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.


LEGO Art Machines Kit!

We've been prototyping LEGO Art Machines in the Tinkering Studio, and along the way we've learned a lot about which LEGO parts to put out on the floor and how to better support explorations on making Art Machines. We shared our R & D process on this  blog and through Twitter, which encouraged and inspired other educators to try the activity on their own by collecting parts and 3D printing pen holders to test in their own environments. This informal group of collaborators has been sharing their ideas through twitter and other social media through #LEGOtinkering. We've been inspired by what people have tried and incorporated their ideas into our development process.

To take the prototyping process further and expand the group of testers, we assembled a small number of kits of parts and distributed them to a wider group of collaborators so they could also try this activity and help us take the idea further. It was important for us to send the kits to different kinds of spaces – museums, schools, libraries – so that the activity could be tested in different environments with different audiences and different cultures.

The kits are arriving in their new homes, and people are beginning to share their experiments on social media. We've also started hearing lots more interest in LEGO Art Machines as people become curious about these kits! We thought it might be a good time to share some information about the kits and extend an invitation to everyone to gather their own materials and test the activity with us. If you do, you can use #LEGOtinkering to share your thoughts and what you try.

So, here we go!

This is a PDF file that shows the contents as well as the quantities and parts numbers in the kit. Click it so you can download.

We've also included this PDF which shows some base models that are helpful to get people started. Each of the "Base Models 1, 2 and 3" shows a different motion example: Off-set weight, Linkages, and Propulsion. We think of these models just as suggestions and inspirations for learners to take the ideas further, so please remix, iterate, and complexify them in your own way!

And this is the actual contents in the box! The kit was designed for 6 people to explore the Art Machines.

We were only able to send out a few kit to test this idea, but we've made other resources so more people can try making art machines on their own. Check out our Instructables Tinkering with LEGO: Art Machines, the parts list and the blog posts, LEGO Pen Holder Evolution, LEGO Art Machines, and LEGO Art Machines with the TS Team.
We hope you will try this activity in your class, at your museum or on your kitchen table. If you do, please share what you make! You can tag photos and videos of your experiments #LEGOtinkering if you want to share them with us through Twitter or Instagram, and be part of the prototyping process.

These kits are an experiment (just like using twitter for R & D) to test the idea of developing an activity remotely and collaboratively. We are interested to hear your feedback about this new idea, and we are so excited and curious to see what you try with the parts and how this remote collaboration will take shape!



Playtronica Residency


Last week we hosted Playtronica, an artist collective that bridges education, technology and play through interactive musical experiences. We were excited to explore their toolkit that allows for the creation of sensory interactions with objects and space through different materials and circuit boards. Playtronica collaborates with institutions, curators, educators and artists to create unexpected cultural experiences like a musical slack line or an intereactive playground of sonic vegtebles. It was a lot of fun to spend a few days together and get the chance to mess around with their tools and technologies and start to brainstorm how we can integrate sound and music with some of our new computational tinkering experiments IMG_3019

They brought a collection of interesting components and custom boards to test out with our group. I thought it was interesting that they started out by using some preexisting boards like makey makey and the bare conductive touch board in their workshops and installations before developing their own products.


They started off the week by hosting a workshop with the extended tinkering studio team for a couple hours so we could learn about each other's work and try out some new things together. They were especially interested in combining activities and artifacts from existing tinkering studio activities with the sonic technologies. This was a great way to get started and helped us better understand their idea that 'things should sound'. IMG_3149

One interesting thing that we worked on was hooking up conductive tape and fabric to LEGO sound machines setups to try and add some extra digital noises to the rhythm machines. I'd like to see how these technologies can be yet another way to integrate LEGO into a wider range of tinkering experiences.


Deanna and Sebastian took the idea of the musical slackline and created a swinging pendulum with conductive fabric that changed sounds as the string stretched and loosened. If we had more time it would have been really fun to take some of these materials out on the floor of the museums to hear some of our exhibits in a new way. IMG_3168

We also experimented with some of out LEGO tinkering balancing prototypes, specifically trying to make sounds through capacitance so that as the objects moved on the slow moving motor, they could interact without touching. It didn't quite work as planned but it was interesting to return to the problem of how to wire up something on a spinning motor. At the end of the two hour session, each group shared what they had been working on and what other things they would continue to think about.


Later on in the week, Sasha and Andrei presented about their work in an informal brown bag in the learning studio for the rest of the museum staff. We got a cross-section of people from different departments interested in their ideas and projects. IMG_3262

After the presentation, a group of us tried the 'touch me' circuit board, a version of the brains of our musical bench that makes set up and experimentation easy and allows for many people to play and experiment together.


And we continued to explore their circuit boards with other materials and sensors that we've played with in the tinkering studio. Adding a light sensor to the musical 'touch me' circuit created a quick and playful impromptu installation. IMG_3318

By Thursday, we started to prepare for a public event during the adult hours in the vein of our previous tinkering social club programs. Our plan was to show a few small scale demos, host an interactive installation, and have Playtronica perform alongside a local electronic music group called LoveTech. There was lots to take care of and prepare before the event. Sergey and Aglaya get started on the laser cutter to cut out stencils to use with conductive paint in the creation of an instrument for the performance.


We found an awesome bright red sheet of packing material in the shop racks, we cut it to the size of two tables, and stenciled on the conductive paint designs in groups of four. By adding copper tape, we could connect the inputs to the playtronica box to assign each touch pad a unique sound. IMG_3347

For the installation, a few project explainers helped us set up in the tinkering studio by taking three 4x8 sheets of cardboard and coating them with aluminium tape. Together this would be serve as the pad for our interactive installation.

Playtronica Lovetech Event Nov 10 2016

The idea was that the performers would wear fake rubber crocs from Daiso to be insulated from the floor that was connected to ground. Each of the performers had one of the other sides of the circuit attached to their wrists with a wire. Other people could take off their shoes, step of the floor and "play" the performers simply by touching their hands and completing the connection. IMG_3346

One of the small experiments on the table was a recreation of the light sensor circuit from earlier in the week with a hacked circuit board toy part controlling the rhythm of the music.


Visitors had a lot of fun exploring these ideas when there wasn't a central activity going on in the space and they sparked a lot of questions and conversations. IMG_3396

A couple of times over the course of the evening, we gathered volunteers to join in the interactive installation. Lots of people enjoyed kicking off their shoes and making music with our group of performers (many explainers included) who tried to stand still and keep a straight face as participants moved around the metallic floor and touched their hands to make sounds. The principle is similar to some makey makey experiments that we've tried, but something about the good speakers, the darkened environment, and the large scale of the interaction added an extra playful and immersive dimension to the collaborative experience.


Around eight o'clock we had our first performance from the Playtronica and Love Tech musicians. It was great to see the entire Tinkering Studio start fill up with excited people ready to listen, and get more and more crowded as curious visitors stopped by to hear what was going on in the space. I think the shape of the workshop worked well for the tiny concert and it was a nice culminating event for the residency to perform in this community setting. Clip3

The group sounded great and again to me it emphasized the importance of demonstrating not only the low threshold digital sound experiments like a makey makey banana piano with computer speakers, but and the high ceiling possible with these materials when accomplished musicians create immersive soundscapes and play them on these large scale instruments. It was very inspiring for us to get the chance to work with the Playtronica team and I'm looking forward to more chances for future collaborations.


After School Tinkering: Wood Automata

Hello! My name is Deanna and I am a new addition to the Tinkering Studio team. As Project Coordinator, two facets of my position include facilitating an after school tinkering program (aka Tinkering Club) at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland and supporting the research and practice efforts in the space through taking photos and video, recording observations of students and their projects, and conducting interviews (more information about the partnership with the Exploratorium here).

In the spring, the Tinkering Club after school program centered around electricity and circuits, building paper circuits, tiny theaters, and homemade switches. This fall, our focus has been on creating mechanisms through different projects including automata. Automata are mechanical sculptures that utilize simple machine elements like cams, levers, and linkages that result in different motions. During the Winter 2016 season, the Exploratorium has a special exhibition featuring automata from different artists from around the world. For more information, check out Curious Contraptions.

When I joined the team, the students had already made cardboard automata and were beginning to make wood automata. This project applied what they already knew about building automata and challenged students to them out of a new material. Wood is a more permanent material than cardboard, and many students commented that this is a piece that they could keep for years to come. However, it is not as easy to manipulate wood, and the tools used to work with wood can prove to be a hindrance for some and a motivator for others.

The wood automata project took several weeks to complete. Here are a few notable interactions and projects that were captured over a week midway through the project:



Students began their projects by building frames out of 2x4” wood. Marla* (on the left) and Thalia* worked together to build their frames. One would help hold while the other one drilled holes, drilled a countersink, and then the screw. Marla* directed Thalia* how to use the drill by walking her through the steps.

While some students chose to work independently, it was nice to see these two students supporting one another in building the wood frame. A key intersection between tinkering and STEM practices is teamwork, and seeing Thalia* and Marla* work together here demonstrated to me that they are building skills that they will be able to use outside of Tinkering Club in other contexts.

Creative Problem Solving


Stephan* knew that he wanted to build a car with spinning wheels on top of his automata and did not know how to build a mechanism to support this idea. He brainstormed with facilitators and decided to mount his car on the side of his box to be able to make mechanisms to spin his wheels. In this photo, you can see Stephan* attaching an additional piece of wood on the side of his frame to mount his car on. He later started sculpting the car body out of Model Magic clay and sourced toy car wheels to incorporate into his design. (Photo credit: Jean Ryoo)

Driven By Design


Rose* was drawn to the Sculpey clay we brought for decorative elements. After building her automata frame, she meticulously molded insects like fireflies out of clay. She was completely enthralled with making her clay forms, utilizing clay tools to give texture and depth to her pieces. When asked how she would incorporate her clay figures into her automata, Rose* said that she did not know yet. It appeared she saw her automata and her sculptures as separate projects and felt more engaged working with clay.

Tool Fluency


Karla* will be the first to tell you that she loves to work with drills. She learned how to use a drill at home by unscrewing things around her house (that is, until her father found out!). In class, students have varying levels of comfort around tool use. While some collaborate with partners while using tools (such as Thalia* with Marla*), Karla* confidently drilled and sanded her piece independently.

I am curious about how these students' automata will continue to evolve until then and if they choose to put these pieces (or other projects from the year) on display for others to see. For more information on automata, check out previous blog posts here, here, and here.

*The names of students have been replaced with pseudonyms.

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