Tinkering Tenet: Use familiar materials in unfamiliar ways

As we develop new actives in the Tinkering Studio, one common thread throughout is that we often find ourselves repurposing common materials for new uses. Whether it's strawberry baskets as the base of a scribbling machine, dixie cups as fliers in a wind tube, or copper tape meant for stained glass acting as a wire for paper circuits, there's always something that gets used in a slightly unusual or odd way. This practice has become so ingrained as part of our work that we've made it one of our Tinkering Tenets in The Art of Tinkering.

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One of our favorite materials is the near-universal cardboard. It seems to find its way into almost any prototyping session we do. Out of curiosity, I did a search on our blog to see how many times cardboard came up and there are 184 results! We have just over a 1000 posts published, so that's almost one in five that mention it as a material in some way. Those projects and experiments have cardboard run the gamut of uses, from signs and walls, to wearable costumes, to mechanical contraptions, to giant pop ups, and more.

Our love affair with cardboard has always existed, but it really took off in 2011 when we dedicated the whole Tinkering Studio at the Palace of Fine Arts (our old location) over to a local artist group called the Cardboard Institute of Technology. Over the course of a month they slowly transformed the Tinkering Studio from a blank slate into a cardboard subterranean underworld. Throughout the month we hosted several workshops and activities around building with cardboard. Visitors made costumes, built tiny towns, and contributed to the CIT installation itself. 

Ann Weber's cardboard art workshop, Day 3

The month culminated with the opening of Sub-Terrain and  Open MAKE: Cardboard, an event completely dedicated to the multipurpose material. Below you can see a brief tour of the interior of the space transformed with one simple material (and a lot of creativity and collaboration):

Another activity we love is cardboard automata. Historically, automata were commonly made out of wood or metal. In the Tinkering Studio we've experimented with making them out of wire, wood, paper, and even trash, but we keep returning to cardboard as a base material for building because of its flexibility and familiarity. It's fairly quick to get started building out a cardboard support, then grows in complexity as you add mechanical motions to animate a scene or figure above. Cardboard is also just really versatile as a building material for automata, so it can be the exterior support, decorative elements, cam followers, and more. 


We've spent a lot of time lately experimenting with linkages (simple mechanisms that transfer one type of motion into another type of motion) using materials like LEGO, clothespins, straws, and more. Our most successful material for getting these contraptions to work has been cardboard. Using cardboard as the base material we've been able to make 3D sculptures, flat animated scenes, and lively animals that move with linkages.
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This weekend in the Tinkering Studio we'll be making these fun linkage machines out of our favorite, humble material - cardboard. We'll also have a live stream set up to see cardboard creations being built at other museums around the country for National Week of Making. Come by and tinker with us!

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

Merge science, art and technology!

To start off celebrating the National Week of Making in the Tinkering Studio, we are having Beetleblocks+Watercolorbot workshop today, highlighting one of our favorite tinkering tenets “Merge art, science and technology!”

Beetle Blocks is a visual programming environment for designing 3D objects. The interface is very similar to Scratch: you snap blocks of code that tell the computer what to draw and how to move in a 3d axes (x-y-z), and you can export the design to a 3D printer to create a physical 3D object.

In the Tinkering Studio, because 3D printing often takes a long time and cannot serve for everyone in our drop-in style workshop, we have been exploring an alternative to 3D printer, and we've found that using Evil Mad Scientist's WaterColorBot as an output tool is our favorite since it takes only a few minutes to print out and at the same time it adds artistic elements to the project!

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It is quite interesting to see how the WaterColorBot interprets the Beetle Blocks code. All of sudden, the clean and systematic geometric shape on the computer screen becomes a unique art piece. When the WaterColorBot executes a painting with the paintbrush, you see vivid and fluid color being drawn on the paper. Those colors sometimes bleed into one another, which is something you didn’t design on the computer. Because of this fluid nature of watercolor, the outcome always brings something unexpected but it often adds a nice surprise to your project.

Here are some of our favorite examples:
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We see people spend a long time trying out programing to draw geometry shapes and the process is very iterative; they are quickly creating a code with blocks, testing out to see if it draws as expected, carefully observing the result, then revising the code and testing out again… Beetle Blocks on its own is already very interesting and engages people in an enriched tinkering process, but when you combine it with WaterColorBot, it makes the process even more tinkerable, and we think this is a perfect example of “Merging science, art and technology!”

Here are a few reasons for that and why we love this activity:
1) It is truly rewarding when you get an artistic geometric shape as a result of trial and error of coding. During the process, you are naturally exploring coding concepts such as loops, variables, and functions. Math and geometry are also involved here.

2) You kind of forget the fear of being “wrong” because your code usually doesn’t work the first time :-) That's the nature of coding, and it is totally ok not getting it right. Tinkering doesn’t start without failure, does it?

3) Because the coding process is iterative, you are naturally adopting a scientific method that is basically a cycle of making a hypothesis, doing experimentation, observing the result, and revising the code.

4) There is something interesting happens when your design gets transformed from digital (Beetle Blocks) to physical (WaterColorBot), suddenly you get your design existing as a concrete object that you can touch and feel. When you get an “object-to-think-with” in your hands, it accelerates tinkering.

5) It starts out with a block of code, which is very abstract and does not mean anything to you at first, but at some point the project turns into personally meaningful creations for you. It might be when you see your code draws a line, or when you get the first geometry shape, or when you see your design gets printed out. In any case, when you are working on something personally meaningful, you get especially motivated to make it work.

6) WaterColorBot always brings unexpectedness and whimsicality to your design. Here, getting the outcome does not become the end of your project. You feel you want to try more. Whether it is revising the code, tweaking the WaterColorBot setting, or replacing the brush, you are making a small but important adjustment for you. You find yourself in an eternal loop of iteration!


The possibilities with the Beetleblocks in the Tinkering Studio is not only limited with WaterColorBot. We’ve tried different tools and had fun to see a different outcome with each tool.
Beetle Blocks + Laser Cutter:
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With Beetle Blocks, you can easily repeat a certain shape to make a beautiful geometric art which makes a great project for laser cutting. It is great to have lots of different materials such as paper, wood, plastics, or fabric to make different physical objects!

Beetle Blocks + Vinyl Cutter:
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Or how about making a sticker? Vinyl cutter cuts out the shape fairly quickly.

Beetle Blocks + 3D printer:
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Lastly, this is what Beetle Blocks is originally for... 3D printing! Luigi made these projects. You can read about that here.

With the maker movement on the rise, there are more and more maker spaces equipped with digital fabrication tools like 3D printers and laser cutter. Turning a digital design into a physical object using those tools is fun, but the process of doing it is not always engaging. Some people simply download and print a ready-made design from an online repository like Thingiverse. We’ve found that combining Beetle Blocks with a digital tool makes a project very engaging. It is exciting to see that people going back and forth between digital and physical tools to pursue their personally meaningful creations.

For us, just having fancy technologies doesn't mean a lot. We've found that those tools become powerful and meaningful only when people find a "right" reason to use them. So, try to set up a context so that the materials, tools (digital/analog) and outcomes all spark people’s curiosities and their motivation for making and tinkering! We often find the magic of tinkering happens at the intersection of art, science, and technology.


About the development of Beetle Blocks and WaterColorBot activity, Ryan has written many blog posts:
- Beetle Blocks and WaterColorBot experiments (2015/06/25)
- Beetle Blocks and Turtle Art more explorations (2015/07/07)
- Nerding out visual programming (2015/07/17)
- First Tinkering Studio BeetleBlocks Workshop (2015/08/25)
- Beetle Blocks workshop iterations (2015/09/11)

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

Sound machines with Lego @Maker Educator Meet-up

Last Thursday we had a meet-up for Bay Area Maker Educators (BAME) in the Learning Studio. This time, we shared one of our new activities that we have been developing recently - Sound Machines with Lego linkages.

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It was the end of the school year and we were little bit worried about the attendance since a lot of schools were already going into summer mode, but thirteen maker educators participated in the event. After Lianna briefly introduced the idea of Sound machines, everyone dived into his/her own creation. I like seeing how quickly people get engaged in this activity.

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It was great to see how they used (or at least tried to use) the materials, music instruments, pegboards, and Lego parts. For example, just by looking at how people used the pegboard, we were convinced that our small pegboards communicated well that it could be used in versatile ways. People used it sideways, facing up (or facing down to hang something), and there was also one group that connected two pegboards together to share a motion with one motor. We were glad to know that our custom-made pegboards support and encourage many ways of building Sound Machines.

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The Lego pen holder that Sebastian designed while we were developing Lego Art machines worked great to hold something skinny like a mallet, but in this activity we've noticed that most of the instruments had a thick handle so they wouldn’t fit. This makes us think about to design and 3D print larger pen holders.

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On a related note, the pre-drilled holes that Nicole had made on the music instruments were helpful for people to attach the instrument to the mechanism. Having several holes on one instrument is better because it gives people options on how to attach the instrument to make it sound differently. Since these music instruments and noise makers are usually in weird shapes and do not go along with Lego system, figuring out a good way to attach them would be nice so people do not have to struggle there.

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Some people mentioned that having this Lego part was also really good because it suddenly expanded the possibility of machine construction. By having this piece, it changes how things move on the same mechanism, and your Sound Machine becomes 3 dimensional!

MEM Sound Linkages

My favorite Sound Machine from that night is this one. Usually people try to control only the mallet to hit different notes on the chime, and most of the time it doesn't work well. But here, this group successfully controlled the mallet AND the chime so the mallet can hit a different note each time while the chime moves back and forth. It was pretty amazing to see how constantly it plays the three different notes!

In the discussion, people commented that the materials were inviting not only boys but also girls. They said that it was inspiring to have non-Lego items such as musical instruments or other everyday objects around the table. We also talked about differences between cardboard linkages and Lego linkages. One advantage of using Lego is in the precision. Lego enables people to make a working linkage mechanism instantly, while with cardboard you need to be careful in measuring and cutting to make successful linkages. (Although some people mentioned that the cost of having Lego, especially the power functions such as motor and batteries, is something we can't ignore...)

Another difference that I thought is that Sound Machine gives immediate feedback on people's creation. If you see your music instrument didn't sound or your motor is spinning for nothing, you know immediately something is not working and try to fix it. This cycle of testing, getting a result, and fixing seems to be a lot shorter than that of cardboard linkages. These are the things that we would like to keep thinking about while further developing linkage activities.

One last reflection from that night was that we witnessed a marriage proposal in the learning studio for the first time ever! Sam, who works at the Exploratorium, proposed Ray who was participating in the tinkering meet-up! hooray!
Tinkering proposal
There was love and laughter, and the room was filled with charming sounds of Lego linkages.
It was a very memorable tinkering session.


Here are some resources for this activity:
- How to make the Lego peg board on Instructables
- How to make the Lego pen holder on Thingiverse
- The other photos and videos from this event were here on Flickr


Fieldnotes as a Reflection Tool

This spring we have the privilege of working with the After School Program at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland to explore tinkering and making in after school time, and how it has the potential to make connections with learning in outside experiences (you can read more about the project here). Jean and I are continuing our "experiment in blogging" and sharing our reflections on how things have been going so far.

Jean: As we described in our last blog together, we have been jointly analyzing observation fieldnotes in an effort to learn across our different perspectives in teaching and research. More specifically, we have been thinking about the creative ways that youth solve problems as challenges arise in their Making projects.

Today we want to share what we have learned through collaborative data analysis with examples from Marceline's various Making projects. By looking at her projects and process together--both through fieldnotes and in reflection conversations--we have been particularly struck by the ways she has taken on challenges, fearlessly explored ideas for potential solutions, and engaged both materials and tools in ways that we never thought of before.

As a researcher, I was struck by Marceline’s creative engineering design thinking--from her paper circuit to her tiny theater to her sewn circuit (see photos). Marceline did some interesting engineering with paper to make a circuit 3-D, to move scenes in her theater, and to design the armature of a sewn-circuit ballerina. Yet Lianna is the one who helped me notice how Marceline’s ideas became more complex over time.

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Marceline engineers paper in order to lift her drawing of a cartoon character (Marshall Lee of Adventure Time) above her circuit so that the project could take on a 3-D feeling. She also cut and folded paper to focus blue LED lights Marshall’s sunglasses while hiding the circuitry beneath.

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Marceline undergoes an iterative design process to engineer the movement of paper scenes within the contained space of her tiny theater box without necessitating folding paper or moving scenes in and out of the box.


Marceline creates a wooden skeleton to support the fabric body of a ballerina she wanted to use as the base of her sewn circuit project.

While reflecting on learning together, Lianna brought up the intentionality of engaging youth with activities that build on each other over time. Each project has multiple entry-points so that any new learner can make, but for returning students, these projects are also meant to build on what was learned in previous weeks. My conversation with Lianna made me realize how Marceline’s starting point was a paper-based activity that facilitated her process of thinking about how flat paper can be used to develop 3-D forms. This experience formed the basis for how Marceline engineered with paper in her tiny theater project; Paper didn’t just form the surface on which to draw her school images, but similar to her paper circuit explorations, Marceline saw the potential for paper to influence the internal architecture of space in the box as well as take on specific movements from scene to scene. This way of using paper as engineering medium and tool then gave life to how she approached designing and building a 3-D ballerina for a sewn circuitry project. Graph paper was used to map out the physical dimensions of her ballerina, taking ideas from a flat image toward constructing a 3-D structure.

Lianna: Complexification of ideas and thinking over time is so valuable to me as part of the tinkering process; it’s such a strong indicator of learning based on past experience, and I’m so glad our conversations are drawing these ideas out!

One way the fieldnotes have been valuable to me has been the opportunity to get a glimpse into a student’s process during the moments when we aren’t there as facilitators. For example with Marceline’s tiny theater project I was one of a few facilitators in the room who helped her at various points. I only saw bits and pieces of her process of figuring out how to move her paper scenes within the box.

Reading through the fieldnote allowed me to get a fuller idea of not only how her ideas changed over time, but also ways in which we as facilitators can help (or hinder) the students we work with. The fieldnote documents several occasions of facilitators stepping in, offering a suggestion, then stepping out to allow her to continue working. Marceline was able to try several suggestions and choose which ones she wanted to test and which she could pass on. Some were more closely related to her original idea, but others steered her in a really different direction.

While I think the process of facilitators stepping in and out is a great one in general, it did make me wonder if at some points we over facilitated her process. As a facilitation team, we didn’t pay enough attention to each other and how often we were intervening. It also made it hard to know which ideas were hers and which were ones that came from facilitators. Because we could read and reflect on the fieldnote as a team, it gave us a chance to go back and discuss our role in how we work with the students.

This gets back to the complexity of Jean’s original point. In both our work and in students’ work, there are no “right” answers about how we approach them. I think it’s still an open question of “did we over facilitate?” that we can examine. By continuing to be reflective around the work we do, it helps us to grow as facilitators and, more importantly, provide the best experience for the youth we work with.

Jean: I am glad to know that research fieldnotes and our conversations together can serve as useful supports for reflecting on and improving teaching practice. The insights that Lianna, Sarah, and other afterschool educators have shared with me definitely impact how I see and make sense of student learning. It will be exciting to see how our collaboration continues to support deeper analysis of learning and pedagogy as we begin analyzing fieldnotes, student work, and interviews this summer!

Overdeck Family Foundation

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


National Week of Making

We’re celebrating National Week of Making next week by having different members of the Tinkering team share their perspective on aspects of tinkering at the Exploratorium.

To frame the week, we’re pulling a page out of The Art of Tinkering book, where we tried to capture our approach of working with artists, scientists and educators to explore the intersections of art, science and technology through tinkering  Tinkering Tenets are a collection of ideas that guide our work and influence choices we make in programs we offer.  They’re not comprehensive, but aimed at developing a tinkerer’s disposition in all of us.

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We should have left a blank space on the page to signify the growing nature of these ideas. What tenet would you add that relates to your approach to making or tinkering?

Each day, during #WeekofMaking, (June 17-23), we’ll emphasize a different Tinkering Tenet, offering ways to think about it and even take action on it - either here in person with us at the Exploratorium, or from a distance if you’re not geographically close to San Francisco. 

Let's start making & tinkering together!