Materials Moment: Opaque White Pens

In the Tinkering Studio we are materials nerds and love finding out new sources for commonly used items. During her residence with us, Noga introduced us to the idea of using white out pens to add details to our cardboard creations. We love how much character adding eyes and faces adds to linkage contraptions, and the white out really pops against the flat cardboard.


The only downside? White out pens can get really fume-y. The smell can get to you pretty quickly if you're filling in any significant area.

That's why I was so happy to see a recent post this week on opaque white pens from our friend Rachelle Doorley at TinkerLab! She tested 5 different pens and shares her favorite recommendations for fine-tip and broad-tip options (I know I'll definitely be ordering some this week!). Click below to jump to her blog! 

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TinkerLab: The Best White Pens for Black Paper




ECSITE 2015 Pre-Conference Workshop

MUSE Museo delle Scienze

Earlier this month, I was in Trento, Italy, helping to run a space for making and tinkering that operated throughout the ECSITE conference, a gathering of over 1000 science museum professionals from all over the world. This year, the conference took place at a science center called MUSE in a beautiful new building designed by architect Renzo Piano (designer of Cal Academy among many other iconic buildings).

There was much interest in how to incorporate making and tinkering into museums and science centers, so before the actual conference started, we held a pre-conference session. It was a bit of the experiment to lead a one day workshop that combined tinkering activities with information and demonstration of FabLab tools and programs. Even just working through tinkering activities, environment, and facilitation can usually take more than a day, so we were looking forward to a packed schedule of activities, demonstrations, and discussions.


We started with something that I had never tried before, the "sounds cups" icebreaker activity, which was a really nice way for everyone to get up out of their seats, begin to talk with each other and experience a bit of tinkering. We put a couple of familiar materials in the cups, sealed them, then asked each person to find a partner with the same combination of sound-making materials (there was two of each). After each person found their partner with the same sound, they had to work together to try and recreate what they thought was in their cups.


While I wouldn't call this a full-fledged tinkering activity, I like how it seeded the room with some of the aspects of activities that we care about. For example, strategies for figuring out what was in the cups spread as ideas were noticed and taken up by those nearby. This technique that Jon developed to listen to both cups at once looked a little silly but was quite effective.


It also got people thinking about common materials in different contexts, something that we emphasize as an important aspect of tinkering activities.


Most importantly, it was fun, surprising, and a little bit frustrating, all of which we feel are important emotional qualities to emphasize while engaging in learning through tinkering.


For the next part we did five presentations about different types of spaces for making, tinkering, and fabbing in museums. The idea of this section of the workshop was to emphasize that there are many models for how a space can look and how workshops can be organized. We wanted to convey that it's less important what the space is called than what activities and experiences visitors can engage with. It was tricky for us to try and get through the presentations quickly and leave time for questions, but I think we surfaced some important issues.


For the afternoon we split up into two groups and broke off to experience "tinkering activities" or an "intro to FabLab tools and materials" led by Jean-Michel and Sabina. We were really fortunate to have Sabina's FabLab at MUSE as a learning laboratory for the group to see the tools in action and ask questions about the set-up, maintenance, and activities.


We definitely had a challenge of how to introduce tools like laser cutters and 3D printers to workshop participants in such a short amount of time. I'm still not sure what's possible in an hour or two to get people started on making something while actually giving the logistical information. Many of the tinkering activities that we do are good for workshops because they are easy to get started and can lead to more discussion/questions about implementing them in different settings. It will be a good challenge to continue to think about how digital fabrication tools can be introduced in this type of PD workshop. Even in the past couple of weeks we've come up with a few ideas and alternatives to a more instructional model.


While one group experimented in the FabLab, the other half of the participants built scribbling machines in the upstairs classroom. It was a little bit challenging to get a few of the people, who had tried this activity multiple times at their museum, engaged with the activity. But, after a few minutes, people began tinkering in earnest, creating unusual and delightful scribbling machines that included one with an "apple" for a body, drawing machines that hung from the ceiling, and and inspired sound making machines.


For those who had never experienced the activity before, it was really important to see the environment, materials selection, and facilitation that we design to support tinkering in the museum context. We spent about forty-five minutes creating scribbling machines and sharing our ideas with each other.


During the last half hour or so we dissected the activity and had small group discussions to talk about the implications for our work as educators and designers. Lots of great ideas came up and we had an especially interesting discussion about how tinkering might be compared to jazz improvisation. Both are states of deep engagement that allow for playfulness but draw from and encourage more formal modes of learning. For the second session we switched the groups so that everyone would have a chance to experience both projects.


We ended the day with a discussion based on the compass points thinking routine developed by the visible thinking group at project zero. For this final discussion, participants shared what was Exciting about making/tinkering, what they Need to know, what Worries them, and a Stance or suggestion to remember. It was a good way to surface a lot of ideas and thoughts as well as topics for discussion throughout the rest of the conference.


The workshop was a great start to a conference that focused a lot of attention on spaces for making, tinkering, FabLabs in the museum context. The pre-conference session got a lot of people thinking deeply about making and tinkering and we continued to explore many of the themes that were raised in the workshop over the next three days. In my next post, I'll share some of the activities and discussions that we engaged with throughout the rest of the conference.


Hangout presentations

Thursday we hosted a CoP hangout about “Tinkering with MOOCs” – We had technical glitches that didn’t allow you to see Marlene and Summer's images large scale.  As a band-aid solution, I’m posting PDFs from the presenters here -- along with a video of the original hangout.  

*You might want to open two windows and listen to the hangout while clicking through PDFs of presentations in the other ;-) 



Beetleblocks and Watercolorbot Experiments

Lately we've been experimenting with a new program by Tinkering Studio collaborator Eric Rosenbaum (who also created makey makey, mmmtsss, and glow doodle) called Beetle Blocks. Beetle blocks allows you to use SCRATCH like programming to create 3D designs drawn by a little "beetle". Its a really nice way to start thinking about programming to create a tangible object out of the digital code. Luigi and Sebastian made some 3D printed objects from the API, but that takes quite a long time for each design. We also experimented with laser cutting 2D versions but we wanted something a little more artistic!

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Enter the watercolorbot, a creation of Super-Awesome Sylvia and Evil Mad Scientist! We got our hands on one and started playing around with converting the beetle block designs to the water color bot software. It took a little bit of experimentation but we figured out a system that seemed to work pretty well for a starting point.

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For the beetle blocks code to work it has to be in two dimensions. This means that the main blocks to use  are "start drawing", "move", "rotate z" and "go to an xy coordinate" for the designs. There are also a lot of interesting blocks to play with in the "operators" sections to introduce randomness to the system or add commands involving math.

In the "colors" section it's possible to adjust the hue and saturation. We found that the watercolorbot responds best to colors with the saturation dialed up to 100. Combining this selection with "repeat" blocks (found in the control section) offers endless possibilities for tinkering.

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When you get something you like, you can export the file to a 2D SVG and save it to the computer.

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Then, in the robopaint program (the software that comes with the watercolorbot) you can open the SVG file. You need to press the "fit content" button to get the design centered on the paper. The lines look very light in the editor but the watercolorbot can pick them up.


When you print the designs, it's  really interesting and beautiful to see how the watercolorbot interprets the code. There's a lot of tweaking that can be done to optimize the hardware to make aesthetically beautiful paintings. And I felt that there is something really addictive about the combination of these two techologies. As soon as I saw the finished painting, I wanted to go back into the code and adjust the blocks to change the design.


Each drawing takes about 5-10 minutes depending on the complexity of the program which could even work for us to try with visitors to the Tinkering Studio. It would be great to have lots of different options for people to make different physical objects from a piece of code that they created using a 3D printer, laser cutter, vinyl cutter, and of course the watercolorbot. There are so many possibilities for further experimentation and we're all looking forward to continuing to tinker with these ideas.



If you start to experiment with combining beetleblocks and watercolorbot let us know. We'd love to see what everyone comes up with!


Exploring Linkages with Tinkerer in Residence Noga Elhassid

Earlier this month we were so lucky to have Noga Elhassid in residence with us for two whole weeks! We've been long-time fans of her work with the Moving Toys Workshop, and are always inspired by her playful approach to creating motions and mechanisms.

For this time around we set out with an ambitious goal - explore linkages in 5 different ways over the course of the two week residency. We weren't sure how far we would get along that path, and chose to aim high to make the most of her time with us! The categories we hoped to try out were: creating a basic "vocabulary" of mechanisms; exploring 2D and 3D linkage systems; making linkages activated by pulleys, cranks, or motors; using linkages (and maybe coding too) to explore drawing shapes; and experimenting with collaborative linked systems.

On Noga's first day with us she arrived with a box of wonderful moving toys that we immediately unpacked and hung up on a pegboard wall in the Learning Studio. This beautiful collection served as both an inspiration for our future experiments and a way of keeping all the ideas visually accessible while still saving space at our work table.

Linkages by Noga Elhassid

Our first exploration stemmed from the idea of creating a common "vocabulary" of example linkage mechanisms. Karen and I had been using a combinations of letters, numbers, and waving hand gestures to describe types of linkages to each other, but our communication on what we were trying to describe wasn't always the clearest. Noga helped us give names to the types of mechanisms we were making (such as 3-, 4-, and 5-bar linkages) and see what they have in common, what their strengths are, and what ways they can be challenging. We ended up making a literal vocabulary where each letter demonstrates a different type of motion. What I loved figuring out was that different configurations can actually be the same type of linkage. For example, what Karen and I had been calling "H" linkages and "8" linkages are actually just variations on a 4-bar linkage (letters O and R in the vocabulary).


This video shows some of the letters in action.

Our next series of investigations was on translating 2D linkages into 3D space. Noga and I drew from different inspirational points for our exploration. She was interested in making a toy with a mouth that opened and closed based off a design by Keith Newstead, and I wanted to try creating something with moving ears based off of one of Noga's designs. We both tinkered with different tools, materials, and configurations to get our creations working. Noga ended up making a cute hippo-like push toy, and I made a running fox.

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Around this time we also had a group building session with the whole Tinkering Studio team. Ryan took the idea of a 3D linkage to a new level and made a tool for parting crowds in busy spaces.



We also spent some time trying out linkages on the floor during Noga's visit. Our prompt revolved around the idea of turning a small motion in one place into a bigger motion somewhere else. We noticed that with this prompt, most visitors made a series of linked X's. While it's a compelling motion, that prompt didn't get us the variety of outcomes we were hoping for. On our next round of experiments in the Tinkering Studio, we'll definitely be considering what we can try next.

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The next stop on our linkages journey was drawing with linkages. Although we didn't get to spend a ton of time on this one, Karen captured one of our explorations on drawing with linkages in this blog post

Just before Noga had to return home we were able to dip our toes into crank-operated and collaborative linkages. We used the pegboard from our workshop set of marble machines boards as the base for these linkages. We found that adding elements like eyes, hands, and feet made the motions more compelling and helped make testing more purposeful. As we continue to prototype with linkages, I think crank-operated contraptions will be what we try next in the Tinkering Studio. More updates on that to come soon!  

Reflecting back on our time with Noga, I'm so thankful we were able to take the time for a deep-dive into linkage explorations. We learned so much from her, and the collaboration reinvigorated our collective enthusiasm around the topic. We have so many ideas and questions around linkages that we'd like to continue trying out, since it's such a rich topic to explore.

Keep an eye out for what we'll be trying next!