Tinkering with Arduino: From Playing with Sensors to Making a Skiing Penguin

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In July, we hosted Sarah Costello from San Francisco Day School as a Teacher-in-Residence. For one week, Sarah worked with us on light play in the Tinkering Studio and preparing for the Infinite Versatility of Cardboard. She also brought Hummingbird Robotics for us to try. With a similar programming environment to Scratch, Hummingbird kits allow users to create and build robots from electronics components and craft materials. As a team, Sarah prompted us to create a robot petting zoo and we would construct interactive animals with built-in sensors, LEDs, and motors.





A few weeks later, Sebastian and I uncovered our partially built animal. I was particularly driven to make a finished animal, which is how the skiing penguin was born. But how did we get there?

Hummingbird Robotics Challenges

Uncertainty with Sensors We spent time troubleshooting the light levels of the light sensor and what was considered "dark" and "light." We found this process very finicky, and resorted to resetting the numerical threshold values of sensor multiple times. However, through the process of trial and error, our understanding of the sensor increased and we were able to have a dialogue about what values made sense, and how the values aligned with our vision for the project.

Motor Motion and Tethered Wires We incorporated movement into our skiing penguin, but found that there was not a lot of motion from the motor. Also, the wires of the electronics components made it difficult for our penguin to ski, and could make other moving petting zoo animals challenging.

Adding Value and Overall Satisfaction We both discovered that our tinkering styles are quite different and we mutually benefitted from the differences in our approaches. I found the process of building toward something - a skiing penguin - to be a motivating and fulfilling experience. I felt very satisfied when we had a working animal, and found a natural stopping point after we had a video of the penguin in motion. For Sebastian, the exploration wasn't very goal driven until the very end, when the skiing penguin idea emerged. The materials we used allowed to quickly change course as the functionality of the sensors and LEDs became more clear. He appreciated how the materials allowed for a process that was flexible enough to change ideas during the process, similar to Lego.

Final Reflections One of the project takeaways was to support broad exploration and avoid narrowing down the activity goal. In our case, we diverged from "feeding an animal" and instead created a moving toy. This process then sparked the idea of a new activity to make your own mechanical toy. While the tools in the hummingbird kit may or may not be the right fit for this, mechanical toys might be a rich area to explore.


The Art of Tinkering Workshop – September 2017

The Art of Tinkering
– A three day workshop about tinkering, making, thinking, and learning –
September 19-21, 2017 @ the Exploratorium

The Tinkering Studio team is excited to announce a hands-on tinkering workshop at the Exploratorium! The workshop is designed to investigate together how tinkering and making experiences support fundamental STEM thinking and learning, and is aimed at educators from all backgrounds, settings, and experience levels. During three days together we will explore tinkering and making activities that blend science and art explorations, exemplify best practices for critical thinking, and incorporate creative ways of becoming active participants in the process of tinkering and making.

The workshop is articulated around core tinkering activities designed to build upon each other over the course of three days. We will alternate between delving into making and tinkering with a learner’s mindset, and then carefully reflecting and deconstructing those experiences through an educational lens. At the end of our work together you will be equipped to formulate a practical action plan to take the logical next step to implement tinkering in your practice, whether you are just starting out, or are interested in expanding an existing plan. You will also meet other educators from all kinds of backgrounds interested in the same work, and will make lasting connections to support each other!

“How do I apply?”
Send a letter of interest to tinkering@exploratorium.edu! We ask that you commit to the full three days of the workshop, and we strongly encourage you to come with a colleague or thinking partner. There is a fee for this workshop, which will cover:

  • All supplies, tools, and consumables materials used during the workshop
  • Electronic activity guides and a copy of The Art of Tinkering book
  • Continental breakfast, snacks, and full lunch each day of the workshop

“Having an understanding and confidence to move back and forth between directing and allowing space is foundational to making tinkering really work for learning.” — workshop participant

The Art of Tinkering workshop will be led by Tinkering Studio educators who have worked with over 100,000 learners of all ages, in settings as diverse kindergarten classrooms, graduate school courses, community centers, public schools, Tibetan monasteries, science museums, and cultural festivals around the world.

The fine print: Workshop participation is limited, and applications will be processed on a first come, first serve basis. The workshop fee does not cover costs associated with travel, hotel, or meals and incidental personal expenses.


Benji’s War Reenactment

Light Play
Meet Benji. He's a 12 year old history buff, with a particular affection for wars. Mostly American Revolution, but also other stuff, Civil War and the like. He's been into it for a long time, in fact it turns out that Deanna was his counselor when he was six, and remembers him asking her for a face painting about the war of 1812.

Light Play
He brought his own ziploc back full of plastic soldiers from home with the intention of making a war reenactment movie on the stop-motion animation station. He has a YouTube channel devoted to his war stuff and wanted a neat addition to it, although he has made those kind of movies at home before.

Light Play
When he saw the Light Play setup, though, he decided to pivot his plan and make light and shadow versions of his war reenactments instead. He has also brought some Keva blocks that he used to set up a stage, and slowly started building a tableaux of characters.

Light Play
Light Play

His arrangements were very intentionals, here's a snippet of him talking about his creation:

Light Play
“What I am attempting to do here is to create a kind of cross zone between this light right here and then this light here with the climax in the middle.” I think it's clear that there is an aesthetic intentionality at play that serves to highlight the drama of the narrative being deployed. One of the possible directions we discussed about Light Play considered it being used for stage lighting, and I think this gets close to that kind of use.

Light Play
Later he created a completely different arrangement depicting another battle, this time adding motion with a rotating platform, and using the lights to create a clear separation between the blue side and the red side, signifying the two factions at war.


Cross Pollination of Ideas at Marble Machines

We pay careful attention to the examples and starting points we set up for activities in the Tinkering Studio. Marble machines is one of our favorite tinkering activities. In workshops we use a more extensive set of materials and the activity is facilitated. On the museum floor, however, the activity is usually unfacilitated and has a more limited palette. We often set up a simple example in the morning to give an idea of possibilities. Once the museum opens, what happens next is an evolution of visitors' ideas expressed through materials and we never know what will get made over the course of the day.

Example of a simple initial set up before the museum opens

One indicator of learning we see through tinkering is the cross pollination of ideas between learners. Last week we saw an amazing example of this at marble machines! Our initial example included a simple rubber band funnel.


The marble drops down into the V-shaped piece and bounces back and forth before continuing on through the clear tube.


Click to see a video of the example in action.

Throughout the course of the day we saw rubber bands used in all sorts of interesting ways to guide the marble. None of them were exact replicas of the original example, and instead drew on elements in similar ways with a unique twist to solve the challenge each visitor was working on.

Marble Machines Rubber Bands
This one uses a complex series of X's to bounce the marble downward to the next track.

Marble Machines Rubber Bands
This one was a related iteration, but with the rubber bands more stretched out. There are also a couple rubber band trampolines in there too!

Marble Machines Rubber Bands
This one shows a tunnel to keep the marble from flying away from the board.

All these ideas are remixed from one initial, simple example. In unfacilitated experiences we don't often get to capture clear stories how ideas get shared in the space, so when we see examples like this it's always so exciting!


Light Play + A Cut Paper Installation

Our recent activity development around Light Play led to a synergistic moment as I began to wonder whether cut paper installations I’ve created might allow for some interesting explorations, especially around creating collaborative light environments. So for two days this week, we filled the Tinkering Studio’s workshop space with cut paper crowds and invited people to collaborate in activating the installation using Light Play.

Light Play with Amy Oates

Here are some of the things we noticed or learned during the two days:

Multiple depths of effects
The cut paper served both as a screen (catching light effects) and as a silhouette (casting light effects onto surrounding walls). Depths of field led to depths of exploration.


Accommodations for early learners
Low tables + lazy susans (no motors) allowed us to welcome in people younger than the typical minimum age for Light Play (8 years)... some as young as 2-3 years! It was quite wonderful to watch them investigate the lights, materials, and the effects they could make.

Light Play with Amy Oates's installation
Light Play with Amy Oates's installation

Different stations for different explorations
We found that the activity stations that projected onto walls worked best with abstract colored/reflective/refractive materials while stations projecting more onto paper cutouts worked best with materials that emphasized grids and patterns.


As always, the ability to quickly pivot and make rapid changes was paramount to creating an effective environment. For instance, we hung the paper pieces from rods in ways that we could easily move/lower/etc them as we learned better how to adapt the installation for people to use/interact/create with it. (What we learned was that lower worked better as the lights could cast shadows mainly onto the walls at eye level rather than just the ceiling.)

Light Play with Amy Oates's installation

Curated materials = no congestion
We curated bins of materials at each station, which decreased the congestion caused when people have to move around the space to gather materials. This also allowed us to better curate materials we found worked well at different stations.


The cut paper installation served as a starting, unifying environmental feature, and the continuous screen along the back wall allowed for collaboration on one large-scale Light Play piece rather than multiple, individual pieces.