LEGO Balance: Initial Prompts and Starting Points

To continue sharing thoughts about #LEGOtinkering balance explorations, I wanted to focus on the initial starting points and prompts that we tried out for the activity.


One thing that we all appreciated about the balance workshop was the low threshold to entry. There were no complicated battery packs and motors to explain initially, and the idea of balancing an object on a point is nearly universal. Much younger kids could get involved and excited about the activity. When introducing the activity, we often began by asking participants to physically feel it balanced on their finger letting them get engaged with the objects in a different way than other activities.


Additionally, we build several types of stands, but something that they all had in common was that they allowed people to see what others were making by elevating their works-in-progress off the surface of the table. In all tinkering activities we feel that it's often important to be able to borrow ideas from others sitting around the table and the stands make that easier in this case.

However, one question that we had about the initial prompt was what might happen if we switched from 'can you make a balancing object?' to 'can you build a kinetic scupture'. Although we appreciate when activities allow for an early success, we don't want that moment to be the end of people's explorations. In several participants we noticed a feeling of 'doneness' once they accomplished balancing an object on the stick for the first time. Maybe shifting the emphasis to building a kinetic sculpture would encourage people to work on the movement, precariousness, or unexpected qualities possible in the creations.


Additionally, we think the initial set of examples can go a long way towards encouraging wide walls and complex creations if they are varied and demonstrate different aspects of the phenomena. While I don't think we got to a perfect set of examples these are a few ideas of ones that we felt were the most generative.


While specialized parts like the tripod axle piece or the little truck hitch provided good initial starting points when paired with other axles and joints, we also wondered if they took away from some of the exploration by creating too compelling of a place to build off of. In some of our original balance activities, some participants could work on making a sculpture and then find the point where the object balanced with offered another way in. There's probably no right answer, but it's interesting to look at the way that the first steps define the rest of the experience.

If you try out #LEGOtinkering balance explorations, please let us know what set of materials and initial starting points seem to work the best for the activity.


LEGO Balance: Extra Materials and Iteration

Over the past few months, we've been prototyping a tinkering activity using LEGO pieces to construct balancing sculptures. We're currently putting the idea on hiatus for a while as we prepare for an upcoming LEGO event, but we thought that in lieu of posting a detailed instructable about how to do the activity, I'd write a couple blog posts to share our groups reflections so far and the questions and ideas we're excited to pursue when we return to this topic.


The first most important thing about the activity is the relationship between the LEGO parts and other real world materials. As in the other activities that we've tried with LEGO, we think that using everyday materials helps people feel more connected to the projects and lowers the barrier to entry. With making balancing objects, there's another reason, as LEGO pieces are all fairly light, adding on heavier pieces made of wood and metal provide opportunities to explore more extreme examples. IMG_5999 2

We experimented with several ways to make these objects LEGO compatible and ended up settling for probably the most straightforward means of connection. We took the objects and used a #12 drill bit to make a hole in them to make them compatible with the technic pins.


We also thought a lot about what types and numbers of extra items to use with the set. As we identified parts to use in the prototyping, we were more drawn to natural materials like wood, metal and paper that had a variety of weights. We wanted to pick out geometric shapes and other aesthetically pleasing objects that contrast and mix well with the color and plastic of the LEGO parts. It felt like a good thing to have multiples of each one so that participants could test out the weights in a more systematic way. IMG_0977

This pointed to something that we liked about this activity (as well as the other LEGO tinkering workshops), the ability to use the LEGO system to iterate on ideas, make small changes, and revert to previous versions of creations. Its a big shift from other materials that we've experimented in the past to make balancing objects like wire, corks, glue and feathers where people could easily make evocative pieces, but it was far more difficult to chance them.


Unlike the sound machines and art machines however, with balance we found out right away that because of the precise and tactile nature of the phenomena, sometimes moving one hole space felt too much. We began to experiment with alternate materials sets which emphasized sliding the weight on the axles to create minute changes. In the next post, I'll share about some of our starting points and examples in this line of prototyping that seemed to be the most generative.


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!