Tinkering with monks: chain reaction video

The final project of the workshop, on video. We set the whole contraption up and ran it twice. This video is a combination of both runs, as it was difficult to get all the shots in one run. It was hard to fight my way through the monks crowding their contraptions and cheering them on!

Some highlights include: water being used to complete a circuit; a soccer match between the US and Tibet, an elephant-powered ball-kicking mechanism; hand-made gears; a monk slapping a Chinese [cringe!]; a solar system; a monk being run over by a rickshaw; suicidal penguin switch; the Tibet express bringing Tibetans back to a free country; a rubber-band twang switch; 30 joyful and beautiful monks!


Tinkering with monks: light exploration video

Once again, two days of exploring light, reflections, mylar, mechanical movement, and caustics exemplified by one particularly playful and delightful final contraption. It's a disco light!


Tinkering with monks: cardboard automata video

Three days of tinkering with Tibetan monks condensed in three minutes of video. Enjoy!

You can read all about the cardboard automata activity, as we implemented with with the monks, in these posts.


Closing discussion

Even the best workshops, sadly, have to come to an end sooner or later. Setting off the chain reaction machine marked the culmination and final act of 10 days of work with some inspiring and dedicated students. On our last day in Sarnath, hours before getting on a plane back to Delhi, we convened the monks one last time. For this final discussion with the group we asked them to record their own thoughts about the following three discussion prompts.

  • What did you notice about this method of teaching science?

  • What did you notice about your personal learning experience?

  • What did you notice about the other learners around you and their projects?

They discussed their observations and thoughts in table groups of 6-8, then summarized the table discussions with us as a large group. As this was clearly our parting meeting, their tone became a little more formal than usual, and almost reverential: when people spoke, they got up and gave short but well-formulated "speeches", rather than informal comments. We couldn't tell whether this was a function of their innate respect for teachers, or because of the occasion of a goodbye. Whatever the case, you might find the following quotes to be a little more formal in tone than usual! Here are some of the things that they discussed.

What did you notice about this method of teaching science?

Kalsang Gyatsen

"Your method of teaching is excellent, the great Tibetans in the ancient times (and modern times) carefully plan, then do things to achieve the plan. We believe strongly that you have given us a variety of tools to plan and do the projects." "Your full engagement in the activities as teachers, and your encouragement, allowed us to learn more things, and learn a lot, from beginning to end." "In these ten days we learned a lot about mechanisms, how things work, and where to find them, so we are ready for our future, for how to study these things. This is, of course, your

[the teachers']

cup of tea, so your full support helped guide us along the right path for the future. We really want to thank you very much for this wonderful, supportive teaching." "We appreciate how fully prepared you were to teach us from the beginning. You come to the class prepared with everything for us to start and learn about these things." "This method of teaching may not work for everybody, but for me it is the best thing to gave me knowledge. For example, I learned there is an electric resistance in water. I first thought there was no electric resistance, so Karen and I went to the tea room and tested the water and found the resistance. This little experiment, and what I ultimately did with it, changed my knowledge of resistance forever." "One important thing about this teaching is that everyone has done something. We had a good experience that we will not forget for some time. Normally, somebody tells us about the knowledge that we should learn, but here we practically constructed something so when we go to our monasteries we can teach the other monks about this way of learning things."

What did you notice about your personal learning experience?

Ngawang Lobsang

"There is a Tibetan saying: when you are learning things it is very difficult. So when you are learning you have to not think about happiness at that moment. When you are doing something, and it becomes a struggle to achieve it there is much anxiety, but once you achieve success, the joy and happiness in your heart is immeasurable." "Within these ten days, a relatively short period of time, we learned a lot. I would say we learned nearly 70 per cent of what there is to know about machines and mechanics. If the younger monks would come across this workshop earlier in life I would say they would learn 100 per cent, nearly complete." "This knowledge is so big, like the ocean, and our boat is so small, that we feel we learned a great amount with you." "I found in myself that I first plan something to do, then when I am not much convinced about the plan I tend to give up. The activities of the workshop didn't let me work like this, because there wasn't much time and I needed to work regardless of my initial plan. I found that everything didn't work out perfectly, but I found that if you start working and experimenting, your project will show you another way, or a solution."

What did you notice about the other learners around you and their projects?

Geshe Nyima

"It is very important to look around at what other people are doing. When you do, you will know new ideas, new techniques, new tactics, about how to handle things in maybe a different way. This is very important." "To learn from other people, and from other groups, to see what they are doing and how they are making things, and taking ideas from other people, this is one really important technique to learn about things." "You gave us the freedom to make and do what we want, you didn't give us resistance, and that allowed our ideas and experiments to flow open wider." "These activities supported all of our intellects, based on our individual capacities. Some of us are very intelligent, and some not so intelligent



Closing comments

"Terrible conditions, and tragic situations have been a history for the Tibetan people. That you

[the teachers]

came all the way from the United States encourages us to do these things. This really going to help our generation, and the next generation. This workshop will be written in the history of the Tibetan people." "I would like to say thank you very much for coming here, and doing these things. As a Tibetan, this comes from our hearts when we say thank you for our time together. I would also like to give my respect for all of the teachers for your support of the Tibetan monks."



Anatomy of a chain reaction

The contraption in its entirety

When facilitating construction-based activities like the chain reaction, we often speculate about the learner's thinking and progression of ideas. We make assumptions about their decisions, new ideas, and problem solving techniques through their words, and the artifacts that they create. Because of the language barrier, this workshop proved more difficult for us to assess their thinking trajectory, so we captured each group's process through a series of still photos.

We shared some of these pics with two monks that had worked together on their chain reaction contraption, and talked with them about their process while reviewing the images. Geshe Thupten and Geshe Yeshi collaborated on an ingenious mechanism that started the entire chain reaction: it was simple, but very effective. A pulley system, powered by a slow-moving motor: the lid of a pot functioned as a cam, and a hand-braided string as the belt. As the motor turned, the belt pushed a mallet forward, which eventually knocked over the domino blocks that terminated their portion of the chain reaction.

Geshe Thupten (left) and Geshe Yeshi (right) working at their contraption

Karen conducted the interview, and part of what made it so successful was showing them photographs we had taken during the workshop, and asking them about specific parts of their work, at first. In the (partial) transcription below, KW stands for Karen Wilkinson, GT is Geshe Thupten (left in this photo), and GY is Geshe Yeshi (right). The monks were translated by our interpreter.

The initial configuration and idea

KW: I was curious: this was the first idea I saw you try, can you tell me a little bit about what you were thinking then?

GT, then GY: At the beginning, at this stage we didn't have any particular set up in our mind, but we were finding [...] what things we can make on this table surface. We can use that block for their ultimate end. And so we tried to do that in various ways. So, before we used this one, we also used marbles, but these two boards... they [the marbles] are too small or too light to knock [them] down, so ultimately we had to take another way.

Two rubber bands work as delimiters

KW: The wheel had two rubber bands [...] before. Why did you change it? It was like this...

GY, then GT: Before we tried to... we used this without the rubber to rotate it, but we found that it is too slippery, and that the string goes up and down, and so in order to improve that we put these two rubber [bands], and then we tried it once or twice. At that time again we found that the two rubber bands, the blue one and the red one, are too thin, they can't quite hold the string in the required place. So, again, we had to change this rubber band to a thicker one.

Thick foam delimiter

KW: How did you get from the idea of this... to this?

GT: When we tried it once we faced a problem, so in order to prevent that, we had to find another way.

GY: Before we used [...] the string, [...] we used some rubber bands, and even though it can move, it is too slow and it's not so strong, so we thought of using a string, but the original string was too thin, and so we had to make a larger one. And so we managed by ourselves.

KW: I was very surprised when I saw that, that is was twisted!

GY: And rubber ones are also much more slippery.

KW: So, when the string crossed, why did you have to do it that way?

GT, with GY interjecting: This also came after a particular problem. We had an argument about this, whether to put this or not, because when we don't have this one over here [the strings crossing], the string goes straight from [a] larger angle, sort of, and so it's more slippery, and so it falls off. It even goes out of this yellow ring. And so we put it this way, and so it is much tighter, and so it can't slip either way.

A brilliant mechanism

KW: So one more question. I want to know about this, the ending, this part? When did you decide that this is what you wanted to have?

GY, then GT: Right from the beginning, we were concerned about how to knock down that block. [...] During the construction of the whole model we kept thinking about what kind of object we can use to knock [...] it. So after we put the string... first, we put only this one [the dowel], and it was not so strong, because it's too small and sometimes it goes out of the way, it can't hit. So we came up with this idea [of using a bobbin as a sleeve for the dowel]. Also we put this "hat" [the rounded wooden ball at the end], so it quite bigger, and easily hit, and also not so slippery, and it's got some weight, and so it can easily knock down that one.

KW: And what is the clothespin? Why did you need to have that?

Both: Even after we used this one, after we used the string, there was [...] one more problem. It's too heavy, and it goes up and down.

Now moving on from talking about specific photographs to a more general conversation

KW: When I first came to your table, maybe 10 minutes into the activity, you said you're doing something very simple because you are lazy.

All: [laugh]

KW: Do you remember saying that? So, do you still feel that way, after what you've made?

GY [laughing]: So, right from the beginning we said this is like... we are supposed to be scientist, like science students? And so this is the first science project we are doing, [...] and so we said it's very important we should make something easy and that is scientific.

GT: Even though I was interested in making some complicated models, I was concerned about the short period of time, and so right from the beginning I thought that it's difficult to put different things in the middle, and so in order to cover the space we used the long rope. [...] We are happy to have all these kinds of equipment and facilities so that we can make our own kind of model.
Before, [...] we have been taught about the kinds of different models, and different machines, but this is the first time we actually looked at the design and made it ourselves.

KW: Ha! So what do you mean? You studied mechanisms, but haven't built them? Like, in books? Or, how?

GT: Yeah, normally what we learn is from books, and other translations from the teachers. But this time, first we heard a description of cams and cam followers, and after that not only did we actually see it by ourselves, but we also made it, and we have seen how these cams are moving and working. So, looking at these things now I have some kind of clue that [...] other machines that we are used to see must have these kinds of structure inside.
I'm also feeling kind of concerned, or kind of worried, because now I feel that I will find it very interesting to make things, and I fear that I might end up spending my time making these sort of models in the monastery, and so I won't have time to study the theoretical part.

KW: Oh, uh-oh! [laughs] That would be a problem! [Laughs]

GT: So, from my side, I will try to split the time between making things and the theoretical part, and also a variety of thoughts on how to make these things.

KW: Good!

GY: Basically, I am a lazy person regarding making things, and I don't have much experience about making these kinds of models, making things by hand, but [...] during this workshop I came to realize that it's very important, in scientific studies, to have more questions and do practical things by yourself.
Before, during the previous science classes, and other conversations, I heard that the moonlight is the reflection of the sun's rays, but even though I heard this, I didn't like that very much, because I can't believe that, it can't convince me properly. But after working with this Mylar and all these reflections, now I am very much convinced that yeah, the light that comes from the moon can be that of the sun.
So, by looking at the works that you have done and all the responses that you take, all the care that you have taken for this workshop, it also gives us encouragement to work harder.