Trying balance activities at East Bay Mini Maker Faire!

Last weekend, we participated in the 7th East Bay Mini Maker Faire at the beautiful campus of Park Day School in Oakland. It is our second time and we love this event because it is a small fair (compared to the big Maker Faire in San Mateo) with only 170+ makers but still shows a variety of creative projects including carpentry, DIY science and technology, farming, and digital fabrication. Since we had just started prototyping LEGO balance activity, we thought it would be great to bring out the prototype activity and to experiment with the ideas of balance with local community outside the museum. We quickly packed up the materials from the floor along with a couple of exhibits and participated in the faire.

> LEGO Balance activity
We were still at an early prototyping stage, so our R&D continued at the Mini Maker Faire. We knew that we would need some kind of starting points which would work as a basic structure that people could build onto, just like the three base models that we had for LEGO Art Machines, we wanted to provide the same kind of base structure for creating balance sculptures to help people get started with.

IMG_2614 IMG_2616
We had come up with these two types of starting points, which are made of 1) a ball piece + beams, and 2) a ball + three way axles. We liked having a ball as an axis since it visually communicates people to build a sculpture that will be balanced on the ball.

We started the activity by having visitors place the balancing examples on their finger so that they could feel the sculpture is balancing on a single point. This introduction seemed to work very well, visitors got the idea of the activity right away and started building their own sculptures.

However, in looking back, we noticed that those starting points might have encouraged people to make symmetrical balancing sculptures. At a debrief meeting after the faire, we talked about that having non-symmetrical and more inspiring examples would be critical for this activity in order to show possibilities what you could build, since it was somewhat so easy to make something symmetry with LEGO pieces and say “Yes, it’s balanced!”

In terms of the activity design principle “Low floor, high ceiling, wide walls” we felt that this activity definitely provided the low floor, but in order to support the high ceiling and wide walls, we felt we needed to deliberatively show more surprising balancing examples to spark people's curiosities.

For the environment, we built a tree just one day before the event so that people could place their balancing sculptures to leave them there to inspire others. We added a slow moving motor on each branch so their balancing sculpture could slowly rotate while balancing on a stick. It was great to have the tree because it provided a stage for people to display their works. People looked excited that that they could add their sculptures to the tree and the tree became a collective display stand. Using slow moving motors also seemed to have impacted their feeling of accomplishment.

> Balancing rocks
We meant this activity as a small quiet activity, but interestingly it turned out to be very popular, attracting all ages, the table was always surrounded by several people trying to stack rocks as many as possible.

Rocks and sand, very simple materials, intuitive instruction (no need to explain what to do), and a social platform. It is worth while thinking the elements of this activity and why it was so popular.

By the end of the day, people figured out that sprinkling sand prevents rocks from slipping and helps them stacking more... Our record of the day was 13 rocks stacked!

> Exhibits
In the surrounding area, we placed a couple of exhibits from the Exploratorium with the theme of balance - Unstable table, Balancing Stick, and Take it from the Top.

By having these exhibits around, we were hoping that visitors will get to experiment and iterate on the same scientific principle - balance- over and over with different scales, materials, and perspectives. Logistically it was more work for us, but having various exhibits and activities with the same topic at different levels helped us to create a similar learning environment that we have in the Tinkering Studio.

Bringing an activity to the Faire at such an early prototyping stage was a little bit of a challenge for us, but over all it was a great experience. We feel that having opportunities to test out when we develop new activities is an essential step in our R&D process. We are continuing LEGO balance prototyping on the floor this week. After the faire, we started trying creating more inspiring examples, revisiting starting points which would support high ceiling and wide walls, and in general we are exploring balance activities in many ways, which we will share in upcoming posts soon.
Stay tuned!


LEGO Tinkering Balance Prototyping


After spending a couple of months prototyping ideas LEGO art machines and sound makers, we've now started exploring balance as the next LEGO tinkering theme. Amos from the LEGO foundation has spent some time working on an activity called 'sky parade' where participants build motorized gondola-like contraptions and we've seen Peter from the Science Museum of Minnesota testing out zip-line creations in his camps and classes. While we've been inspired by these ideas, we wanted to start out with simple non-motorized objects that balance on a single point. A few years ago we experimented with balancing objects as part of the Open MAKE: Toys event and at the subsequent Bay Area Maker Faire, and these initial ideas gave us a starting point for LEGO balance R&D.


For our first testing session with just our team, I hot glued thumb-tacks to three hole technique beams for a balancing point and also used hot glue to attach objects of different weights to LEGO pieces much like the clothespin we used for the previous two activities. While this worked pretty well on the dowels, it made it painful to balance on our fingers which turns out to be a good way to feel to weight distribution.


We also set up motors to give a sense of movement to the objects after they became stable on a point. The spinning platform allowed for a more suspenseful display and as we started testing, we also found that it would be better if the stick was diagonal so that the weight on the bottom could hang unimpeded.


We noticed that slight differences in the creations really affected the balance. Meg developed a new piece that allowed her to slide an axle back and forth to create more minute adjustments then the technic hole pins allow.


And although we started with gluing everyday objects to technic beams, Nicole devised a more elegant solution of just drilling a hole the same size as the technic pin in various objects. This allowed us to connect lots of different materials to the LEGO set in multiple orientations.


This technique also allowed us to think about other types of starting points for the balancing objects that would be a little easier to work with like this acrylic triangle.


We also experimented with lasercut pieces that could both have a single point to balance on while also having attachment points for different types of LEGO pieces to come off at more helpful angles.


We also hoped that by gluing alligator clip heads to a type of technic beam, we could more easily attach light objects like paper, colored plastic, and paper to the balancing sculptures. One thing that's interesting to experiment with for the balancing sculptures is to arrange both very heavy and very light objects in ways that produce unexpected equilibrium.


A few days later, we took an initial set of materials on the floor to start testing out the activity with visitors to the Tinkering Studio. As usual, giving participants the chance to try out these half-baked ideas allows us to learn quite a lot about the possibilities for the exploration.


As we built examples and saw what visitors tended to begin with, we moved a bit away from the custom starting points and tried to come up with various 'base models' using only LEGO pieces. Some of the triangle shaped pieces gave us the chance to experiment with different possible ways to arrange the weight on the below the sculpture.


Storytelling seems to be an important part of the activity and we saw balancing characters from chickens to spaceships. We think it could be fun to push on the narrative element to give people the chance to really personalize their creations.


However, abstract shapes and colors also seemed to be a compelling direction and we were excited to see how this different frame could get us to think about the LEGO pieces in a new light.


We'll continue to explore these ideas in our workshop and with visitors to the museum. We're looking forward to sharing the results of the R&D and getting to see what others try around this topic!


Tinkering with Computational Thinking at ASTC

Never before has computing education felt so important. As President Obama’s CS for All initiative exemplified earlier this year, educational stakeholders (from politicians to policymakers to parents to administrators to teachers to students) are recognizing the importance for all youth to be able to access computational thinking skills for both their future and the future of our country. And not just so that everyone can be a computer scientist and work in Silicon Valley. But so that everyone can if they want to while gaining the critical thinking skills necessary to create with technology in whatever their passion/interests/work, rather than be relegated to being passive consumers of other people’s creations.

This topic is particularly close to my heart. Before joining the Exploratorium, I worked closely with the Exploring Computer Science project that is focused on democratizing access to quality computer science education in all high schools. And when we said “quality,” we didn’t mean simply providing access to your typical coding or Javascript courses, but rather ensuring that all youth can experience rich computing learning that is culturally relevant and draws from diverse students’ wealth of cultural, experiential, home-based, out-of-school knowledge through hands-on inquiry-based activities.


And this is why I was particularly excited by some of the sessions that emerged out of this September’s Association of Science - Technology Centers (ASTC) conference in Tampa, Florida. There were many there who care about the educational experiences of learners of all ages in relation to technology and computing.


It was inspiring to see folks come together around the potential that tinkering and making have for teaching computational thinking. While some of the earliest computer scientists were tinkerers in their own right, the explorations of how tinkering and making today can be combined with computational thinking felt really different and new in the ways we discussed it at the conference. This happened specifically during a standing-room-only session on “Computational Tinkering” led by our very own Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich of the Tinkering Studio alongside Scratch co-creator of MIT Natalie Rusk. In this session, folks from all over the world tried out new tinkering/making prototypes that the Tinkering Studio has been creating in collaboration with MIT, Reggio Emilia, and the LEGO Foundation’s Idea Studio. With both digital and analog materials, people explored computational thinking concepts and practices (such as decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, etc.) that came to life through the heartbeat of tinkering/making that includes idea generation, design, personal expression, creativity, iteration, and more. People tinkered with Scratch Paper Experiments, Lego Art Machines, Watercolor Bot Paintings, and Scratch Light Play. Through these explorations, we ASTC conference goers were supported in thinking about how the hands-on, whimsical, creative, learner-driven aspects of tinkering and making can provide a valuable context for understanding computational thinking concepts and practices both with and without a computer. The room was energized with an excitement about what “Computational Tinkering” could be, as we begin to explore the overlap of tinkering, making, and computational thinking.






After exploring the activities, Karen, Mike, and Natalie shared about the ways they are defining Computational Tinkering. They showed a slide that described how Computational Tinkering brings together the decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithms of computational thinking with tinkering’s idea generating, designing, personalizing, expressing, remixing, collaborating, questioning, reflecting, iterating, (and an audience member added the idea of “aesthetics”).  




Through these activities, really important questions surfaced about computational tinkering in museum and informal learning contexts. For example, how can you support people in bringing their different contexts and perspectives into computational tinkering activities? What could be the role of equity and narrative in computational tinkering activities? How can we emphasize the importance of aesthetics as one of the key features of computational tinkering? How do we create activities that don’t result in people just copying the examples at hand but having opportunities to get creative in drop-in learning spaces? How can we support learners and teachers alike to be comfortable not knowing the end result or the answer with computational tinkering activities?


I also attended a session about engaging learners in computational thinking activities in museum contexts. This session was not about tinkering and making, which made it an interesting contrast to the Computational Tinkering session described above. Researchers and exhibit developers from Boston’s Museum of Science and the Children’s Museum of Houston described how they were attempting to teach museum visitors about computational thinking through new exhibits, both with and without computers. Sharing research results from a current project with Pixar, The Museum of Science shared what appeared to be promising positive impacts on youth’s interest and identification with computer science after watching videos about Pixar’s behind-the-scenes work coupled with engaging in hands-on activities using computational thinking skills and practices. During this session, we had played with the hands-on and computing-based activities that both museums had brought for ASTC conference attendees to explore. These activities involved things like arranging LEGO pieces into flower field patterns using instructions that acted like lines of “code” as well as interacting with computer-based tools like OzoBlockly and Ozobot (see photos below). While these activities were hands-on and interesting, they felt qualitatively different from Computational Tinkering activities. Perhaps this was because the culmination of one’s explorations did not result in a wide array of different personalized aesthetic expressions communicating whimsy and people’s abilities to think “outside the box” in the ways that tinkerers’ light play sculptures, paper creatures, watercolor paintings, and music-making machines did in Computational Tinkering? Perhaps this is also because Computational Tinkering activity design is very specifically driven by philosophical perspectives rooted in Piaget’s Constructivism and Papert’s Constructionism, as well as learning elements outlined in the Tinkering Studio’s Learning Dimensions Framework? It will be exciting to explore how and why Computational Tinkering feels so different and new in the years to come!

At the end of this Computational Thinking (not Tinkering) session, Keith Braafladt of the Science Museum of Minnesota raised an important question: After learners have positive experiences with technology and computational thinking in museum environments, how do we support their continued learning with computational thinking if they do not have the financial resources to purchase computer technology for the home? I wonder about this for Computational Tinkering activities as well: What aspects will feel most accessible to families in low-income communities, and how do we continue to build on those features so that more children can experience the joy and depth of thinking involved in Computational Tinkering activities?


This brings me back to the idea of Computational Tinkering. I really think that we are on the brink of something really powerful through Computational Tinkering for increasing not only engagement with, but also access to high-quality learning experiences with computational thinking. And I’m not just talking about access to the computing concepts and skills youth need to know to enter the world of computer science (such as understanding loops or parallelism or conditionals, which are important too, but not the only thing Computational Tinkering has to offer). I’m also talking about the perspectives and practices of computational thinking and tinkering that support people to be inquisitive, creative, and engaged lifelong learners. I’m reminded of what a student in my research efforts through the California Tinkering Afterschool Network taught me about tinkering: She told me, there is “never really an end to tinkering” because you can always keep making your project better and better. Once you get started on creating a design or an idea for a project in Computational Tinkering, you never really want to stop. And it’s that kind of excitement and engagement to design, create, and iterate through Computational Tinkering that should be infusing students’ educational experiences every day. We should be adding that sort of sunshine to learning that fosters an interest to keep growing, and not to simply engage with ideas, skills, or concepts for the sake of a test.


That’s one of the best parts about Computational Tinkering: blending tinkering/making with computational thinking can build on the creativity/interests/knowledge that people bring to the table when they are driven to make their ideas in Computational Tinkering come to life. This can encourage new learning and engagement with computing that may not have been accessible before, in the ways computing has traditionally been taught. The months ahead will reveal where our communities of tinkerers and makers--youth, parents, teachers, informal educators, librarians, museum exhibit designers, researchers, etc.--take Computational Tinkering in their own unique and creative ways.





Join us for a hangout about the Infinite Versatility of Cardboard


This Thursday, we’re hosting a hangout to talk about the Infinite Versatility of Cardboard. Members of the ASTC Making & Tinkering CoP (Community of Practice) will share some of their favorite ideas, projects, tools & techniques for working with cardboard – a material we're incredibly fond of.

The hangout is timely, since Caine’s Arcade and the Imagination Foundation just kicked off their 5th annual #cardboardchallenge last week - plus some of us were down in Tampa at the annual ASTC conference recently and shared these ideas in person.  Keith (from SMM) thought it would make for a good hangout and we could invite other folks to join.

We hope you’ll come away inspired and ready to try some things yourself and share what you’ve created.  

Play it forward!
Join us on Thursday, October 13th at 11PST


Homopolar Motors: Activity design revisions & thoughts on frustration

As part of a series of activities focused on Electromagnetism in our Tinkering Afterschool program with the Boys & Girls Clubs of SF and our XTech program, I decided to revisit the idea of building Homopolar Motors. These are super simplified motors that can be made sculptural by crafting a single piece of copper wire that must balance on top of a AA battery while lightly brushing by a strong magnet at the other end of the battery. I've tried it once before with young children at the Boys & Girls Clubs years ago and found that the level of precision in wire bending necessary to get a "successful" homopolar motor spinning around the battery, was especially frustrating for kids. I decided to revisit and see what I could do to design some extra supports into the activity design, while also introducing it to older, middle school aged youth.

Wire-bending Jigs Mario made these beautiful, flat jigs to create a base shape with a v shape to balance on the battery and the right spacing to reach the bottom of the battery. But he said that visitors had a hard time getting the v shape and were shoving pencils in to help make the v. So, I added these nails so that the wire could be wound around them and that works much better!









We also found that it was helpful to have some help making a ring that fits around the magnet at the bottom. These 16mm dowels work perfectly:


Flip the Battery!!

Another adjustment I made is I put the cup washer on the negative end of the battery instead of the positive. When it was on the positive end, I kept finding that the wires would get caught in the little tiny chasm between the positive bump on the battery and the washer. Using the negative side gives you a nice flat surface for the wire to spin around on:

Make a Magnet Separator!

Our HS age XTech facilitators had a really hard time separating the rare earth magnets- especially when it was just two, so he quickly made us this handy magnet separator. It could use some sanding but it works perfectly. You put one magnet in the little hole and the other sits on top. When you pass the top wood piece over them, it slides the top magnet off the one in the hole:

What’s Going On?

I did this activity as the beginning of a curriculum focused on electromagnetism and motors. I find that homopolar motors had kind of a “magic” effect on people and it can be difficult to relate them to the realities of everyday motors. So, I created a “motor in a bottle” to demonstrate what happens inside one of our super-recognizable hobby motors. Its a hobby motor without the outer casing. I had to glue the two magnets to nails in order to keep them in place and the bottle is to make sure no hair or other things get caught in the spinning coils. It’s not pretty but it works and the kids loved playing with it.


Student Work and Thoughts on Learning

The kids explored some great stuff. Some built the most minimal designs possible, some built flat designs that had a really cool way of spinning erratically when they got a lot of momentum:


Some build representationally- lots of frogs and bunnies, hearts and a butterfly:

A lot of them tried spirals which proved to be some of the fussiest. Adding feathers was interesting because it sometimes meant that the extra weight and wind resistance kept them from moving. Some of the most fun to look at were ones that played with asymetry and created interesting visual effects where the wire closest to the center appeared to stand still:

Some of the bases we made got decorated:

This girl worked really hard at trying a hinged design. If she had more time, she would had added a bit of solder at the hinges.

A Special Kind of Frustration?

I think I’ve seen kids go through a kind of frustration with this activity that is different from others. I think it partially stems from the feeling that while working on these, your piece simply either “works” or “doesn’t work.” This becomes compounded when kids see others around them with spinning motors while they are still struggling with theirs. It’s not everyone’s experience. Some were really excited to finally have something work for them and went on to try different designs. But I’ve noticed that kids who already tend towards perfectionism or have existing insecurities about their own intelligence (like those who are framed as behind in school), have an even harder time with this kind of frustration. A few of them even told me that even when they got theirs to work, it wasn't worth the effort it took for them to get there. It’s worth thinking more about...