Takin’ It To The Streets! (or rather, to the Libraries!)

This is a guest post by Vivian Altmann

My Exploratorium program, Community Educational Engagement, facilitated drop-in workshops on “Tinkering with Tops” at SFPL branches throughout the city this December. We’ve done a bunch of different hands-on, making and tinkering workshops at branch libraries since about 2011.

In recent years, our main and branch libraries throughout San Francisco have really flourished as more than spaces to read, study, and explore books. They’ve developed into welcoming, active community centers with all sorts of programming for folks of all ages.

My on-call staff—facilitators from the XTech program—and I visited the Oceanview, Chinatown, Bayview, and Excelsior branch libraries laden with cardboard, golf pencils, scissors, hot glue, markers, mini-binder clips, washers (for weights) and LOTS of decorative washi tape. We tinkered with tops at each venue for about two and a half hours.

Several Exploratorium programs develop activities and methods of facilitation—the Tinkering Studio, the Teacher Institute, and the Institute for Inquiry, to name a few—but tend to implement those activities in somewhat controlled settings—I mean, if one can ever really call a classroom “controlled.” But you know what I mean: settings that are familiar, with participants of a specific age range, and in known numbers.

The challenge for me and for my staff is to roll with whatever the situation presents to us. What will the space look like? How big will it be? Will there be natural light? Will we have a separate room or be in a corner of the library trying to facilitate an engaging activity while staying quiet enough not to disturb the other library patrons? How many folks will show up? Will the ages range from preschoolers to teens?

One element that we can control is making sure to have enough facilitators working that we can cover almost all eventualities.

Several things surprised me. First of all, I didn’t think that making and playing with tops would keep kids interested for over two hours. But virtually all the participants stayed that long building, decorating, testing them out and adjusting, exclaiming, “Oh, I have another idea” and creating multiple tops. It certainly helped that we had a lot of staff to assist and with whom one could engage in conversation, bounce ideas around, and try stuff out. And making sure we had a huge array of washi tape, markers, and stickers inspired creativity in both decoration and design.

I was also surprised by how engaged and focused very young children could be with tops. In one particular instance at the Oceanview branch, a girl of maybe three worked with her mom to make a top that she delightedly decorated with all the glitter and rhinestone tape we had on hand. I’m guessing the concept of balance wasn’t too important at her age. But this little girl and her mom were investigating persistence of vision! The fact that her random (to my eye) placing of glitter tape on her top took on the look of circles of bright colored light as her top spun was magical!

Tops at libraryAt this branch, we were in a small room upstairs with windows letting in bright sunlight. Spinning in the sunlight made it look almost alive! I likened it to seeing time lapse video of a crowded freeway at night, with all the lights from the cars sparkling as they streak past. You could see her excitement when her top transformed in the sunlight. This is not a photo of that particular top but another one with glitter tape (Batman also makes an appearance) to give you an idea of how the tape might reflect when the top is spun.

Tops at libraryAt the Brooks-Burton Bayview branch, a little boy who was also about three worked with his mother to create this amazing top. At three years old, he was directing her to cut this exacting, symmetrical shape which they both decorated in Raiders colors. Experimenting with one of our facilitators, through trial and error, this boy came up with the optimal spots to glue the weights (on the underside) so that it spun for almost a minute. (We brought stop-watches.) This three-year-old was given the time, space, materials, assistance, and encouragement to create this feat of engineering!

Tops at libraryI’m struck by the sense of sharing and community that always unfolds during any of our off-site workshops. My XTech facilitator staff is adept at engaging anyone—from three-year-olds to older adults. (And in two cases we did in fact have an older adult stop by, solo, to hang out, chat, and build a top. After all, libraries are a safe, warm place to come into out of the cold.)
When one of my staff was asked by a group of girls at the Excelsior branch if they could make any shape and turn it into a top, she told them to try. I mean, why not? They ended up making six tops shaped like animals. Placing the spindle properly so that these oddly-shaped tops would spin was a challenge. But through some trial and error—success! All six tops spun well.

Creating the space, time, and lively atmosphere to tinker resulted in double-decker tops, tops shaped like sea creatures, tops that looked like they were so off balance that they’d never spin but balanced by strategically-glued hidden weights, tops with complex geometric shapes, tops that were works of art. A couple of teens who stopped by the Bayview branch let their sports allegiances inform their respective designs. They spent a lot of time playing with the best way to spin—the two-finger approach or the between-the-palms method. These older kids were most engaged with how weights versus no weights would affect duration of spin.

Tops at library

Tops at library

In the coming couple of weeks, I will be trying out “Tinkering with Tops” at two other venues—a family science night with about 50 families at an SFUSD elementary school and at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital’s schoolroom. Both situations should be entirely different from each other and from the library venues. But I’m looking forward to seeing what folks create now that I’ve been given a taste of the possibilities.

Tops at library


LEGO Balance: Initial Prompts and Starting Points

To continue sharing thoughts about #LEGOtinkering balance explorations, I wanted to focus on the initial starting points and prompts that we tried out for the activity.


One thing that we all appreciated about the balance workshop was the low threshold to entry. There were no complicated battery packs and motors to explain initially, and the idea of balancing an object on a point is nearly universal. Much younger kids could get involved and excited about the activity. When introducing the activity, we often began by asking participants to physically feel it balanced on their finger letting them get engaged with the objects in a different way than other activities.


Additionally, we build several types of stands, but something that they all had in common was that they allowed people to see what others were making by elevating their works-in-progress off the surface of the table. In all tinkering activities we feel that it's often important to be able to borrow ideas from others sitting around the table and the stands make that easier in this case.

However, one question that we had about the initial prompt was what might happen if we switched from 'can you make a balancing object?' to 'can you build a kinetic scupture'. Although we appreciate when activities allow for an early success, we don't want that moment to be the end of people's explorations. In several participants we noticed a feeling of 'doneness' once they accomplished balancing an object on the stick for the first time. Maybe shifting the emphasis to building a kinetic sculpture would encourage people to work on the movement, precariousness, or unexpected qualities possible in the creations.


Additionally, we think the initial set of examples can go a long way towards encouraging wide walls and complex creations if they are varied and demonstrate different aspects of the phenomena. While I don't think we got to a perfect set of examples these are a few ideas of ones that we felt were the most generative.


While specialized parts like the tripod axle piece or the little truck hitch provided good initial starting points when paired with other axles and joints, we also wondered if they took away from some of the exploration by creating too compelling of a place to build off of. In some of our original balance activities, some participants could work on making a sculpture and then find the point where the object balanced with offered another way in. There's probably no right answer, but it's interesting to look at the way that the first steps define the rest of the experience.

If you try out #LEGOtinkering balance explorations, please let us know what set of materials and initial starting points seem to work the best for the activity.


LEGO Balance: Extra Materials and Iteration

Over the past few months, we've been prototyping a tinkering activity using LEGO pieces to construct balancing sculptures. We're currently putting the idea on hiatus for a while as we prepare for an upcoming LEGO event, but we thought that in lieu of posting a detailed instructable about how to do the activity, I'd write a couple blog posts to share our groups reflections so far and the questions and ideas we're excited to pursue when we return to this topic.


The first most important thing about the activity is the relationship between the LEGO parts and other real world materials. As in the other activities that we've tried with LEGO, we think that using everyday materials helps people feel more connected to the projects and lowers the barrier to entry. With making balancing objects, there's another reason, as LEGO pieces are all fairly light, adding on heavier pieces made of wood and metal provide opportunities to explore more extreme examples. IMG_5999 2

We experimented with several ways to make these objects LEGO compatible and ended up settling for probably the most straightforward means of connection. We took the objects and used a #12 drill bit to make a hole in them to make them compatible with the technic pins.


We also thought a lot about what types and numbers of extra items to use with the set. As we identified parts to use in the prototyping, we were more drawn to natural materials like wood, metal and paper that had a variety of weights. We wanted to pick out geometric shapes and other aesthetically pleasing objects that contrast and mix well with the color and plastic of the LEGO parts. It felt like a good thing to have multiples of each one so that participants could test out the weights in a more systematic way. IMG_0977

This pointed to something that we liked about this activity (as well as the other LEGO tinkering workshops), the ability to use the LEGO system to iterate on ideas, make small changes, and revert to previous versions of creations. Its a big shift from other materials that we've experimented in the past to make balancing objects like wire, corks, glue and feathers where people could easily make evocative pieces, but it was far more difficult to chance them.


Unlike the sound machines and art machines however, with balance we found out right away that because of the precise and tactile nature of the phenomena, sometimes moving one hole space felt too much. We began to experiment with alternate materials sets which emphasized sliding the weight on the axles to create minute changes. In the next post, I'll share about some of our starting points and examples in this line of prototyping that seemed to be the most generative.


Tinkering Social Club with Star Simpson

Last week we hosted a Tinkering Social Club event with engineer and designer Star Simpson who created physical PCB versions of the delightful sketches of Forrest Mims III from his 'getting started with electronics' guides. For the event, we thought that we could provide several different experiences for adults to feel more comfortable with elements of electronics and engineering. These topics can sometimes feel intimidating and we think that elements like the Circuit Classics can make them feel a little more friendly.


In the space we set up a small table with a different version of our circuit board activity focused on components like LEDs, resistors, and light sensors. We thought that this station could be a place for initial explorations and low stakes testing out of ideas. IMG_5560

We also scattered a couple of artistic interpretations of Forrest Mims' circuits that Nicole has built over the past couple of years around the studio environment. One is a rain sensing umbrella that turns on blue LEDs when water connects the copper tape leads and another is a tounge-in-cheek fire alarm that goes off when a candle positioned inside a clothespin melts from the flames.


And in the center of the tinkering studio, we set up three soldering stations for visitors to try to collaboratively assemble the Circuit Classic boards. We had all three examples (stepped tone generator, dual LED flasher and bargraph voltage indicator) which each had a different selection of resistors, capacitors, switches and LEDs to attach to the board. IMG_5600

For many participants in the workshop it was a first chance to use a soldering iron, so it was fun to see them gain confidence in their abilities as they added more elements to the boards. There were also a lot of great conversations and friends sharing knowledge with each other as they assembled the parts and quite a few people commented that this was something that they didn't think that they could do based on their previous experiences.


As well, it was great to have Star on hand to share her expertise about the boards and the design. After they were built, we were able to start experimenting with the circuits and being playful in our investigations of adding colored lights to the boards or testing resistance by holding hands. In the past, we've shied away from introducing circuits or soldering through breadboarding as we're afraid that it may seem too technical or people may perceive it to be just for engineers. While I think we're still very much interested in alternative and unexpected teaching tools like copper tape or conductive thread, something about this event made me reconsider the possibility of re-framing more traditional tools. IMG_5653

Having these friendly looking blue boards and inviting a maker in to help people begin to understand these concepts proved to be a great first start. Additionally, the social environment of the tinkering social club allowed for a more collaborative introduction to these topics which hopefully can start to make people feel that they are capable of learning more. We're looking forward to new experiments for future workshops and events.


#LEGOTinkering Balance Continued

Since our #LEGOtinkering balance workshop at East Bay Maker Faire, we've been continuing to test out ideas and try new things around the phenomenon of balance using LEGO pieces with visitors to our Tinkering Studio workshop. I wanted to share a few of our more recent experiments as well as raise some questions that we still have about how to best support tinkering through this activity.


Our first prototypes centered around creating objects that balance on a single point, but we've tried building objects that move along a path. These creations tend to be a little more complicated and tricky to get going, but there's something really satisfying about creating a moving object. Many of the same principles apply to the exploration of balance in terms of making elements with a low center of gravity to keep them stable on the line. IMG_2607

We set up a makeshift 'zip-line' in the learning studio to test out their creations and we also built some individual stations for testing on a short piece of string.


After some initial prototyping, we created a testing station in the tinkering studio for participants to try out building their own moving models. We thought that it would make sense to try to add soem large and light materials like paper shapes and feathers to see if they could spin and twirl as the LEGO vehicles move down the line. IMG_2704

In addition to the zip-line table we set up the balancing tree from maker faire in the workshop with a spotlight projecting shadows to create two dramatic environmental pieces for displaying examples and showcasing visitors' creations. We thought that it could be interesting to try out a workshop where participants choose or cycle between the two different balance explorations.


Kids and adults made some pretty interesting creations to test on the 'zip-lines' with moving elements. It seemed that having the extra options allowed kids to go a bit deeper in the investigations and added more of a high ceiling to the workshop. As well the shared testing space created more opportunities for collaboration and social scaffolding as participants watched eachother try out their balancing sculptures. IMG_2757 As another way of continuing the prototyping process with the tinkering explainers, we tried building together and solicited feedback about how it felt to be a learner testing out these two related activities. IMG_2870

Throughout our prototyping process, we've been collaborated remotely with Amos from the LEGO Foundation to share ideas and prototypes over skype calls which often consist of us running back and forth arounf the workshop grabbing examples. One of our most recent ideas was trying to make LEGO mobiles by adding copper hooks to the material set.

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The idea of mobiles as another entry point to balance offers the opportunities for us to think about large scale kinetic instalations as well. Nicole experimented a bit with balancing a cast iron pan with a jumble of LEGO pieces as a demonstration of how to create equilibrium with something heavy and somthing light. IMG_5457

While we haven't tried out mobile making yet with visitors to the tinkering studio we are intrigued by the possibilties of adding another station to the mix to create a smorgasbord of #LEGOtinkering balance options in the workshop. For all three flavors of the LEGO balance we are still trying to come up with the a collection of starting points to encourage multiple pathways through the activity. We have soem ideas, but are still hoping to refine these examples to also encourage participants to really experiment with the phenomenon of balance and make some unexpected creations. We'll continue to share our experiments here on the blog and eventually through another instructable highlighting how to build the various balance elements.