Observations from Circuit Boards in XTech

The Beginner XTech program at the museum kicked off a new semester and year with some exploration of Circuit Boards. It’s a foundational Tinkering Studio activity and we like to use it to kick off curriculum involving electricity because of its accessible construction and its openness to studying current within and between mechanical or electronic objects.

Crystal Schematic

Elena’s drawing of her circuit. You can see how she diagrammed the different boards and the alligator clips connecting them.

During our initial exploration of the circuit boards, we invited students to start simply with a set of batteries and lights. From there they expanded to incorporate various electronic parts such as motors, switches, and buzzers. These are made by attaching them to blocks of wood and then soldering the leads to conductive nails. They typically connect the components to each other using alligator clips between the nails, as in Elena’s illustration above.

I wanted to capture how our students were thinking about these concepts in their own words so I walked around the room and asked questions. I was particularly interested in the ways students used non-technical terms to tell a kind of narrative about what they thought happened with an electric current, and to identify specific words used to describe any aspect of the electronics or the behavior of a current. The questions I asked included, “how would you describe what has happened?” and “how do you think electricity behaves?”


“If you connect it at the solder, there’s more power.”

Jezzreal had spent the first several minutes of his exploration sticking with just a battery set and a light bulb. Once he had it light up the first time, he experimented with powering the bulb in a sustained way, then off and on in quick succession, then began investigating what would make the bulb brighter or dimmer. With the alligator clips, he pushed it against parts of the nails connected to the bulbs, and found that the solder was the best place to power it, and in a very tactile way discovered some behaviors of electrical conductivity and resistance.


“Putting a light AND motor doesn’t work if you set it up like a circle. But it did work when I stacked up the wires from the same battery.”

Crystal set up a challenge for herself with the condition of powering up a light bulb and motor from the same battery. At her area on the table were other components she had grabbed, including more battery sets, but she insisted on figuring out how one power source could make two objects function. She arranged the alligator clips in as many ways as she could think of that resembled a circle, with one wire going from a nail to another in one direction and another wire going in the opposite to the second nail. But nothing worked. After some frustration, she sat and thought about other ways to connect them, and in her fluster decided to add in more wires. Whereas before only one nail was connected to another on a different board, this time she started to add two wires from the battery going to the bulb with another pair going to the motor. She was hesitant at first, and it became clear that she thought she was going to get a short-circuit by doubling up on the wires in each direction between battery, bulb, and motor. But, once connected, they both started working! It was a wonderful moment where we figured out the difference between parallel and series, and Crystal’s arrangement of the components on the table really helped this discovery come through.


“If I change the way the wires are connected, the motor will move. You have to reverse the wires to get it to move in the other direction.” -Logan

“You have to switch it back and forth to get it to move.” -Zachary

“You know you can add a switch to do that, right?” -Addison

Logan had selected a motor that came from a salvaged portable CD player, and figured out that it moved a CD tray from an ‘open’ to a ‘close’ position, and vice versa, by changing the polarity of the current. He was thrilled by this and began to show those sitting around him. Seeing an opportunity, I asked Zachary to come over to Logan’s circuit and, without pointing to objects or touching anything, asked Logan to verbally assist Zachary in recreating the motor’s movement. “Try putting an alligator clip to one of the nails,” is how he began, and Zachary glanced at the clips in his hands before choosing which to connect. The motor stayed still. “Okay, now change it.” It moved. Zachary looked surprised, and a little confused. After Logan repeated his instruction, it dawned on Zachary and, in a quick and deliberate maneuver, compelled the motor to move the opposite direction with a change of the alligator clips’ position. Zachary began rapidly swapping the clips to the nails to get the motor to move back and forth in succession, and at this point we had garnered a small crowd. Addison, having spent that whole interaction between Zachary and Logan observing, chimed in with her own innovative thinking. “You know you can add a switch to do that, right?”


“The cords, the battery, the thing itself -- any of those things can prevent the circuit from working… the bulb could be busted, something could be jammed.”

Elena Instructions

Elena’s notes for “First-Time Users.”

One of our prompting questions for the students was to think about how the electrical currents behaved, or moved or didn’t move, and Johnathon noticed that much of the work is thinking about how to troubleshoot something that doesn’t go the way you expect or want it to go. When I asked him what he would recommend for someone else to start with when troubleshooting, he responded that first, the connection between power source and object, then said batteries don’t really indicate when they’re dead or not, then spoke of issues inherent to the component. Shortly after he shared his thoughts, his sister and investigation partner, Elena, started to write a set of instructions for “first-time users” that came complete with these thoughts and with diagrams. Both siblings recently joined us as facilitators in another program, so it was especially exciting to see them take such a pedagogical approach as part of their own experiences with learning.

Once we’d spent a substantial amount of time exploring circuits, we challenged students to construct just one using any number and variety of parts, then to diagram it or draw it. After that we cleaned up the boards and wires, restoring them into separated groupings, then we collected the drawings and handed each student a drawing someone else made. We asked them to recreate the circuits from the diagram, making needed edits to either the setup or the drawing until they were functioning.

Zach Schematic

Zachary’s drawing became a collaboration with some notes and color-coding.

We found that by having students draw their own working circuits and swapping those drawings with others to build new circuits from diagrams, they were able to see the variety of ways electrical components could be represented. Positive and negative nodes were often drawn similarly, so once a circuit board was fully connected in accordance with the drawing, it didn’t always work. Some drawings featured “+” and “-” symbols, evading these moments of confusion, but some of them did not and it was necessary to note the direction of currents. Altogether, the exercise proved very powerful as a way of reconciling differences in vocabulary used to describe the same thing, and noticing that diagramming was in itself a meticulous art seeking to capture complex science.

Linked here is an activity guide we wrote specifically with afterschool and out-of-school time programs in mind. There are additional resources (including how to make a set for yourself) available here on the Tinkering Studio website.


A Visit from Artist-In-Residence Noga Elhassid

Earlier this month we were lucky to have a brief but inspirational visit from our friend and fellow tinkerer Noga Elhassid. Similar to past residencies with her, we used the three days we had to explore making simple mechanisms out of everyday materials.

On Thursday night for After Dark we repurposed small cardboard boxes to make shaky sculptures. One of my favorite things about this activity is how that by adding paper elements onto the box flaps, it exaggerates the natural motion of wiggling the box. The results were often surprising, silly, and satisfying. I was really impressed by how long folks stayed to build their sculptures; many people stayed for almost an hour iterating and complexifying their designs.




Over the weekend we changed gears and hosted a Whirligig Factory workshop. In this activity visitors explored making a wind-powered crank mechanism that activates a paper sculpture or creature. There were four steps to building the whirligig: making a propellor, making a stand for the propellor, making a crank, and finally building a creature.

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Building the creatures was one of the most popular parts of this activity. People came up with really elaborate designs for how they wanted their whirligigs to move.

I love how this video shows that the size of your sculpture and propellor design both make a difference in how fast your crank spins.


Since we're big fans of automata of all types, we're going to continue to explore the potential of wind-powered contraptions!


Following his own ideas to build a dragon


A moment that got me excited about Cranky Contraptions, a new tinkering activity, was when one of our visitors set his own goals during a recent prototyping session. As we design tinkering activities we typically set up a sand box or play field for participants and we love to see them come up with unique ideas within that play field.
After 30 minutes of tinkering and building a dragon automaton, Henry (name changed to protect visitor's privacy), one of our visitors, shared an idea that he had come up with with me. His idea was unique from any example we had provided as inspiration. He had a very clear vision not only of what he wanted to do, but also how he wanted to do it. Here is a video of him describing his design after he finished the first part of his build.


It wasn't possible to finish the project within the time he had left, but that didn’t matter at all. We started with the project keeping in mind that he could finish at home.

Our interaction started with Henry asking me how we could put a big hole into the top of his wooden block. I told him that we could get a drill and do it, and said that I was curious to hear what he needed the hole for. He explained that he wanted to feed a string through the block to add wings to his dragon that could be pulled up by a mechanism and then fall down again pulled by a weight (washer).

As he described this to me in more detail, he realized that the hole would have to go around a corner (from the top of the block to the side). He suggested drilling diagonally through the block. I told him that I had success achieving the same by drilling two holes at a 90 degree angle and he agreed on that design.


Henry then learned to use our power drill and to his and my surprise we managed to put two holes in the block without damaging the contraption he had already build.
He managed to pull a pipe cleaner through and went on to make the wings and figure out more details as he continued to add to his project.

It's always special when we get to see visitors defining their own goals, deeply engaged with the activity, and grappling with problems in a profound way. What I like most is when they become the expert and driver of the exploration and I as a facilitator become a co-learner.


New automata activity development: Cranky Contraptions

We have been prototyping a new automata activity called “Cranky Contraptions” using simple materials such as wooden blocks, wire, and foamies. Now that it’s been about a month that we have been testing the activity with the visitors, I wanted to take a moment to share about this new activity, how it all started, and what people have been making.

What is Cranky Contraption?
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Cranky contraptions are a type of moving toys that utilize a 'crank slider' motion mechanism. They have a little crank handle and each of these samples in the photo creates a different motion when you crank it: some goes Up & Down, or side-to-side, some swings or flaps, and so on. You can see how each motion example works in the video below.

How Cranky Contraption has been developed:
For a long time, we have been making automata in the Tinkering Studio with many different materials. Using cardboard is our classic way of making automata, but we’ve also tried making one entirely from food, trash, wire, and wood. While we enjoy different materials for making automata, we have always considered how to shorten the time spent making the frame so that visitors can quickly get to the point where they can tinker with mechanisms and animate the sculpture.

The first big hint came from a twitter feed: A clothespin automata! This gave us the idea to use a familiar object, such as a clothespin, as a frame for the mechanism so people can quickly start making the animated sculpture. We also liked that it lets people experiment with lever and linkage-based mechanisms which have more possibilities than the spinning cams or the up & down cams that people use in cardboard automata.

However, after trying it out for a couple of days in the Tinkering Studio, we found that it was not so easy especially for children to bend wire precisely around such tiny clothespins. The scale needed to be larger. Also, using clothespins without taking advantage of their open/closing function was counter intuitive for people to understand what this was about.

Another big hint came from Carlos Zapata’s automata. He is an artist in residence and spent two weeks with us during the Curious Contraption show. He was using a 1x1 wooden block with a hole as a frame to build the crank mechanism. We liked the size, it looked much more manageable especially for young children. The day after we saw this, we started using wooden blocks instead of clothespins. This was an improvement, but we still had a problem(?) to solve. We were looping the end of the wire around the crank to joint with the vertical rod: most children found this too difficult to do.

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The next big hint came from another artist in residence, Hernán Lira. He threaded a piece of cork on the crank shaft loosely enough that it could spin, and then tied the vertical rod to the cork. The simple solution inspired us to experiment with the substitution for the cork. We tried it with a piece of foamie (just because it was around) and simply poked the wire into the foam. It worked.

Thanks to those two breakthrough, we were able to lower the threshold of this activity. Providing a wooden block as a frame made it much quicker for people to get started, and the technique of using a piece of foamie for the crank slider joint made it easier for people to get to the point where they can tinker with the motion mechanism. As a result, they spend longer time working on the mechanism (very short time on making the frame), and they focus more on tweaking the motion mechanism to animate the sculptures.

The last thing to figure out was how to make a guide that goes on top of the block to hold the vertical rod. For that, we have been experimenting with three different ways of making the guide: wire, popsicle stick, and thin foamie strip.

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They all do the same job: to hold the vertical wire straight up. For the popsicle stick one (photo in the middle), we provide a good hole punch "Crop-A-Dile" so people can make a clean hole without breaking the popsicle stick. The thin foamie strip (photo on the right) would be good if you are working with young children. Making a wire loop with a plier is a little bit tricky (photo on the left), but we've created a "loop making jig" so the job can be done in a few seconds.

Loop making jig: Put the wire end in the tiny hole and wrap the wire around the rod. Take it out. You got a loop!

And here is our short instruction video about how to make the most basic Cranky Contraption mechanism.

What people have been making:
It's been a month since we started this activity on the floor. The video below is showing the varieties of Cranky Contraptions that visitors to the Tinkering Studio made so far. It is amazing to see so many different motion mechanisms that a crank slider mechanism can produce. We are also really impressed to see the personal expressions and narrative elements that people pour in their contraptions. All in all, what excites me the most is that people spend more time on figuring out how the mechanism works, tweaking the motion, animating their own sculpture, and very little time on making the frame.

How to do it for yourself:
Here is a little handout that we have created so you can try it out in your own educational setting. As I said, this activity is still on our prototyping stage (so it is a "draft"), and I'm looking forward to further development. We are interested to hear your feedback about this new idea, and we are so excited and curious to see where you take this idea!


Collaborative prototyping - exploring computational tinkering with sound

We have been prototyping new computational tinkering activities that explore sound during the past 4 months, working collaboratively with our partners from the MIT Lifelong Kindergarten group and the LEGO Idea Studio.


During our first round of activity development with mechanisms and sound, back in Spring 2016, we came up with an activity we called "Kinetic Musicale" or "Robot Orchestra" in the early stages. We saw a lot of iteration as visitors were creating their "sound machines", however, deep investigations were focused mainly on mechanisms whereas "sound" felt more like a hook to draw people in.

A couple of months ago we picked up the topic of sound again, this time as part of our Computational Tinkering work (tinkering with computation in the digital world combined with tinkering in the real world). Our collaborators at LEGO Idea Studio started building small motorized sound making devices with LEGO WeDo and shared their experiments on Twitter. Unlike during our first explorations of sound and mechanisms, we had a clear intention that the mechanisms could be played together, controlled by a machine or computer. This is one of the early prototypes. The Idea Studio called this "Sound Circles"

This prototype from Amos and Liam at Idea Studio sparked a number of interesting new experiments and discussions about concepts of computation such as loops, events, sequences and physical computing in general. We were also reminded of some of the challenges we faced investigating sound during our first explorations with "Kinetic Musicale". Namely that participants wanted to play their "sound machines" together, but it was hard to do this without a common beat. (https://tinkering.exploratorium.edu/2016/05/12/lego-robotic-orchestra). One of the ideas that our teams got excited about during this 2nd prototyping phase with computation involved was that a group of people can collaborate and contribute their sound makers to a larger system that controls the individual sounds and composes them together. Following this idea, we experimented with a few more prototypes in recent weeks.

This is the next iteration of Sound Circles from the IdeaStudio, with more build-out sound elements or "Sound Tiles".

Here is a clone with a different type of trigger mechanism (a spinning disk) that I made in response to the Idea Studio's Sound Circle at the Tinkering Studio.

Since then we have had fun making more sound tiles controlled by Scratch code and LEGO WeDo. Each sound tile has a distance sensor and that way can be plugged into a larger system that controls it.

Here's a particularly intriguing Sound Tile that "Hernán Lira", one of our visiting artists made. I love the variety we see in these explorations, and how Hernán's work can be tied into a system even though the material set and aesthetic is very different from some of the sound tiles we made.

Now that we collaboratively made a variety of examples of "Sound Tiles", we will play with inventing systems that they can be plugged into. They could be played by a human conductor covering the distance sensors with their hands, triggered by a rotating mechanism, or even programmed by a drum similar to the mechanism used in mechanical music boxes. I am excited to invite visitors at the Tinkering Studio to come up with ways to trigger and combine sound tiles.

Revisiting sound with a focus on computation while frequently sharing ideas and experiences with our partners at MIT Lifelong Kindergarten and the LEGO Idea Studio has lead to interesting remixing of ideas and inspired new directions. I particularly like that physical prototypes inspired by each other's ideas often took the work in a slightly different direction and served as jumping off points for the whole group to investigate new areas. It's always reassuring to see the same qualities of Tinkering that we value in our workshops present in our own prototyping process.