Scratch Paper Experiments, Lego Art Machines, Watercolor Bot Paintings, and Scratch Light Play. Through these explorations, we ASTC conference goers were supported in thinking about how the hands-on, whimsical, creative, learner-driven aspects of tinkering and making can provide a valuable context for understanding computational thinking concepts and practices both with and without a computer. The room was energized with an excitement about what “Computational Tinkering” could be, as we begin to explore the overlap of tinkering, making, and computational thinking.






After exploring the activities, Karen, Mike, and Natalie shared about the ways they are defining Computational Tinkering. They showed a slide that described how Computational Tinkering brings together the decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithms of computational thinking with tinkering’s idea generating, designing, personalizing, expressing, remixing, collaborating, questioning, reflecting, iterating, (and an audience member added the idea of “aesthetics”).  




Through these activities, really important questions surfaced about computational tinkering in museum and informal learning contexts. For example, how can you support people in bringing their different contexts and perspectives into computational tinkering activities? What could be the role of equity and narrative in computational tinkering activities? How can we emphasize the importance of aesthetics as one of the key features of computational tinkering? How do we create activities that don’t result in people just copying the examples at hand but having opportunities to get creative in drop-in learning spaces? How can we support learners and teachers alike to be comfortable not knowing the end result or the answer with computational tinkering activities?


I also attended a session about engaging learners in computational thinking activities in museum contexts. This session was not about tinkering and making, which made it an interesting contrast to the Computational Tinkering session described above. Researchers and exhibit developers from Boston’s Museum of Science and the Children’s Museum of Houston described how they were attempting to teach museum visitors about computational thinking through new exhibits, both with and without computers. Sharing research results from a current project with Pixar, The Museum of Science shared what appeared to be promising positive impacts on youth’s interest and identification with computer science after watching videos about Pixar’s behind-the-scenes work coupled with engaging in hands-on activities using computational thinking skills and practices. During this session, we had played with the hands-on and computing-based activities that both museums had brought for ASTC conference attendees to explore. These activities involved things like arranging LEGO pieces into flower field patterns using instructions that acted like lines of “code” as well as interacting with computer-based tools like OzoBlockly and Ozobot (see photos below). While these activities were hands-on and interesting, they felt qualitatively different from Computational Tinkering activities. Perhaps this was because the culmination of one’s explorations did not result in a wide array of different personalized aesthetic expressions communicating whimsy and people’s abilities to think “outside the box” in the ways that tinkerers’ light play sculptures, paper creatures, watercolor paintings, and music-making machines did in Computational Tinkering? Perhaps this is also because Computational Tinkering activity design is very specifically driven by philosophical perspectives rooted in Piaget’s Constructivism and Papert’s Constructionism, as well as learning elements outlined in the Tinkering Studio’s Learning Dimensions Framework? It will be exciting to explore how and why Computational Tinkering feels so different and new in the years to come!

At the end of this Computational Thinking (not Tinkering) session, Keith Braafladt of the Science Museum of Minnesota raised an important question: After learners have positive experiences with technology and computational thinking in museum environments, how do we support their continued learning with computational thinking if they do not have the financial resources to purchase computer technology for the home? I wonder about this for Computational Tinkering activities as well: What aspects will feel most accessible to families in low-income communities, and how do we continue to build on those features so that more children can experience the joy and depth of thinking involved in Computational Tinkering activities?


This brings me back to the idea of Computational Tinkering. I really think that we are on the brink of something really powerful through Computational Tinkering for increasing not only engagement with, but also access to high-quality learning experiences with computational thinking. And I’m not just talking about access to the computing concepts and skills youth need to know to enter the world of computer science (such as understanding loops or parallelism or conditionals, which are important too, but not the only thing Computational Tinkering has to offer). I’m also talking about the perspectives and practices of computational thinking and tinkering that support people to be inquisitive, creative, and engaged lifelong learners. I’m reminded of what a student in my research efforts through the California Tinkering Afterschool Network taught me about tinkering: She told me, there is “never really an end to tinkering” because you can always keep making your project better and better. Once you get started on creating a design or an idea for a project in Computational Tinkering, you never really want to stop. And it’s that kind of excitement and engagement to design, create, and iterate through Computational Tinkering that should be infusing students’ educational experiences every day. We should be adding that sort of sunshine to learning that fosters an interest to keep growing, and not to simply engage with ideas, skills, or concepts for the sake of a test.


That’s one of the best parts about Computational Tinkering: blending tinkering/making with computational thinking can build on the creativity/interests/knowledge that people bring to the table when they are driven to make their ideas in Computational Tinkering come to life. This can encourage new learning and engagement with computing that may not have been accessible before, in the ways computing has traditionally been taught. The months ahead will reveal where our communities of tinkerers and makers--youth, parents, teachers, informal educators, librarians, museum exhibit designers, researchers, etc.--take Computational Tinkering in their own unique and creative ways.





Join us for a hangout about the Infinite Versatility of Cardboard


This Thursday, we’re hosting a hangout to talk about the Infinite Versatility of Cardboard. Members of the ASTC Making & Tinkering CoP (Community of Practice) will share some of their favorite ideas, projects, tools & techniques for working with cardboard – a material we're incredibly fond of.

The hangout is timely, since Caine’s Arcade and the Imagination Foundation just kicked off their 5th annual #cardboardchallenge last week - plus some of us were down in Tampa at the annual ASTC conference recently and shared these ideas in person.  Keith (from SMM) thought it would make for a good hangout and we could invite other folks to join.

We hope you’ll come away inspired and ready to try some things yourself and share what you’ve created.  

Play it forward!
Join us on Thursday, October 13th at 11PST


Homopolar Motors: Activity design revisions & thoughts on frustration

As part of a series of activities focused on Electromagnetism in our Tinkering Afterschool program with the Boys & Girls Clubs of SF and our XTech program, I decided to revisit the idea of building Homopolar Motors. These are super simplified motors that can be made sculptural by crafting a single piece of copper wire that must balance on top of a AA battery while lightly brushing by a strong magnet at the other end of the battery. I've tried it once before with young children at the Boys & Girls Clubs years ago and found that the level of precision in wire bending necessary to get a "successful" homopolar motor spinning around the battery, was especially frustrating for kids. I decided to revisit and see what I could do to design some extra supports into the activity design, while also introducing it to older, middle school aged youth.

Wire-bending Jigs Mario made these beautiful, flat jigs to create a base shape with a v shape to balance on the battery and the right spacing to reach the bottom of the battery. But he said that visitors had a hard time getting the v shape and were shoving pencils in to help make the v. So, I added these nails so that the wire could be wound around them and that works much better!









We also found that it was helpful to have some help making a ring that fits around the magnet at the bottom. These 16mm dowels work perfectly:


Flip the Battery!!

Another adjustment I made is I put the cup washer on the negative end of the battery instead of the positive. When it was on the positive end, I kept finding that the wires would get caught in the little tiny chasm between the positive bump on the battery and the washer. Using the negative side gives you a nice flat surface for the wire to spin around on:

Make a Magnet Separator!

Our HS age XTech facilitators had a really hard time separating the rare earth magnets- especially when it was just two, so he quickly made us this handy magnet separator. It could use some sanding but it works perfectly. You put one magnet in the little hole and the other sits on top. When you pass the top wood piece over them, it slides the top magnet off the one in the hole:

What’s Going On?

I did this activity as the beginning of a curriculum focused on electromagnetism and motors. I find that homopolar motors had kind of a “magic” effect on people and it can be difficult to relate them to the realities of everyday motors. So, I created a “motor in a bottle” to demonstrate what happens inside one of our super-recognizable hobby motors. Its a hobby motor without the outer casing. I had to glue the two magnets to nails in order to keep them in place and the bottle is to make sure no hair or other things get caught in the spinning coils. It’s not pretty but it works and the kids loved playing with it.


Student Work and Thoughts on Learning

The kids explored some great stuff. Some built the most minimal designs possible, some built flat designs that had a really cool way of spinning erratically when they got a lot of momentum:


Some build representationally- lots of frogs and bunnies, hearts and a butterfly:

A lot of them tried spirals which proved to be some of the fussiest. Adding feathers was interesting because it sometimes meant that the extra weight and wind resistance kept them from moving. Some of the most fun to look at were ones that played with asymetry and created interesting visual effects where the wire closest to the center appeared to stand still:

Some of the bases we made got decorated:

This girl worked really hard at trying a hinged design. If she had more time, she would had added a bit of solder at the hinges.

A Special Kind of Frustration?

I think I’ve seen kids go through a kind of frustration with this activity that is different from others. I think it partially stems from the feeling that while working on these, your piece simply either “works” or “doesn’t work.” This becomes compounded when kids see others around them with spinning motors while they are still struggling with theirs. It’s not everyone’s experience. Some were really excited to finally have something work for them and went on to try different designs. But I’ve noticed that kids who already tend towards perfectionism or have existing insecurities about their own intelligence (like those who are framed as behind in school), have an even harder time with this kind of frustration. A few of them even told me that even when they got theirs to work, it wasn't worth the effort it took for them to get there. It’s worth thinking more about...





Recent Computational Tinkering Experiments

Earlier this month, Nicole and I traveled to the MIT Media Lab for the 2016 Scratch conference. At the event, we led a workshop on scratchpaper and shared some of our recent experiments around computational tinkering. After the conference we stuck around the lab for a couple days to share ideas with members of the Lifelong Kindergarten (LLK) group, continue to work through prototypes, and plan next steps around tinkering in the digital world.


We're interested in the possibilities of developing a programmable light play activity. Earlier in the year, some of the LLK team visited us at the Exploratorium to share initial prototypes for rainbow colored lights, adjustable motors and a special version of scratchx that can control the components. The group at MIT has continued to test out versions of the hardware and now we are ready to start experimenting with the parts and thinking about the experience. tidaylightplay2

We ran an impromptu workshop with a few members of the Scratch team to share initial ideas around lightplay. One thing that we noticed was that it felt nice to use the big white walls for the programmable displays instead of containing the light and shadow elements inside small boxes. As we continue to think about combining the physical and digital, it will be important to pay attention to the scale of each aspect.


The next day we continued our explorations by trying out scratchpaper one more time with the scratch team. With this group, the wide walls of the activity shone through. Since this group had more scratch experience, they created some really complex projects like a reaction time game, a fortune telling machines, and a skydiving simulator. IMG_6927

One project that I thought was really interesting had a blue monster both in the real world, with the little vibrating pager motor paper, as well as animated on the screen. It felt really natural for participants to switch between both modes, but we wished that the grey arduino blocks on the scratchx screen could feel as friendly and playful as the colorful paper circuit examples.


Eric Rosenbaum joined us and combined the scratch arduino extension with another experimental version that he's been working on the adds a synthesizer to the sound library. He combined the specialized sounds with a light sensor to created a space-age theremin-like instrument with a really cool effect. It would be fun to think more about adding sound and music to the mix of examples and starting points with this activity. IMG_6978

Cassia, a educator from Sao Paulo who has been spending the summer in residency with the lab, also shared some of her recent experiments with using a different type of arduino connection to make pinball machines in her after-school program. Her team's work to lower the threshold for programming physical elements has inspired us for a long time and we are looking forward to exploring adding scratch elements to homemade pinball machines, maybe in one of the tinkering after-school programs.

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Our experiments have continued back at home with both light play and scratchpaper and we started involving more members of the team to help prototype new ideas. Since light play will be the first in depth computational tinkering exploration, we started by setting up a screen in the LS and gathering some familar elements. IMG_7046

I was inspired by Mitchel's keynote at the Scratch conference where, in a tribute to the ideas of Seymour Papert, he explained the importance of learners embodying the programmed element, from the turtle to the sprite. This idea got me thinking about servo motors and the control that they offer to the light play system. I re-purposed the inner workings of Nicole's Scratch xylophone from East Bay Maker Faire to make a little programmable "light turtle" that could be controlled through scratchx.


We were able to write a quick program for the light to follow the movement of the mouse or a sprite on the stage. While I'm not sure how easy it is to get started programming servo motors, I liked how the light turtle instantly had a poersonality depending on the movements. It's a little bit of a side track to the programmable rainbow lights and motors, but I think we could be thinking of multiple entry points to the activity. IMG_7165

Getting back to the world of scratchpaper, I built a wooden arduino mega board with copper nail connections for all of the digital and analog pins. This massive circuit board isn't the right scale for beginners but I thought it might come in handy as we continue prototyping more complex scratchpaper ideas.


And finallly, last weekend, Jie Qi, an artist from MIT who got us started thinking about paper circuits many years ago, stopped by our workshops to share some of her latest experiments with me and Sebastian. She is working on a really cool circuit board that can connect to a paper circuit with a binder clip and can be programmed using a cellphone. We'll be really excited to test out these ideas when we can get our hands on a more finished version. IMG_7229

Jie also helped me go a bit further in my experiments with attiny and arduino programming. One big shift from Scratch to the arduino IDE is that creating parallel programs can be a challenge. We used the timer function to create different patterns and trying to use the sensors from scratchpaper to make some simple projects. I like how the pysical elements of scratchpaper can be a stepping stone to programming arduinos or attinys, but we'll need to do more experimentation to scaffold the experience.

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Jie inspired me to get going on another project we've been talking about for a while, a computational version of Nicole's tinkering verbs tile wall. I'm excited about creating something in the workshop space to give people the sense of possibilities from programming. IMG_7314

Sebastian suggested a different way of constructing the prototype so that the the process and materials that go into building it can be made visible through exposed alligator clips and copper tape. So far I only have made tile with verbs related to LEDs but some other programming suggestions by the tinkering twitterati include spin, shake, invert (servos) listen, see, press (sensors) and more general things like loop, repeat, wait, random, and reset!

We're excited to continue experiments with tinkering with programming and ways to combine physical and digital world. We'll keep sharing our ideas and prototypes as we experiment ourselves with these topics.


Scratch@MIT 2016

Last week, Nicole and I traveled to MIT for the biannual scratch conference and spent a few extra days sharing ideas and prototyping with our friends at the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Media Lab. During the conference we ran a scratchpaper workshop, highlighting a new idea we've been developing to help learners get started with scratchx by programming paper circuit cards.


The workshop took place in the LLK room at the Media Lab, an inspiring place where we felt right at home. The twenty-four participants worked in pairs to explore the lights, switches, sensors, and vibrating motor monsters. We were a little nervous since this type of workshop required people using their own computers, downloading the right software and getting the example sketches transferred. Things went pretty smoothly, but as we move more into explorations of computational tinkering, these workshop logistics give us something to think about. IMG_6588

Near the entrance of the room we created a 'corner of curiousity' to show off some possible extensions to the activity. We included examples of paper circuits that use the attiny chip, some more artistic paper circuit examples and nicole's analog copper crown that uses light sensors and RGB LEDs in an interesting physical arrangement.


Nicole also made an example modeled after the work of Tinkering Studio AIR Shih Chieh Huang that incorporated the scratch stage into the project. As the black circle moved on the screen the RGB light changed color. P1110385.jpg

Although most of the participants had used scratch before, it was a first chance for many to explore the arduino extension on scratchx. We felt it was important to start with just a single light and a example sketch showing how to hook things up before moving to more complicated projects.


We wanted to support a collaborative and playful attitude for the activity since we were experimenting technical and possibly intimidating parts like sensors, resistors, and circuit baords. We felt that the social scaffolding of people working together and the mix of familiar and unfamiliar materials went a long way towards helping us create an inviting environment.

Scratchpaper Frog Crossing from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo. Participants made all types of projects using the physical objects, showing off the wide walls of the activity. Some of the groups incorporated music, others turned into simple games, and some participants spent the time investigating all of the different components. One interesting project was a "street crossing frog" that moved when the light turned green and yellow but stopped when the light turned red. IMG_6628

We spent about forty-five minutes exploring the scratchpaper construction kit, shared our projects and then reflected on the aspects of facilitation, materials, and environment that supported the playful and collaborative approach to learning. It was great to try this fairly new activity with a thoughtful and fun group of collaborators and we got a lot of ideas about how to keep developing the workshop. As well, we're looking forward to see how other educators remix the idea and make it work for their own setting.


The entire conference was really inspiring as well. It started off with Mitchel Resnick, the leader of the LLK group, giving a emotional tribute to his friend and mentor Seymour Papert, who developed the idea of constructionism and whose teachings and writings greatly influenced the tinkering/making movement. I would recommend watching Mitchel's summary of Papert's ideas as well as the other thought-provoking keynotes that were thankfully recorded and posted on the Scratch conference website. IMG_6724 2

During the three days of the conference, Nicole and I participated in workshops, roamed the poster sessions and listened to panel discussions. Some of the things that we're excited to try and learn more about include using the new microworlds feature of scratch to create more manageable starting points, the next iteration of beetleblocks, experimenting with WeDo to create playful motions and mechanisms, and using turtle stitch to export scratch designs to an embroiderly machines. And we even had time to take a tinkering t-shirt challenge photo with the famous LEGO scratch cat! We'll continue to share our thoughts and experiments around scratchpaper as well as these other expressions of computational tinkering using scratch.