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.



Parts, Purposes, and Complexities with Cardboard Automata

There are many different approaches that can be explored with any of our tinkering activities, and in our constant effort to develop and refine our own practice we like to vary our own ways of presenting things, and try out new stuff. Taking a page from an approach we tried in the past, during a recent PD workshop with teachers from La Scuola International School we adapted a thinking routine from Agency by Design’s Project Zero called Parts, Purposes, and Complexities in this manner.

We gave participants example movements with the sides covered up, a big sheet of chart paper, and a single colored marker. We asked participants or use the marker to sketch all the parts of the box they could see, identify their purpose, then try to imagine what mechanism might be inside the box to create the movement above, and make a sketch of their hypothesis.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

Immediately sketches and ideas started forming and being represented on paper, and we saw interesting strategies being used to figure out the mystery mechanism.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

One popular strategy involved using all the sense and the body to enact movement and communicate with partners ideas and key observations. Sound became a powerful clue, and I noticed several people taking careful note of when the paper covering up the sides bulged out during the rotation of the crank, or whether the triangle moved smoothly throughout its arc or had sudden “jumps” up or down.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

Others modeled what they thought they would find inside with found and improvised objects to scaffold their thinking.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

After some time we collected all the green markers and switched them for black ones, allowed the participants to open up their boxes, and instructed them to observe the mechanism inside, sketch the differences from what they imagined, and also carefully note which parts of the construction were glued to each other, and which were allowed to move freely. We were working with 50 teachers at once, and this activity typically requires a lot of facilitation, so we were hoping that by structuring this initial observation phase more rigidly it would help them avoid making costly mistakes when it came to building their own.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

After that, we opened up the activity to freely build, and the teachers were quickly engaged in their own ideas, goals, and aesthetic choices.

If you are experimenting with Cardboard Automata, or are planning on facilitating the activity with a large group of people, this might be a helpful approach to pursue. Try it out and let us know in the comments how it went!

Some highlights from the day below.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

From planning phase to finished execution: a tinkering sign holder and a Neapolitan scene.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

A peacock’s tail feathers opening mechanism.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

A fantastic owl, and celebrating a success just as time was running out.


Cardboard Arcade 2017

Back in 2012, Caine Monroy of Caine's Arcade visited the Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts. In July, 14-year-old Caine returned to our new home and built cardboard arcade games with us during our Infinite Versatility of Cardboard event. For the day, we invited visitors to build cardboard games alongside Caine. The arcade was adjacent to the Tinkering Studio, spilling out onto the museum floor in the center of the day's activity. We also hosted cardboard costume making and both small scale and large scale stop motion animation in the Tinkering Studio.

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

We supplied a wide variety of materials to build arcade games, including various sized balls, cardboard of different sizes and thicknesses, and a colorful array of masking tape.





The most whimsical element in the space was an arcade prize wall. I ordered a grab bag of prizes from Amazon, and had the fun challenge of displaying the items for others to use. I particularly like the ring and bracelet holders, cardboard shelves, and various found containers.

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard


I also built a ticket dispenser out of a cardboard box for visitors to use in their games. The large rolls of tickets slid around on the dowel, so we added cardboard spacers to keep the ticket rolls from unrolling and tangling.


I placed an example table along the tube wall near the entrance to the building area. Visitors lined up along the outside of the space to wait for an open seat. When we noticed that wait times were taking longer than anticipated, the facilitators and I would pass the example games over the tube wall for visitors to play with while they waited. The games also provided a source of inspiration for some - there were different incarnations of pinball machines, marble mazes, and foosball tables throughout the day.


Thanks to all who came and participated in building cardboard games!

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard

The Infinite Versatility of Cardboard


Automata & Reconsidering Materials

The wonderful world of automata is filled with humor and whimsy, but when it comes to making one yourself for the first time it can seem a little scary. Our advice is to 'go for it' ~ don't fret too much, take the leap and just try making one. You'll be able to really start tinkering once you get that first one out of the way.  Whether it’s the cardboard variety we make in the Tinkering Studio or you decide to jump into using found materials, you’re in for a mechanical adventure. Try thinking as expansively as possible about the type of materials you could build with.

Here are a few examples meant to spark ideas:
A teacher came up with the idea to use milk cartons instead of cardboard boxes since those were plentiful at her school.

How about an automata made of wire? In Africa children and adults make toys called Galimotos that are mechanical in nature and seem like a cousin to automata to us.  They're activated by a push instead of a turn of a crank.  There is a wonderful children's book called Galimoto with a story of a young boy who makes his own toys.  

*This automata can be purchased through Ten Thousand Villages 

Artist Alexander Calder, well known for his large-scale mobiles and sculpture, created a tiny "mechanized sculpture" in 1929 called Goldfish Bowl that we'd call an automata.  Lyrical and lightweight compared to some of his other work. Wire may seem like a departure for Calder but over his lifetime he made several pieces using this simplest of material. Three years prior to creating Goldfish Bowl he made one of our favorite mechanical marvels, Calder’s Circus, complete with articulated animals and performers.  If you haven't seen the film before, you're in for a treat.

This image is from the MIA Archive where you can find more information about the piece.

Calder's Circus is part of the Whitney's permanent collection - if you're near NYC try to see this show that runs through October.

You could also consider upcycled materials – UK automata artist, Keith Newstead, made this Frog entirely from plastic scrap found in the recycling bin. He has even made automata from items that washed up on a beach near his home.

Keith Newstead's trash automata from The Tinkering Studio.

Building a ship in a bottle is one thing, but fitting a functional mechanism inside of one is a lot harder than it looks. Helpful hint: we poked holes in the bottle using the hot tip of a soldering iron.
Automata in a Bottle

Here's a collection of 3 video clips showing wire automata made by visitors to the Tinkering Studio.  The "helping hands" set-up below is a work-around solution for dealing with teeny tiny wires in need of soldering.  It also happens to be a useful technique that's fun to master!


If you're feeling particularly hungry for a mechanical adventure, why not try making automata out of stale food?  We've never found more perfect cams than these ginger cookies (or biscuits as Sarah Alexander, of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, called them). They're strong enough to use a hand drill on and have enough "tooth" to spin other cames with precision.  The mini rice cakes have to be really old in order for this to work. 

What the fork? Back Scratcher for a Chili Pepper Ginger-biscuit cams & Goldfish


Have fun with this idea & show us what you end up making - include the hashtag #tinkeringMOOC so others working on making automata can enjoy your efforts!