Ecsite Chain Reaction: Part 1


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Last year at the Ecsite conference in Gothenburg, we started coming up with ideas for the makerspace and identified chain reaction as something we'd like to try for the 'people, planet, peace' themed ecsite conference in The Hague. Since then we have been thinking about and planning how to make the idea into a reality. We knew it would be a challenge because this activity takes up lots of space, uses an extensive set of materials, and requires a significant time commitment. But we were interested in working out those challenges because creating a chain reaction is one of the best examples to show the potential of making and tinkering in museums.


The day before the conference started, I tried to arrange the tables to have an interesting shape, be accessible from both sides, and have enough space for lots of people to work around them. We also needed the tables to be on one side of the room so that the set-up wouldn't interfere with the more traditional panel sessions. We left a few tables at the beginning disconected at first so that there would be space for presenters to show their projects earlier in the day. As usual, I taped out the places for the transition dominos and labeled each side 'input' or 'output'.


I also prepped the materials for the activity and places them on the side of the room. I brought some of the key elements like the blocks, slow moving motors, alligator clips and 9v batteries. I also brought a selection of funny or inspiring materials like spatulas, dinosaurs, and extendable boxing gloves. The folks from Museon prepped some larger materials like cardboard, wood, and big cans. They also provided the glue guns, soldering irons, and some other tools.

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We decided to do the chain reaction two ways over the three day conference. On the first day we had a session devoted entirely to the chain reaction and faciliation help from Jon and Sara who have both tried the activity at their museums before. Jean-Michel also planned to man the laser cutter in case people wanted to cut custom parts. We figured that we would get the rube goldberg machine going all together and then continue to let people work on it throughout the remaining days of the conference. I was a little nervous about having too few or too many people showing up but we ended up having to cap the session at 28 people because we had 14 half-table spaces for pairs to work at. We quickly filled up and had to turn some people away, but we posted the other times when they could come back and work on the activity.

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Normally when we build a chain reaction at the exploratorium we set out one interesting element, like a mechanical toy part, on each table and tell people that they have to include it in their system. I didn't have enough room in my luggage to bring those parts which I think made it a little bit harder to get started. I'd like to figure out how to tweak the prompt so that people can begin working right away.

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Some of the group took on the challenge of a finale that set off the laser cutter. In the process of figuring out how to travel the distance from the last table to the other side of the room, Hedinn created a pretty amazing crossbow-like skewer stick launcher that popped a balloon which triggered a makey makey powered mouse click as the cursor hovered over the print button.

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People built for about one hour and fifteen minutes which wasn't quite enough time. I think that each group could have used at least a half hour more. But the session was coming to a close so we quickly had the participants go around and share their creations and point out one interesting part.

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As usual, when we set it off there was laughing, cheering, and ample use of the "magic finger" for parts that didn't work entirely as planned. Check out the video of the workshop chain reaction here. I think especially as it was the last session after a long day of listening to presentations, people were energized to get their hands on materials and build interesting contraptions. Several people said that they were inspired to try the activity back at their institutions. We didn't get to talk much about how to set up the space or dissect the facilitation, but I think for educators, the most important thing is that they get the feeling of excitment from the activity to motivate them to figure out the details of running the activity back home. In my next post, I'll share about what happened the next two days when we continued to work on the collaborative chain reaction machine.

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