Light Up Holiday Cards

During a member and donor night at the Exploratorium, we hosted an electronic greeting cards activity where we invited participants to make their own light up holiday cards. The activity featured paper circuit making with LEDs to embellish handmade cards.


The Tinkering Studio team experimented with paper circuits previously as a workshop on the floor as well as an activity brought to conferences and international workshops. Reflections on the activity through the lenses of facilitation, space set up, and working with visitors. The "wide walls" of the activity are evident with past explorations into combining paper circuits with Scratch and magazines collages. Additionally, we have brought paper circuits into the classroom in 2014 and 2016.




For this event, the focus was on using two types of LEDs: gumdrops and stickers. The premise of creating paper circuits without soldering surface mount LEDs was very appealing. We used a gumdrop LEDs in a variety of colors and sizes as well as Chibitronics LED stickers.

A switch sampler from Becca Rose (@beccaerose) and a paper circuit remix by Susan Klimczak (@zackboston) was an exciting addition to the activity.

Overall we had a successful night of card making. We saw many participants troubleshooting circuit designs as well as modifying and complexifying their creations.





Weaving 1.0

Although most of our recent explorations have been about sounds and mechanisms, a couple weeks ago I decided to take a detour into trying my hand at weaving. Weaving and looms are an ancient technology, and one thing that I find fascinating about them is how they are inherently computational. We have some Cricket looms I pulled out of storage to experiment with. The first step was just getting it set up and trying a simple over-under pattern for making an even textile. The loom keeps one set of threads at the center level (blue yarn), and moves a second set above or below them so when you pass the shuttle through (green yarn) it makes an even woven pattern.

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I knew with some looms it was possible to make more complex patterns, which was the next challenge I set for myself. I marked out four threads that I would skip on each pass, thinking this would make a square. For my first attempts, I skipped those ones moving the shuttle both directions, but it made the pattern look messy. For the second attempt, I only skipped those ones when passing the shuttle right to left and it made a much cleaner pattern.


The next challenge was to see if I could make a checker board so I marked out eight different threads to skip. The pattern was six passes skipping the ones marked with a blue dot, then six passes skipping the ones marked with a red dot.

I like that the fabric shows evidence of my learning over time. The process of figuring out how to shuttle the green thread across, when to skip blue threads, and even some "bugs" of mistakes are all apparent when you look at the fabric itself. For future explorations, I think it could be really interesting to try making a simple Jacquard-style loom that allows you to manually choose which threads to "skip" and potentially make more complex patterns than just squares. Another option could be to try making a simple scratch program that could draw out a pattern you could then recreate with physical materials.


Sound Harvesting

Sound R&D

We have been experimenting with ways of collecting and exploring interesting sounds. One of the first attempts at tackling this activity idea was to dust off our collection of piezo microphones, and try out a number of different ways of capturing captivating sounds from everyday or unexpected objects.

A piezo microphone is also knows as a contact mic, and will amplify tiny movements and vibrations of any surface it is in contact with—hence the name. We have been thinking about it as a “magnifying glass for your ears.”


As often is the case, before trying an activity, especially a new one, with the public, we like to immerse ourselves in it in the Learning Studio. So we mounted a few piezo mics on sticks, connected them to portable amplifiers and donned large headphones, and went on a sound harvesting “safari.”

Sound R&D

One of the first things we noticed was how immersive it is to listen to highly amplified sounds, especially with headphones on. We became floating listening vessels focused on our own experiences to the point of isolation, occasionally looking up to find, to our mild surprise, that there were other people in the room. We were all having very immersive experiences but no way of sharing them with others, you'd look up grinning because you had just discovered a delightfully unexpected sound from something really tiny, only to realize nobody else can hear what you can.

Sound R&D  Sound R&D

Amy tried modifying her mic and interact with it by blowing on appendages.

Sound R&D

Meg tried squeezing air out of packing bubbles, and others tried listening to their own heartbeat, experimenting with metal bowls with different size balls in them, etc.

Sound R&D

We also tried recording the sounds in a prototype version of Scratch that allows for more sophisticated sound manipulation than the currently available version. We had initially imagined that we would spend little time exploring sounds and digitally manipulating them, and the majority of time actually building some kind of project using those sounds. An initial idea was to have several colored dots on the screen, each of which could be assigned a sound, and then interact with those either with the mouse or with another sprite, triggering sounds in rhythmical ways.

Sound R&D

Somewhat surprisingly we discovered that the initial part, the sound harvesting and exploration, was rich enough and complex enough to hold our attention for the whole duration of the prototyping session. There was much to discover and get lost in when looking for sounds, and no clear stopping point. Some people set little challenges for themselves, like making a long non-repeating sound for example. Others spent a long time with the sound editor in Scratch experimenting with slowing down or speeding up, adding echo, and distorting it.

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We’ll keep experimenting and trying to find a good balance between exploration and construction. Meanwhile an early test in the Tinkering Studio revealed itself successful! Kids stayed a long time and were very interested in this new “set of ears” that the piezo mics provided them with.


Making Digital Sounds for Physical Objects

Last Thursday we hosted our last BAME (Bay Area Maker Educators) meet-up of 2017. Our theme for the night was Making Digital Sounds for Physical Objects and we explored the intersection of microcontrollers, software, and different types of interactive sound making materials. This event was timely for our team because we are currently exploring concepts and ideas around computational thinking and sound.

For the event, Sebastian and I set up workstations throughout the Learning Studio. Every station had a microcontroller (a MakeyMakey, Bare Conductive, or Playtronica board) along with physical objects. Aluminum foil collages, Lego motors and Lego technic pieces, markers, small plastic animals, and copper tape were some of the materials available for participants.

We were fortunate to have many returning BAMErs join us this evening. The evening felt like a small family reunion and folks settled right into a comfortable evening of tinkering.

Map of San Jose by Corinne Okada Takara

Artist Corinne Okada Takara came prepared to the event with a prototype to work on. Corinne was inspired by Sebastian’s record disk that she saw on Twitter. She adapted her design and added winding paths of copper tape tracing waterways of San Jose. A laser cut map was the base for her record so that students could have a deeper understanding of the city they live in. She also recorded sounds that corresponded with the waterways and landmarks of the map. She mounted her record on a toy helicopter launcher as a low cost alternative to a motor.



I really appreciated Corinne sharing her work with us and am interested to have participants bring what they are working on to future events. Another great attribute to her interactive map was the storytelling quality. Storytelling and STEM is an idea we revisit often and we are excited to see how students working with Corinne will use maps like this to tell a story about their hometown.

Paper, Tape, and Foil Collages

We created two stations that had aluminum and copper tape starting points. These tables were playful and allowed participants to contribute using paper cutting and crafting techniques. I designed oversized sensors from aluminum foil and a second emoji-inspired table. Each table was covered with butcher paper so that designs could be glued straight to the paper.


Dora Medrano, Jonathan Lai, and Dom Diglera from the Lawrence Hall of Science started the evening exploring the large table. They experienced trouble with the Bare Conductive board as they built different sensors, but restarting the board did the trick. Later, Leah Strichartz and Claire Comins designed at the smaller table. These set-ups provided an opportunity to collage and create artwork that linked to different sounds. For some, the sounds inspired the designs, while the object was inspirational to others.



Another interesting direction for projects involved motorized switches to trigger sounds using Scratch online platform and MakeyMakey controllers.

scales with scratch

A pair of BAMErs Walt Hays and Jenn Beach managed to program one of these rotating switches to play a full set of scales every 7 rotations. They tested and iterated on their Scratch code multiple times to achieve this goal.

Dora, Jonathan, and Saskia Leggett focused on personalizing the rotating switch by adding physical objects. They then matched the perfect sound to their contraption: a rotating switch stroking a fantastical animal.

These switch explorations caused attendants to grapple with the more nuanced aspects of programming, such as conditional loops and operators. We are looking forward to building on these ideas as we are working toward rich programming and computation qualities of tinkering activities. Overall, we were amazed by the variety of explorations, a quality that we strive for in tinkering activities. This BAME was an opportunity for us to share our new work as well as collaboratively develop it further.



It's always so fun to watch people play. Earlier this week I was watching kids build marble tracks on the floor and came up with an idea to build marble tracks off the wall with simple materials. Like I say in the video, the prototype I came up with is very delicate and I was easily frustrated by the smallest adjustment throwing off the whole alignment of the track. I do like how simple the materials are and that it packs up easily into a small box. There are some preparations and things to build for the elevation points and the track sections shown in the photos and video.
Prototyping and playing with this was important for me to get the idea out of my head and into my hands. Although it's not the most durable and I got frustrated by how delicate it is, making this lead to some other ideas for track-based marble runs.

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