The promise and the promises of Making in science education

Maker Faire 2011

Bronwyn Bevan (former Director of Research and Learning at the Exploratorium) just published an expanded literature review of the research on Making for the National Academies of Science committee on Out-of-School Time STEM.

Though practice is still way ahead of research in Making and Tinkering, this new paper references 66 different studies, many of them are new ones published in the last 18 months. Recent publications document how STEM-Rich Making supports the development of STEM learning identities, deepens engagement with STEM concepts and practices, and leverages learners’ cultural resources.

The paper was published in the journal Studies in Science Education, and it might be of interest to anyone interested in the connections between research and practice in our making and tinkering programs. You can download it by clicking here.



4 Drafts of a Warm-Up Activity

This post is co-authored by:
Meg Escudé, Jake Montano and Natalie Freed

In our XTech program for Middle and High School youth, we started the year off by revisiting a book binding project. Students explored graph theory concepts and computational algorithms all while stitching bundles of paper together with needle and thread. The project engages youth in the centuries-old practices of Chinese and Japanese stab bookbinding with the assistance of a web-based designing app created by Natalie Freed. Natalie is a long-time friend and collaborator of ours and we invited her back to share her project with our special yearly girls-only XTech session. Since then we’ve done the project with the integrated group of intermediate XTech students and again with the youth at the Visitacion Valley and Don Fisher Boys & Girls Clubs.

The process for designing and making a notebook can be a little long, and the spatial and mathematical concepts embedded are a little abstract. In order for students to have some foundational experience with both the graphing concepts and practices of sewing, we developed a warm-up activity. Actually, we designed four warm-up activities! In the four times we’ve introduced this to a new group of students or facilitators, we’ve made changes to the warm-up activity, adjusting for things we noticed in the previous workshops. In all iterations, the prompt was based on the principles that are present in the traditions of bookbinding, and which incidentally make them a “Euler path.” They are that the design should be one, continuous graph* (a combination of points connected by lines) that can be stitched with one piece of string without doubling any lines and so that the design is identical on the front and the back of the paper.

Natalie: These groups of points connected by lines are called graphs as in “graph theory.” Oddly this use of the word graph is, as far as I can tell, completely unrelated to graphs of functions (eg. plotting X and Y on a grid). Graphs show up in all kinds of places, but a few examples are that you can use them in a more abstract way to model social networks (people connected by relationships) or transit networks (such as train stations connected by routes).


To explain a bit about what you’re doing when you figure out the stitch order for the books, take the train example. Let’s say you want to see the scenery on every single train route, but you only want to see it once. You’re allowed to stop as many times as you want at the same stations, but you just don’t want to travel the same route twice. This is the exact same problem as trying to stitch each connection between holes only once: you can go through the same hole as many times as you want (as long as you’ve punched the holes big enough!), but you can’t go over the same stitch more than once. The path through the railway network or stab book that accomplishes this goal is the Euler path.

Once you start experimenting with a particular train route, you might figure out that some train systems are set up in a way that makes this possible, and some aren’t. You might also figure out that as you plan your trip, sometimes the order you decide to take the routes works, and sometimes you get stuck at a station with no way to return other than paths you’ve already taken. Eventually, you might figure out that there’s a general rule to find out a) is there such a path? and b) in what order should I visit the stations to find this path? Finding that general rule is finding an algorithm (ie. repeatable procedure) to solve your graph.

This activity is perhaps not the most direct way to explain graphs or algorithms, but one thing I like about it is that as you stitch books (or patches or paper), you begin to develop an intuitive, tactile sense of the algorithm.

Warm-up Iteration #1

We came up with a design for a small, 3” square stitching pattern that follows the book-binding requirements above. I tested it to be sure there were several different interesting designs possible when connecting the same dots:

We then made multiple copies of this configuration of dots and handed them out to students. They were asked to draw a design that they liked that involved making a closed circuit of lines connecting all the dots. We purposely didn’t include as extensive an explanation of graph theory or algorithms as Natalie provides above at this point- so that it would be more open for discovery or question-generation. (Natalie did share these analogies and explanations as she introduced the app for the notebook designing after we were done with the warm-up activity.)
They then punched holes on the dots with these great long-reach, tiny hole hole-punches and started stitching the designs with colorful crochet thread and large, leather stitching needles. Many students learned to thread a needle using a needle threader, and the basics of back to front stitching during this time. Once they got going, it sometimes took a couple tries to figure out the order of stitching that would give them an identical design on both sides of the paper, without doubling any lines. This ordering of stitches is an algorithm. The designs turned out really beautiful but Jake noticed at the end of the day that none of the students seemed interested in taking them home. We decided to try and find a way to make the warm-up activity a little more meaningful- both by trying to pull out the math a bit more, or in having the final product be something more useful than a piece of paper with string on it.

So, the following Saturday when our XTech Intermediate group met, we started the day with a meeting of our teen staff and tried out this second iteration with them:

Warm-up Iteration #2

We printed out three different historical bookbinding designs, sized for small, pocket sized notebooks and pre-cut the paper for this size. We asked everyone to choose a design and went over the steps for punching the holes, and trying to figure out the algorithm for stitching the book following those same requirements discussed above. We finished our small notebooks and I asked the group if they thought this was good way to introduce the activity. One of our facilitators who was present in the previous girl’s day workshop said she thought the first iteration was better. She said she liked that students got to choose their own design and that she noticed a lot of them brought elements of those initial designs into their final book design when using the app. This was a very convincing argument! So, for that day, we quickly switched back to iteration #1 and scrapped #2.




Warm-up Iteration #3 

In preparing for the start of our semester of tinkering after-school programming at the Boys & Girls Club in Visitacion Valley, Jake expressed his continued disappointment that nobody took their squares home with them. With the age of the younger, elementary aged youth at the clubhouse in mind, we decided to focus the first day entirely on the warm-up activity and continue into book making the following week. That meant that this warm-up better be something worth investing their time in! I had the idea of preparing colorful felt patches with the same hole configuration instead of zeroxed paper squares. Jake and I laser-cut 4” round patches with the holes in place.We also felt like we could have done a better job naming the mathematical concepts present in the process of stitching these designs. In my introduction, I did some live stitching, asking students to do some group-thinking about which stitch I should make next. After we did a few stitches, I let them know that those decisions we were making were the elements of an algorithm and that there were many successful algorithms possible for most designs.The kids drew their designs on their felt with markers and stitched them in the same way as the papers. When they were finished, we gave them safety pins so they could be attached to clothes and backpacks. This turned out great and several students walked out of the workshop proudly wearing their creations:



Warm-up Iteration #4:

The session at Visitacion Valley (VV) went rather well, so we decided the following week at Don Fisher’s Boys & Girls Club to do largely the same. We brought the pre-laser-cut circular badges for students to draw out their own designs, but also brought along square-shaped pieces that possessed no holes at all. We had noticed only a small smattering of students at VV that wanted to create designs entirely from scratch, and didn’t expect there to be much interaction with the square pieces at Don Fisher because of that. Surprisingly, and gleefully, we were very wrong!

Before we began constructing, I had the group participate in helping me draw a familiar “puzzle” which resembles a house with an x inside to convey the challenge of creating a design without doubling back, then illustrated the multiplicity of designs available on the pre-cut circular badges. Meg passed around the circular badges, thread, and needles and the kids started designing and stitching.

Many of the students had recently taken a sewing class elsewhere, and once they’d finished a first badge - completed in about fifteen minutes - they decided to add their own holes to the square pieces. Generally, their designs were representational - a cat or the insignia for a favorite superhero - and all possessed well more than the eight holes we cut. Other students went straight to the square patches, as some seemed either intimidated or bored by the challenge of drawing lines from pre-made holes.

One aspect I think we could play around with some more is how computational and algorithmic thinking can be intuitive, meaning the students developed ways of troubleshooting the stitching of their patterns as they progressed and regressed (and the process most certainly included a balance of both progress and retracing steps with the needle). Through stitching between a finite number of holes, we’re utilizing mathematics to reach completion, which sometimes means going backwards to a step in order to move forward altogether. To help demonstrate the challenge of creating a pattern in which the thread passes through to create a line only once on each side we started referring to a widely-known children’s “puzzle” in which a house with an x must be drawn without lifting the pen or doubling back with it. With this in mind, figuring out a way to have students describe the stitching of their patches or books using only words might be a great way to further explore Euler circuits and trails and to elicit the steps students took to complete their stitched items.

It has also been mightily impressive to see the wide variety of directions the students have taken to personalize their designs. Some have used multiple strings (sometimes of two or more colors) to stitch with, while others have “stacked” strings and patterns on top of each other to produce an almost three-dimensional effect on their patches. The designs themselves have also spanned a spectrum of styles, from the minimal and abstract to homages to 8-bit videogames like Pac-Man. Other designs have stretched what is possible for binding books, and it’s of great curiosity to see how book-making is pushed into new territories based on their bindings.


Natalie: This is so cool! As a follow up, I’d be interested to ask the students how they decided what step to stitch next, whether they felt like their technique improved over time (in terms of not getting stuck and having to undo stitches), and whether they could put into words some of the strategies they intuitively developed.


Afterschool Tinkering: Hardcover Journals

Lianna and I had facilitated our first Tinkering Club session of the year at Lighthouse Community Charter School. With an entire class filled with returning students, it’s safe to say that they are as excited about tinkering as we are!

We started with a project that has now become a tradition in Tinkering Club: journal making. We believe that journaling is very important to the tinkering process, and we always want students to have a journal during Tinkering Club. For some, this is their third journal that they have made with us. In the spring, we made cardstock notebooks and last fall, we made plastic fused journals.

Amy Dobras, one of the making teachers at Lighthouse and the head Lighthouse teacher for Tinkering Club this year, and Lianna explained the activity. This time, we wanted students to create hardbound, fabric journals. The reason we chose this type of journal was out of student desire to have a more permanent, substantial journal. We also believe that repeating activities with new material sets are valuable experiences in the learning process.

In making hardbound journals, we explored creating signatures, or bundles of folded pages that are attached together, by stapling or sewing folded pages together. The hard covers were created with chipboard and students attached their signature bundles to a narrow spine. The last step was to decorate their covers with fabric.





We’re looking forward to experimenting with different styles of journal entries and note taking throughout this semester!

This collaboration is funded by the Overdeck Foundation and the National Science Foundation.


Tinkering about Thinking about Seymour

“You can’t think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something.” – Seymour Papert

MIT Papert Event

Last week, the Tinkering Studio team traveled to Boston for a symposium celebrating the life and works of Seymour Papert at the MIT Media Lab. Seymour Papert was a revolutionary educator who designed the logo turtle, taught creative computing, and wrote many seminal books including the classic Mindstorms. His constructionist theory of learning, emphasizing collaboration, iteration, and agency, has formed the foundation of our work in the Tinkering Studio and has deeply influenced the entire maker movement. MIT Papert Event

The event featured many of Seymour's close colleagues, friends, and mentees who shared big thoughts and personal anecdotes in a series of keynote speeches and panel discussions. And since an event celebrating someone who advocated tinkering and play wouldn't make sense without a hands on exploration, we set up some stations where people could try out a sound machines activity that we've been developing with the Lifelong Kindergarten group and the LEGO Foundation.


In the prologue to Mindstorms, Seymour focused on how, as a child, he fell in love with gears, and that love for a material changed his self-perception and allowed him to become more interested in learning about math, science and engineering. So for the event we thought it would be appropriate to try to emphasize gear-based sound machines by creating five pegboard tables where people could work together, using the LEGO gears to expand their constructions. MIT Papert Event

Seymour's work also focused on the powerful ideas that can emerge when playing with programming and computation. LEGO sound machines lend themselves to these types of explorations and we set up several tables with interesting shakers, music boxes, and "cows in cans" that made different sounds when programmed using a version of Scratch on an ipad controlling a WEDO motor and sensors.


This combination of sound machine stations created a joyful cacophony of bells, drums, and shakers that was audible as people got off the elevator and joined the event. The large working spaces also encouraged collaboration and we could see ideas quickly spread around the working spaces. IMG_7731

It was great to see learners of all ages experimenting and working together to create interesting rhythms and complex constructions. Some of the participants came back to the stations at each break to keep working on their ideas and testing out new ways of building.

MIT Papert Event

Sebastian worked on one of the most compelling programmed instruments that included a disc with holes, a bright LED, a solar panel and a speaker. When the light passed over the solar panel in an off/on pattern it created a frequency that could be heard over the speaker. Programming the motor to move the light back and forth over different parts of the disc made a changing tone that sounded pretty amazing. This and other interesting examples really demonstrated the high ceilings possible when combining LEGO pieces with real world sensors and materials.

MIT Papert Event

One of the best things about this unique event was that it gave us the chance to invite some of our biggest inspirations, like Eleanor Duckworth, to try out our new activities. It was so cool to be able to reflect together on the activity design, faciliation, and materials with a group of educators and thinkers that we deeply admire. MIT Papert Event

All in all, it was really special event and a great place to continue the prototyping of some of our #LEGOtinkering ideas. We plan to continue to think about how environmental elements can support collaboration, the ways that programming can be more seamlessly integrated into the activity, and which real world materials can support furthered investigations. As well, hearing about and discussing the legacy of Seymour Papert also helped to see the context of this activity and the larger Tinkering Studio program as one of the "seeds that Seymour sowed" all around the world.


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