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.

OFF Logo

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


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.