Beyond the Museum: Tinkering with Marble Machines


Lately in the Tinkering Studio we’ve been thinking about how to translate the work that we do in the museum to settings like after school programs and community centers. Marble Machines is an open-ended, immersive activity that frustrates and delights in equal measure. The aim is to use a set of familiar materials to create an interesting ball-run that allows a marble to travel from the top of the board to the bottom. You can use wooden tracks (actually short sections of molding), plastic funnels, copper tubes and connectors, wooden bumpers, dowels, and masking tape to create your path.

You'll find that your expectations are often proved wrong as the temperamental marbles skip and bump off the tracks in ways you didn't expect. The activity has you constantly setting up new scenarios and having your notions challenged or affirmed as you make your way down the board. "Test early and test often" has become a motto for marble machine builders.

The activity deals with acceleration, friction, momentum, gravity, angles and geometry, inertia, and scale among other concepts. But, we rarely call these things out because the words are often abstractions that can keep people from engaging directly with the materials and phenomena at hand. Instead, an understanding of the forces at play begins to develop as part and parcel of the experience of getting the thing to work. This increasing facility with the activity creates an underlying understanding that gives the concepts life and meaning. It seats these concepts in the real world as concrete ideas.

The development of a marble machine is the physical expression of process of inquiry and the resulting contraption is less important than the actions that gave rise to it. It is evidence of an array of small decisions and assumptions, expectations and responses, surprises and reactions, reflective pauses and adjustments.

The Boards
In order to begin you must have a surface to work on and that means creating the Marble Machine pegboards. What has worked for us is creating panels out of two layers of pegboard, separated by .75 to 1.5 inch spacers along the outer edges. The pegboard is fairly thin and the dowels which are so crucial for supporting most of the materials need to be securely held. The second layer of pegboard ensures the dowels are held fast.

We found that a 2' by 4" panel is great for individuals and can easily accommodate two people building together. Getting them to stand vertically is a simple matter of adding some wooden feet.

For larger environments, a community marble board can be constructed from 4'x8' sheets of pegboard with 2"x2" spacers along the edges and one through the center to provide support.

The Space
We like to create spaces that allow for the propagation and sharing of ideas. It's nice to be able to draw inspiration from your neighbors when you are stuck, or to be able to show off your marble run when it finally works. (One universal truth: your marble machine will work beautifully until you show it to someone else)

How materials are offered is important to consider. They need to be easily accessible and well organized. Things will get messy so simple and clear organization will help you clean up quickly when the need arises. People will often take materials with them as they formulate ideas about what to do next. The floor around a completed marble machine can be an interesting result of the particular path that maker took through the activity.

The Materials

As we mentioned, the materials are all pretty familiar and can be found at your local hardware store. We get many inquiries from people who want to do this at home, and that seems to be a direct result of the simplicity of the elements involved.

Custom made, slick panels, or plastic tracks create a sense that the activity is less accessible and they also tend to be MUCH more reliable. This may seem like a good thing, but the inherent unreliability of the materials we use makes people tinker with them in order to get them to work reliably. This is an important part of the experience. It isn't a ploy to sabotage the activity... it actually makes the activity richer because the built-in unpredictability results in novel solutions.

That said, we use wooden tracks (short sections of molding), plastic funnels, copper tubes and connectors, wooden bumpers, dowels, clothespins, rubber bands, and masking tape. You can also include "foamies," and paper, plastic mesh, and other adaptable and malleable materials. Keeping the palette limited is a good way to keep the focus on the activity and not the wealth of materials which can sometimes make it hard to get started.

The Transfer of Ownership
When a finished marble run or small experiments are left on the marble board the next visitors often incorporate those ideas into their own runs. The smallest adjustment can be enough to shift the sense of ownership. Ideas tend to migrate and the activity keeps transforming and evolving based on the changes imparted by the visitors. The environment/pegboards begin to function in multiple ways, offering inspiration and a sense of what is possible while also providing the canvas for new investigations.

"Try to make the marble roll from the top to the bottom as slow as possible." This is a prompt we often use but it is usually quickly discarded as the challenges of the activity emerge and the materials begin to suggest other possibilities. As we mentioned, the nature of the materials often means frustration can emerge. This is a vital part of getting to know the materials and devising solutions.

Suggestions as simple as showing someone how to seat the dowels fully into the board can really help. Repeatability is a part of this process and that suggestion can make a difference because making assumptions based on something that keeps changing with each try can make progress very difficult.

Getting visitors to show you their marble run is a good way to get them to talk through their intentions and it tends to highlight the trouble spots. They may get themselves past the sticking points just by taking a moment to be reflective about it while showing it to you.

This is a tricky activity even for those of us who have been doing it for a long time. This makes exploring the activity with the visitors a collaborative endeavor rather than setting up an expert/novice scenario. Being a friendly presence in the space is a big part of people being comfortable enough to work through their marble runs with you. Also, asking questions can often produce better results than making outright suggestions.

When all else fails... "Tape helps." is another long standing Marble Machines expression but as always, moderation is key.

Expanding this activity
We recently added some "plinko" style elements, and some water wheel/ferris wheel pieces to the experience. We have also explored sound through marble machines, adding chimes and other simple noise makers.

We have also added technology through the use of PicoCrickets: tiny programmable computers that can greatly expand the realm of possibilities by adding sensors, displays, and motors that can be programmed to respond to inputs and interact with each other. Using simple switches and sensors the little "crickets" could add sound, light, motion, and programed delays into the marble machines environment. These were offered during focused workshops and have not yet been tried on the museum floor.

Once we even tried a glow-in-the-dark session.

Tell us what you’ve tried! We’re constantly experimenting with these activities and want you to try new things too. Let us know the discoveries you’ve made, innovations you’ve developed, puzzles you’ve encountered, and more!

For more information, here are links to the PIE Project PDF and the Tinkering Studio website’s Marble Machines Activity Page.

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