There are no elves at the Exploratorium (nor do we have a basement)

Making is not a new phenomenon, and the Exploratorium has been celebrating the process of making since the museum’s beginnings.

Aerial view of the machine shop, early to mid 1970's © Exploratorium, All rights reserved www.exploratorium.edu

Van Der Graf Generator, Pam Winfrey, Dave Fleming, Joe Ansel and Stan Axelrod, 1983
Pam Winfrey, Dave Fleming, Joe Ansel and Stan Axelrod working on the Van Der Graf Generator, 1983, Photo Credit: Susan Schwartzenberg © Exploratorium, All rights reserved www.exploratorium.edu

Not only are our exhibits created on site at the Exploratorium – they’re created right in the middle of the museum! (To get a glimpse of the Exploratorium’s machine shop – one you can’t even get when visiting in person – check out this virtual tour.)

Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium’s founder, recalled an experience he had while visiting the Munich Museum that significantly influenced the way the Exploratorium’s exhibit making process came to be viewed:

“Everything [in the Munich Museum] was so well-crafted there that I think they must have been made by elves in the basement. Yet I noticed that one man had come up out of the subterranean shop and was using one of the exhibits, a fancy milling machine, to do something he couldn’t do in the basement. It was so nice to watch him that I think that incident first suggested to me our policy of having the Exploratorium machine and carpentry shops open to public view.” (1)

Diane Whitmore, shop staffPhoto credit: Gayle Laird © Exploratorium, All rights reserved  www.exploratorium.edu

Since there are no elves magically creating our exhibits, visitors get to see the entire process of exhibit creation. They see exhibits being prototyped, fabricated, tinkered with, maintained, and fixed in the midst of the rest of the museum. They hear the way stainless steel sounds when cut on the lathe or smell wood smoke when someone feeds the saw too quickly. The machine shop is not a stage for a rehearsed demo, so the work seen is at times slow, imperfect, full of setbacks, and definitely marked with prototyping.

Shop staff Diane Whitmore, Erik Thogersen, Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough, Maz Kattuah, Paul Stepahin, 2012 Photo credit: Gayle Laird © Exploratorium, All rights reserved www.exploratorium.edu

The Exploratorium is a museum, yes, but the way we approach our work can also make the place seem like a giant laboratory. Pat Murphy, a former exhibit developer noted that,

“Few exhibits emerge from our machine shop fully formed. Most evolve over time, shaped by the ideas of the exhibit builder and staff and the recreations of visitors. In a sense, all the exhibits at the Exploratorium - even ones that have been on display for years - are prototypes." (2)

Jessica Strick, 2012Photo credit: Gayle Laird © Exploratorium, All rights reserved www.exploratorium.edu

Often, exhibits under development will be placed on the gallery floor immediately outside of the machine shop. As visitors use these exhibits, the exhibit developers can observe how visitors interact with the exhibit and can then quickly pull the exhibit just a few yards back into the machine shop to make changes based on this visitor feedback.

Photo credit: Amy Oates © Exploratorium, All rights reserved www.exploratorium.edu

Frank explained,

“We find that the very process of fabricating an exhibit is full of discovery and that even after an exhibit has been out on the floor for a month or even a year, we discover new things in it. It also is especially remarkable and wonderful that our visitors keep discovering things that we haven’t yet discovered and tell us about them...” (3)

In this way, visitors are empowered to make discoveries, to understand what’s going on, and to contribute to the exhibit design process. We hope that they begin to see themselves as capable of understanding and contributing to the world around them.

Removing all the notions of “elves in the basement” is central to becoming an explorer, discoverer, maker, a tinkerer, and creator. By demystifying exhibit building process and inviting visitors into the prototyping process, we hope that people leave the Exploratorium more inclined towards seeking to understand and then make the world around them.

(1) Oppenheimer, Frank. "Exploration and Discovery," Acceptance speech for the AAM Distinguished Service Award. Delivered on 21 June 1982. San Francisco: Exploratorium. Print.
(2) Murphy, Pat. “The Evolution of an Exhibit.” In F. Oppenheimer et al., Working Prototypes - Exhibit Design at the Exploratorium. San Francisco: Exploratorium, 1986. Print.
(3) Oppenheimer, Frank. "Exploration and Discovery," Acceptance speech for the AAM Distinguished Service Award. Delivered on 21 June 1982. San Francisco: Exploratorium. Print.

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

Humor and whimsy as portals to making

“Try a little snarkasm

During this National Week of Making extravaganza, let’s take a moment to celebrate the sillier side of tinkering, and indulge in remembering some of the less practical and most fun projects that have come out of the Tinkering Studio. But first, a slightly more serious note.

Tinkering is a highly engaging form of making and thinking with your hands, it encourages people to pose their own goals and define success for themselves, but at the same time it can put learners in a vulnerable position, that of not knowing: the right answer, the next step, whether they’re doing it right. It is important that we create an emotionally safe and personally friendly space to allow visitors to navigate those feelings.

One shortcut to connect with learners at an emotional level is through considered use of humor and whimsy, which are always present in Tinkering Studio offerings in one way or another. We enjoy unusual juxtapositions of topics, like sewing with circuits or using familiar materials in unfamiliar ways, and use humor to lower the barriers for entry for those who might approach the activities more tentatively. Playful and whimsical aspects of activities set a tone for what we value beyond "capital S" Science, and hint that these tinkering experience might embrace more than traditional didactic science learning. They are a way of presenting ourselves as fully rounded human beings, rather than idealized “experts,” but they also encourage visitors to feel that we will accept all aspects of them, including the silly and fun ideas they might have.

Cabinet of Curiosity @ ASTC 2001

We often refer to this quality of our work as “snarkasm,” a term that suggests perhaps a more cutting tone than we intend. It originated in the occasion of the 2011 ASTC conference, the first time we really presented our work to a large and important audience of our professional peers, creating the first Cabinet of Curiosities which collected artifacts and artwork created over the course of the last few years. Perhaps recognizing that at first glance a lot of these objects might seem silly, frivolous, or pointless, we reacted by embracing and reclaiming our point of view with humorous “toe tags” describing each item in funny ways. I wrote approximately 50 snarky descriptions for things that we loved for one reason or another. Unfortunately my documentation skills failed me at the time and I did not take any clear photos of the toe tags in action, so I will just have to recreate some of my favorites.

You get the idea… it’s about having a perspective on your own work that allows you to take the work as seriously as possible, while still not taking yourself all that seriously, staying open and delighted by the strange and idiosyncratically quirky places the work takes you, and celebrating the awkward. In fact, we have a long running series of blog posts titled “tinkering moment of zen” that try to capture just that. Sometimes it’s Tim Hunkin eating a self-portrait carved into a banana. Sometimes it’s Scott Weaver juggling frisbees into the toothpick sculpture that took him 35 years to build. More often it’s funny little moments that are part of this strange job, like an ironic juxtaposition in the elevator, or an impromptu bit of pumpkin juggling (what’s with all the juggling, anyway?), that time when Nicole decided to cut a cake with a jigsaw, or the wimpiest pushup competition ever (Lianna totally won).

But more often we express humor and whimsy directly in the artifacts and details that we create and share with our visitors. These are objects that permeate the Tinkering Studio environment, usually without a sign with a description or explanation (unless they are a sign, in which case they are their own sign). They reward visitors’ curiosity, exploration, and sometimes low stature. Here are some of the highlights over the past few years!

Tinkering and Learning Studio Tour
A chandelier made of clothes hangers adorns the Tinkering Studio. It is fun to see the moment when a kid realizes what they are looking at, and are compelled to tell all their friends. (Bonus: here is a photo of Nicole prototyping the first version)

A bearskin rug made of cardboard, created to complement a cardboard fireplace frame for a monitor. As you do.

Open MAKE: Tools
A set of giant cardboard tools made by Scout Tran-Caffee originally to make large scale stop motion animations. They now hang from various spots in the Learning Studio, along with a giant Kraken tentacle (that one was made by a different cardboard artist, Jesse Wilson)

This too shall pass
A drawing by the über-talented illustrator Iris Gottlieb that is our way of communicating to visitors that the marbles we use in our Marble Machines area are not a choking hazard…

A “fire alarm,” inspired by the circuitry work of Forrest M. Mims III, which hangs in the Tinkering Studio right next to the actual fire alarm.

My dog Pepper comes to work with me sometimes, and she likes to sit by the large glass doors that face the exhibit hall. Often kids (and adults) try to interact with her through the glass, it almost feels like she’s one of the exhibits. So I made her a label.

The fact that we have a tinkering vending machine in our space is funny enough, but after going back and forth about whether we should have a “small parts disclaimer” on it, and what language we should use, this is the sign that stuck…

Finally, here is a little treat for the shorter visitors: all the drawers’ handles make little faces. Of all the “easter eggs” hidden in the Tinkering Studio, this is perhaps the one that is noticed by the fewest people.


Young Facilitators Re-design a Classic Activity

The XTech Program for Middle and High School aged youth turned is designed as a cycle of two years learning experiences for Middle School students, followed with being novice and then expert facilitator/mentors for the new participants. We are at a transition year now where our advanced students are now ready to begin working on their facilitation skills. We received an invitation to host an activity at the Mini-Maker Faire at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in March. Although we don’t normally host one-off events, but we saw this as a great opportunity for the intermediate cohort to try out some activity facilitation before they become facilitators-in-training this summer. After brainstorming activities, considering pros and cons of each in terms of the space, audience, tools and materials, they were unanimously enthusiastic about making pinewood race cars.

We reminded them that they had taken two full days that summer, cutting their wood piece on the bandsaw, sanding and shaping it, designing wheels, testing and adjusting their car until it was a creation they were proud of. We asked them how families might do this activity in the 20-40 minutes they might have to spend at our booth at the faire, while still maintaining that same opportunities for experimentation and creativity. They took the challenge very seriously and some suggested we test a second idea as back-up in case it didn’t work out.

A few days later, one of the senior facilitators, Winnie, did some experimenting with alternative materials that could make the race car activity doable within the given constraints. She came up with a prototype made with a foam body, plastic bottle top wheels, and simple axles made from bbq skewers, nails and straws. Winnie presented this prototype to the group at our following XTech session and they began building their own. The new design allowed for faster working times that involved more sanding than sawing and more poking than drilling.


As soon as we started testing our prototypes down the sloped track, we noticed they needed weights in order to make it to the end. This turned out to be the best part! The need for weights and the impact of the placement of those weights (washers, marbles, nails) in relation to the car’s design made a huge difference in how they worked. More so than with the pinewood versions. We used to joke that the person who made the fewest adjustments to their block of wood would usually end up with the fastest car. The foam cars were all made with different goals; some wanted to theirs to go fast, others to jump, and one student wanted to make an “absurd” car. After discussing different techniques they used to create their car, we opened up a discussion about planning and facilitation. They had just spent about an hour building but we were anticipating people staying in our workshop space for about 20-30 minutes! They discussed how we could prepare some of the materials better so that the activity would not take as long, without taking away opportunities for creative choices. This is what they came up with:

• cut the foam into rough blocks that could be cut and shaped further by workshop participants
• pre-drill holes into the plastic bottle caps
• make sandpaper blocks
• provide paper and pencils for sketching ideas out

We were so impressed with the careful thinking they did to prepare for this event. It was a wonderful reminder of how much growth and maturity is possible when youth are given opportunities to step into new roles.

By Patricia Ong and Meg Escudé
Check out a follow-up post about this same group of facilitators on IMLS's blog here


Reinvent Old Technologies and Discover New Ones

The blog post below comes from Vivian Altmann, who directs our Community Educational Engagement efforts.

I’m planning for my upcoming week with the elementary-age summer camp program at 826 Valencia here in San Francisco. The camp is called “Exploring Words” and the focus is on literacy, as is the main focus of all of 826 Valencia’s year-round programs. It’s a national program started by author Dave Eggers and most of the San Francisco site’s students live in the immediate neighborhood of 826 Valencia. It’s a neighborhood with a strong Latino population and a good amount of immigrant families. A lot of the students are bilingual in Spanish and English and their writing is encouraged in both languages. The idea is to make them confident and articulate in expressing themselves, as well as supporting each student’s progress in school.

I worked with 826’s San Francisco site last summer as well. The staff there has been incorporating more science, tinkering, and making into their summer curriculum for the past few years because, hey—it’s fun and brings out the best in kids. And, from my perspective, experimenting, tinkering, and making are so very rich as sources of inspiration for creative writing. I like to say that science is poetry.

Scientists, artists, and poets all look at the same world, try to make sense of it, and then communicate what they learn, observe, or discover to others. Scientists and poets may use different tools and different language, but they are all exploring the same things. Interpreting scientific phenomena through the lens of poetry and creative writing is one way of making meaning.

So in the context of last summer at 826 Valencia, quite possibly the only thing better than making a kaleidoscope or building a scribble bot is to then also write a wild story or freeform poem about it. Since 826 regularly publishes student work, those making-inspired creative stories and poems get read by folks way beyond the “walls” of 826 or the Exploratorium.

Last summer the 826 students (and interns) made Scribble Bots, aka scribbling machines, with me and Leslie Hernandez (one of my Exploratorium colleagues from the Explo’s XTech Program) during week five of camp. (We did other stuff the prior four weeks.) 826 has some particularly smart, funny, and energetic kids so I was expecting some cool Scribble Bots. But their focus, attention to detail, and building skills resulted in the kookiest and sturdiest (sturdiness and balance is a big factor) Scribble Bots I’ve seen. A number of their resultant Scribble Bot stories and poems were published in “Turquoise is Waiting Until Midnight,” the student book of written works that came out of the 2015 Exploring Words summer.

This summer I won’t be spending the full five weeks of camp with 826, but we will spend one week on both stop-motion animation and “Nature Bots.” Looking at the idea of reinventing old technologies, certainly the next iteration of last summer’s Scribble Bots will be Nature Bots. Making Scribble Bots required a lot of tinkering with balance so that the bots would scribble without falling over. Not that tough with marking pens for legs since you can balance a bot on a nice tripod or quad of evenly-placed pens. But gathering materials like branches and leaves and pine cones and who-knows-what and then adding the weight of a motor and a battery will mean that these students will have to take their creations to the next level and really think about balance and motion in a more complex way. Plus making something far more freeform like a Nature Bot means opening the creative floodgates for each to have a unique look, mobility, and personality. The 826 Valencia staff and interns will be great at guiding the students toward translating the freeform of a Nature Bot into freeform poetry.

Stop-motion animation likewise will be the next iteration of our work on visual perception from last summer. We learned some of the basics of how the human eye and brain work in summer of 2015. Making actual short animated films this summer will build on the simple activities (flipsticks and thaumatropes, anyone?) we did then.

So I’m thinking about the other part of this blog’s theme that I am to consider—discovering new technologies—and I am leaning toward the idea that what’s old is actually new for a lot of younger kids. The best way for me to explain this is via an anecdote from an experience I had at the end of 2015. A reporter with WNYC asked me this question during an interview about another project:
“With younger people having grown up with digital, portable, wireless technology as a regular part of their lives, does the work you do become harder? Is it more difficult to get the signal through the noise?  Or are they perhaps more receptive for some reason?”
My response:
An interesting question you pose – in essence is the medium of technology blocking the message?
In general, I think that people are people and having genuine human experiences that don’t involve modern, digital technology is always going to be compelling. Especially if they’re surprising, counterintuitive, and just plain fun.
But your question does bring up an anecdote about an experience I had just last week. A colleague and I were part of an event for SFUSD elementary school children sponsored by our Mayor’s office at City Hall.
One of the artifacts I was demonstrating and with which I was engaging kids in conversation was something called a Mirror Mirage—basically a flying saucer-shaped thing with both inside halves of the “saucer” coated in reflective material. Two mirrored parabolic dishes that fit together.
When a tiny plastic object (in this case a little plastic frog) is placed in the center of the lower mirrored dish, one sees what’s called a real image that seems to float just above the small opening in the top mirrored dish. Almost every school kid that day said, “It’s a hologram” or “It’s digital and you have tiny cameras in there.” And when I showed them that no, it was just two parabolic mirrors and a little plastic frog, but that these things created a 3-D reflection in mid-air, it elicited a “Whoa! No way!” from each and every one of them. The real trumps the digital because in a generation that takes technology for granted, something so viscerally experiential and seemingly so simple becomes the true surprise. And again that spark, that surprise, might generate further curiosity and observation. That’s the goal, anyway.

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

The Art of Iteration

This summer we're tinkering with mechanical motion in the Tinkering Studio, inspired by the new exhibition Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen.


  The Strandbeests are inspiring mechanical marvels made from PVC tubing and other materials that transform into lifelike beings when they start moving in the wind. Theo has been working on his creations for more than 20 years, and he is still learning about them as he brings each new one to "life". Every part of the Strandbeests - the wings, legs, bodies, and other parts, go through hundreds of iterations in order for Theo to understand how they work so he can out them to use. All of these parts continue to evolve as he follows his meandering, iterative process. theoparts

Theo says: “Mine is not a straight path like an engineer’s, it’s not A to B. I make a very curly road just by the restrictions of goals and materials….Always I have a new plan, but then it is corrected by the requirements of the tubes. They dictate to me what to do.

The process of iteration is important to tinkering, and critical to supporting thinking and learning while tinkering. Exploring a variety of ways to build and refine an idea over time is an important part of the process. Working on iterations provides an opportunity for learning to deepen, and often lead to unexpected new perspectives, and a variety of outcomes.

Ideas and thoughts develop slowly, so do new new questions, observations, and experimental outcomes. Step-by-step kits, or projects where the outcome is already known (or predictable) are less impactful for someone developing a deep understanding of why things work the way they do. Iteration supports the ability to model the ways that new questions can lead to new discoveries.

We’ll be exploring linkages in the Tinkering Studio, and iterating on a few designs that are similar to the legs of the beests http://www.strandbeest.com/beests_leg.php .


The activities that we are experimenting with this summer continue to evolve as we play with them. The feedback that we get from visitors (and many others that are online, exploring similar activities and materials) will inform our next set of designs, and our next iteration of this activity. IMG_2352

Supporting iteration is something we design for in the Tinkering Studio. We have been iterating with linkages using cardboard, wood, familiar materials, and more recently we have been utilizing LEGO. In each case we are asking ourselves if the activity, tools, and materials allows us to tinker in a way that allows everyone to build new ideas over time, and continue to iterate on new designs as a way to test new ideas.

We hope you can visit the Strandbeest exhibit, and we encourage you to stop by the Tinkering Studio and tinker with us!

Tinker with Mechanical Motion:
May 28–September 4, 2016
Saturdays and Sundays 11:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m.
Experiment with linkages, automata, plus a variety of mechanisms and materials to create your own mechanical marvels.
Tinkering Studio workshops are available on a first-come, first-served drop-in basis. Space and materials are limited.

Experience Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Exploratorium from May 27 to September 5, 2016. Jansen’s strandbeests—“beach animals” in Dutch—are enormous, self-propelling kinetic creations. Constructed largely of PVC tubing and other hardware store materials, strandbeests are mesmerizing in their motions and eerily lifelike. Equipped with sensory organs and ever-evolving survival strategies, they walk a wandering, wind-blown line between art and engineering, mechanics and biology.

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