Making of the Ecsite 2016 Maker Space

For the past four years, I've been part a group of tinkerers working with the Ecsite organization to create a pop-up makerspace for the annual conference of museum and science center professionals. Last year we were lucky to have an established fablab to host our makerspace at MUSE in Trento, Italy. But this year, I think it felt even more special to create a environment for making and tinkering from scratch in an generic conference room. A big goal of the makerspace at Ecsite is to encourage others to try our these ideas back home and I think that it's a important message to send that a makerspace can be anywhere, as long as educators and designers are deliberate in their intentions for creating an environment for learning. Here are a few of the elements that we thought about as we worked on the space:


Starting out with a blank conference room, we divided the space into a workshop area with really nice large circular tables and a presentation area in the front of the room. We created space for about forty people to be working at any given time which was the number we felt that our materials and facilitation could support. IMG_4015

We packed several art pieces made by Nicole related to the activities that we'd planned for the upcoming three days and arranged them on the door as a welcoming installation. Much like some of the large scale artwork in the tinkering studio, we hoped that this initial display would give a connection to activities we'd be running and get people curious about what might happen in the space.



The team from Science Center Netzwerk, especially Felix and Alexandra, did an amazing job collecting lots of materials that we requested beforehand. We started by laying out everything on the back tables to take inventory and then organized the workshop materials by activity so it would be easier to run multiple sessions during each day.



Happylab, an amazing fablab based in Vienna, volunteered to bring a bunch of digital tools and well as friendly wooden work benches. It was so valuable to not only have approachable and fun looking stations for the tools scattered around the room, but also a facilitator, Andreas, who introduced the tools and helped others get started. Without this personal connection, I think the fab tools would have just been technological window dressing and wouldn't have had the same impact on the participants.


Another thing that I really liked is that we gave opportunities for conference participants to contribute to the environment in various ways. For example, Jochen and I wrote an article in Spokes asking for conference-goers to bring electro-mechanical toys to the conference for the dissection and reanimation, so it was fun to see Meriem and others drop off stuffed animals to add to the collection. IMG_3976

Part of a makerspace is allowing for unexpected and whimsical installations like these used umbrellas that Jochen and Britta set up to create a different area for conversations in their 'spaces for becoming' session. This kind of personalization helped to make an environment a unique reflection of the people setting up and living in the space.



We created intentional opportunities for us and participants to share a history of the projects made in the space. We started by hanging up the toy dissection drawings after the workshop on the afternoon of the first day. As we kept accumulating objects and artifacts made in the space, we arranged them around the room and created small signs explaining the projects to newcomers to the space and valuing the contributions.


As the projects became more complex and personally meaningful over the course of the workshops, Sebastian and I wanted to document them as well as give participants the chance to take nice photos of their creations. So we set up a table off to the side of the room as a clean background for capturing what people made. IMG_4291

Another important consideration for the space is having tools available and accessible. We had some funny interactions like when Ian wanted to 3D print a bow-tie for the gala ball, but it was also really nice to have soldering irons and hot glue guns available for prepping activities and making examples. For me, a sign of success for the makerspace is that it's a place where people feel comfortable learning to use a new tool and can take advantage of the resources to accomplish their own goals and ideas.



I was happy to see that this pop-up makerspace offered opportunities for different modes of engagement. Walking around a room during a busy hands-on session, one could see makers intensely focused on their projects, conference goers and facilitators standing back and having conversations about the activities, and observers walking around the space getting a sense of the possibilities. Allowing for these different levels of participation supports people choosing to join in the experiences in a way that feels comfortable to them in the moment and can eventually lead to deeper interactions.


And while all these environmental elements like tables, materials, tools, and installations contribute to the makerspace, our real goal for the event was providing opportunities for fun, collaboration, and learning to happen between conference goers. As many museums and science centers continue to develop spaces for making and tinkering, we want to convey that at the end of the day the attitudes of the facilitators and the interactions and connections between people is what really makes a space a success. The makerspace at the ecsite conference provided so many opportunities for these types of interactions and it was exciting to see it evolve over the three days of workshops and presentations. A big part of that evolution was a new twist on our toy dissection workshop that lasted all three days of the conference and will be the subject of my next ecsite 2016 post.


Ecsite-for-All and Preconference Workshop

Earlier this month I attended the 2016 Ecsite Conference, a gathering of European science centres and museums in Graz, Austria. Over the next several days, I'll be posting about our pop-up makerspace sessions and a experimental series of workshops that we tried around toy dissection and reanimation. But to start, I wanted to share about the incredible Ecsite-for-All chain reaction and a tinkering pre-conference workshop that we held as a reflection on the event.


As a way to involve the local community in the conference, the host organizations, FRida & freD, Universalmuseum, and ScienceCenter-Network, decided to facilitate a large scale Rube Goldberg inspired chain reaction. Some of the sections were completed beforehand by groups at schools and other organizations and the rest were built on site by local participants. In a brilliant logistical move, they set up the contraptions on a series of pallets that coule be moved and reconfigured, all linked together with blocks at the start and finish of each to create a truly massive machine.

The set off was truly spectacular with over seventy-five pallets full of complicated physical contraptions, electrical components, and artistic elements. It was really cool how the chain reaction included sections created by preschoolers to art students, and everyone in between.






Since the chain reaction activity both exemplified many of the tinkering studio learning dimensions and provided a concrete example of a community engagement event, a group of us thought that it would be a unique opportunity for a pre-conference workshop around these topics. We encouraged participants to attend the chain reaction on the day before the session and make observations about the facilitation, environment, materials, and social interactions. IMG_3732

The next morning we starting the workshop by acknowledging the potential fuzziness surrounding both of the terms "tinkering" and "community" and began to construct a working definition of each for the conversations over the course of the day. The format for talking about "tinkering" was a little playful with people introducing their partners from other countries with an attempt at pronouncing the translation for tinkering in each person's native language. And Vanessa from TRACES and E-Fabrik in Paris, led the group in an initial conversation centering on the idea that working with other communities isn't about quick fixes or outward facing policies, but more importantly should be focused on changing ourselves and our processes to make authentic connections.


After the initial presentation and discussion, we wanted to give participants a hands-on experience to build on. As a example of a tinkering activity with a high potential for social scaffolding and collaboration, we picked an old favorite, balancing objects. Sebastian and others prototyped this activity at Open:MAKE events back in the PFA and at Maker Faire and we were looking forward to coming back to it with fresh eyes and a slightly different focus. IMG_3750

Of course each time we try an activity in a new setting, we learn about different materials and ideas. This time, we were intrigued by a honeycomb packing material which made for a nice and solid, but light base for the objects.


We thought this activity would be a good fit for the session because while people work individually to create an interesting balancing sculpture, they can then combine their creations to make a collaborative art piece larger than the sum of its parts. The end result was great, although next time I'll be sure to pack a couple of small computer fans to get the objects moving on the air for a more dynamic installation. After spending about an hour working on the activity, we had about the same amount of time to examine the learning dimensions as a tool for reflecting on the experience. IMG_3870

After analyzing the tinkering activity from a learner's perspective, workshop attendees got the chance to hear about five quick experiments in involving a specific community (internal staff, teachers, local youth, makers, and refugees) in a tinkering program. Each program leader shared about why they thought tinkering experience contributed to the community building, as well as successes and challenges of the programs. It was too short of a time to really go in depth, but I think it was valuable to get a sense of different models and ideas.


After lunch we went in depth on the Ecsite-For-All event. Just about half of the participants actually made it to see the activity the day before so we decided to print out some photos from the chain reaction and have people get into groups to describe things that they noticed either in the photos or in person the previous day. IMG_3883

We borrowed a reflection technique that I learned from Ricarose Roque to debrief the ecsite-for-all event, grouping our observation into green, yellow, and red post-its representing things we liked, things we had questions about, and things to improve upon for next time. It was a great tool and a nice visual way to present reflections to the larger group.


I hope that people left the workshop with some inspiration for how tinkering activities and events can be used to begin to build community with internal staff, local groups, and those not usually engaged with museums and science centers. It was really nice to have a specific experience to reflect on together and use as a model for how we can plan and debrief these types of events. To me it's much easier to have a shared real life experience to reflect upon as a starting point for larger discussions. And as a way to build excitment and generate interest, the chain reaction and subsequent workshop provided a great start to the activities, presentations, and conversations around making and tinkering that continued throughout the ecsite conference.


Embrace Your Tools: Soldering

Our public space give us the chance to introduce tools and techniques to museum visitors as they engage in the process of making personally meaningful artifacts. As we highlight the tinkering tenets for the national week of making, I wanted to write about soldering workshop as an example for “embrace your tools”.


The topics of soldering workshops that we’ve found to be successful like paper circuits and LED tiaras are playful and incorporate elements of art. They take into account the learners interest and give a reason for learning how to use the tool.

Copper Crowns

Soldering irons can be seen as an intimidating for lots of kids and I’ve noticed that young visitors are often apprehensive to get started. We always are careful to spend time in the beginning explaining how solder works (like glue for metal), which parts of the iron you can touch, and some general safety tips. I think it’s important to both be serious about the fact that it’s a real (and potentially dangerous) tool but also that we trust kids in the workshop to take it seriously.


As a facilitator, after the initial explanation, I spend a lot of time watching kids to see if they’re getting comfortable with the tool. It’s important to be attentive but not overbearing as kids figure out the technique.


Over the course of the project I’ve noticed kids becoming more and more fluent with the soldering iron. When they first get started they are usually tentative with the iron, unsure about how to hold the solder or where to melt the metal. But after fifteen or twenty minutes you can see the difference feel more confident, are enjoying the process and reevaluate their abilities and interests.

These are quick interactions on the museum floor that I can see having a long-lasting effect on some participants. A soldering iron is a pretty accessible tool, not too expensive and easy to set up in a small space, but it opens up such a wide range of projects and possibilities.

Maker Faire 2014

I feel that in contrast to a very step-by-step instruction focused on completing a circuit board project, activities where people define their own goals and take time to build their own understanding of a tool’s parts and purposes allow for a deeper relationship with the process. When we say “embrace your tools”, this starts from the beginning, providing opportunities for people to get introduced to tools in a friendly, approachable and generative way.


Collaborative R&D with Twitter, LEGO, and Digital Tools

Our recent experiments with LEGO tinkering have led to some quick and dirty collaboration, iteration, and research and development mostly over twitter using the hashtag #LEGOtinkering. It's been really inspiring to see the ways that other teachers, librarians, museum educators, and designers have taken initial ideas around art machines, sound makers, and linkages to new and unexpected places.

While this shared prototyping process can feel like a natural extension of our tinkering practice and gives us the possibility to work together with other educators and designers without the added step of developing formal networks, it's also based on having the proper tools and experiences to fuel the process. To me, our initial explorations suggest that not only are informal educators hungry for ideas, they also are deep wells of knowledge and can make substantial contributions when given the right invitations and provocations.

Searching through the stream of tweets can feel overwhelming, but I wanted to try and share a few examples that I think demonstrate different possibilities for collaboration through social media using the hashtag #LEGOtinkering. And as we celebrate the tinkering tenets during the National Week of Making, I wanted to reflect on some of the ways that these new (for us) tools allow us to redefine what it means to engage in rapid prototyping with a growing community of tinkerers.

Twitter allows us to document the process of iteration. Josh Burker, an educator we’ve been collaborating with, shared four versions of a single art machine in consecutive twitter posts. This real time documentation and reflection gives us insight about how increasingly complex ideas come about. And since LEGO allows for consistent and systematic building, it’s easy to follow along from a distance and recreate designs.

In the our own process of developing activities, we believe in sharing ideas and getting inspirations from others. Through the #LEGOtinkering posts, we are also able to share designs rapidly with a large number of long-distance collaborators like Amos Blanton from the LEGO Foundation. One example where we really took advantage of this is the base model for art machines. We went through a bunch of different versions of starting points for the mechanisms and we all could quickly post and try out new models.



In our workshop, we've been skeptical of 3D printers in general as a makerspace tool due the limitations of speed and reliability, but the #LEGOtinkering collaboration has made us rethink the usefulness of the tool. The first .STL file that we shared was the LEGO pen holder. This customized piece has allowed many more people to join in the art machines prototyping and it was really cool to see the physical part spread around the country.



We also shared a lasercutter file on instructables for an acrylic pegboard to use as a base for linkages. One of the coolest things about sharing the digital file was that it gave people like Colleen Graves, a librarian and maker educator a reason to try out a new tool that might expand possibilities for her learning space.

Another #LEGOtinkering collaborator, Patrick Ferrell, got the same file but turned it into something completely unexpected and delightful. We've found that with sharing digital files, it's more interesting to provide parts for exploration instead of finished products. This way, we are also surprised by the outcomes and can continue the circle of inspiration.



We use our workshop space on the museum floor as a R&D lab to inviting visitors to prototype not fully fleshed out ideas alongside our group. The #LEGOtinkering group explands that pool of testers and lets us gain experiences from trials in classrooms, festivals and conferences. The Freeman Library, Patrick's makerspace in Houston, TX, has been doing lots of LEGO tinkering workshops and we've been learning alongside them about where participants in the workshops can take the ideas next.



I think my favorite thing about our #LEGOtinkering collaboration is the way that it allows educators and designers to encourage each other as they share prototypes. Each time someone posts something new, there are a bunch of excited tweets celebrating the ideas!

Although we've started with the #LEGOtinkering hashtag and have developed a community around the LEGO activity prototyping, it will be interesting to see where the R&D process takes us. As collaborators get interested in other materials or products, do we branch off into different threads or is there some other deeper way to organize the tweets?



And lastly, as we continue to use these technologies to share the prototyping process, we have to respond to the challenge of figuring out how to include new educators in the community who have quesitons about materials, tools, and activities. It will be important to continue to expand the network of collaborators

Many of these #LEGOtinkering ideas are old but there's power in encouraging people to figure things out for themselves. And through that revisiting of topics, new ideas emerge almost magically. But I think there's trick to creating shared problem spaces that are open ended enough to allow for personal expression but focused enough that ideas are related and can spread quickly. Creating these types of social media collaborations can allow for both rapid prototyping and long-term investigations. Even if it seems messy from the outside, I think going through the tweets can show a lot of deep thinking and demonstrates social scaffolding in action, even in the online world.

Over the next few months we'll be continuing the #LEGOtinkering explorations with art machines and linkages, as well as starting sky parade, balancing objects and other new ideas. We'll also keep investigating the potential for twitter and digital tools so join in the process with #LEGOtinkering hashtag and help us develop these ideas further.


This blog post is part of a series of Tinkering Studio posts highlighting a variety of ideas during the National Week of Making. weekofmaking.org



prototype rapidly

One of our Tinkering Tenents is Prototype Rapidly, because when you have a new idea, it's incredibly helpful to get it out of your brain as soon as possible-to sketch a design or build a working model with stuff you have lying around. That way, you can make it real, work it out, and develop a concrete understanding of your problem and your next steps. Trying out an idea in a quick, low-stakes way gets you going, and sometimes, getting started is the hardest part.

We recently discovered a great tool for rapid prototyping, something that you can build with as if it was glued, and yet it can be easily taken apart and reconfigured into another idea. It's not a riddle, it's LEGO! You can quickly test out an idea, get instant feedback, make a change, change it back, or build something totally new.

Right now we are pretty excited about tinkering with linkages, and what do you do if you want to experiment with your ideas about linkages in a quick, low-stakes way, building things as if they were glued, but could easily be taken apart and reconfigured? We decided to make a custom laser-cut pegboard that works with LEGO technic pins and beams. When you combine them, the linkage possibilities are endless.

Here are just a few . . .

lego linkages from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo.