Ecsite 2016 Dissect, Hack and Reimagine Toys Workshop

As Sebastian and I were dreaming up the pop-up makerspace at Ecsite 2016, we talked about running a series of activities that built on each other over time but also provided low-threshold opportunities for participants to join in the workshop along the way. As we brainstormed possible ideas, we were inspired by the twisted toy experiments with Michael Brown back at the PFA and the animatoys workshop at MUST in Milan. We thought about focusing three 1.5 hour long hands-on tinkering sessions in the makerspace on dissecting and reanimating electro-mechanical toys.

Not only would this give us the chance to try out a new extended series of activities, but it would allows us to reuse and re-purpose all of the parts from the dissected toys. In the past, our staff have scrounged some of the moving parts to create custom circuit boards, but this would be the first time where we involved workshop participants in the process of recycling all of the detritus of the toy dissection.


Before the conference, we collected about twenty singing and dancing toys and packed them in our luggage (and surprisingly got no questions from TSA). Jochen and I wrote a call for toys in the ecsite spokes magazine and were pleasantly surprised that about 10-15 conference participants brought along something to dissect. Some people even posted photos on twitter of the toys making their way to Graz. Many of these donated toys had metal parts and lacked circuit boards which made the dissection more interesting for us as well. IMG_4162

These workshops were in the program as a normal conference session that people could decide to attend based on their own interest. We let in about forty participants and paired people up before prompting them to carefully observe and then dissect the toys.


Once again, we utilized the project zero 'agency by design' thinking routine called "parts, purposes and complexities". In this framework, each group starts with a black marker and lists all the parts of the toy that they can see, hear, and feel under the skin. We encouraged them to draw a diagram of how they imagined the parts to work together inside the toy. After about ten or fifteen minutes, we passed out the dissecting tools and switched out the markers. As they cut into the toys, they kept track of what they found with a colored marker which resulted in some beautiful artworks that we hung on the wall after the session to decorate our makerspace with evidence of past projects. IMG_4195

It was great to see people sharing ideas, collaborating and learning from each other. We think that these types of hands-on activities in a conference setting can provide unique opportunities for participants to meet each other and have conversations as their hands are engaged in the dissection. We spent a few minutes at the end of the session sharing discoveries form inside the toys and encouraging people to return to the makerspace over the next couple of days to remake and hack the toy parts.


After the first session ended, did our usual work of sorting skins, stuffing, and guts into three big cardboard boxes. IMG_4287

Additionally on the second day, to make the next two sessions of "hacking" the toys easier, we did a deeper sorting of the "guts" or the plastic and metal parts. We divided the pile of plastic and electronics into a few categories to make building art machines easier. We thought that the most useful parts would include functioning moving mechanisms, disconnected motors, large plastic pieces that we could attach vibrating motors with glue sticks, and interesting connector pieces like arms, springs, and hinges.


Samar also volunteered to prep some of the electronic pieces by soldering on longer wire leads to make it easier to attach batteries to the motors and mechanisms. LG8A3708

I introduced to the activity by showing an undissected toy and explaining events of the session the day before. As we started the workshop, I noticed that there were about half returners from the first day's session and half new participants. We introduced the idea of the workshop as creating art machines from the moving parts of the toys. We built four or five examples with different types of movements.


Our initial idea for the workshop was that participants would add markers to already moving toy parts and the investigations would be mainly focused around the movements and patterns of the art machines. DSC00808

We also provided the basic materials like motors, glue sticks, and batteries so those unfamiliar with scribbling machines could experiment with vibrating creations before moving to more complicated mechanisms.


As a way to make scribbling machine 'bodies' we added in recyclable materials and it was interesting to see how the unusual toy parts worked together with common plastic and cardboard containers. IMG_4381

Soon after everyone started working, we noticed groups digging through the boxes with the decorative elements of the toys and kludging them together to make funny and whimsical creations. Once this group made the dancing and drawing toy, others saw the idea and started getting more creative and daring with their own contraptions. Although the initial plan called for saving the fabric and fur from the toys for the third day, we didn't stop people from adding these materials to their toy hacks.


The experimental nature of the activity extended to one group modifying the markers to create a "vampire bear" that made bloody marks from the ink cartridges of the red crayola markers. DSC00831

The end results of the tinkering felt somewhere in between scribbling machines and LEGO art bots with some unpredictability based on the found objects but with the ability to create really complex and intentional designs.


The wide variety of unique parts from the toys encouraged some really interesting problem posing and problem solving around different ways to create kinetic art makers. All around the room, we saw new ideas, surprising uses of materials, and lots of iteration on designs. One machine that flipped a hinge from a re-purposed mouth piece provided a really nice example of an unexpected creation. IMG_4440

At the end of the session, participants naturally gravitated to a large section of paper that we put on the floor, Jon turned on some dance music and it was a real celebratory atmosphere in the makerspace.


It was a great culminating experience to have all the designs working together to contribute to a large collaborative artwork and this showcase gave people the chance to admire to wide variety of outcomes. We ended the second day on a high note, energized by the experience, but unsure how we could top it for the last day of the workshop. IMG_4655

For the final session of the series, we planned to add in some new materials like LEDs, battery packs and conductive thread to extend the possibilities and create sewn circuits out of the discarded clothes and fur from the toys.


For this workshop we got an unexpected facilitation assist from Walter Lunzer, a fashion designer who created a beautiful geometric dress for Kathrin to wear at the gala ball. Earlier in the day he wandered in and started messing around with the conductive thread to make a small circuit and he returned to help out participants later in the afternoon. It was a great reminder of the high ceilings possible around wearable technology. IMG_4620

Some participants experimented with the unique texture of the recycled "skins" creating some really beautiful patterns to pin on to their clothes or nametags.


Sarah Alexander of Cabaret Mechanical Theater, got inspired by a different electronic part and embedded a "moo" sound maker in her fashionably designed facsinator. IMG_4650

Others took their idea a step further in the franken-toy direction and added LEDs to reanimated stuffed animals.


And we were really impressed to see some of the projects that people worked on over the course of all three days of the workshop. One group used the motion of the legs to create a switch that alternated blinking LEDs before sewing a new costume on the mechanical elements. This was one of the first times that we had ran a workshop where people worked on the same project over consecutive days and I imagine that the extended time frame with breaks in between helped people to bring some amazing ideas to life. IMG_4703

Although with the sewn circuit activity, we didn't have a big final experience, Sebastian set up a photo booth where people could document their creations and get inspired by what others had made. There were fifteen to twenty people who came to all three sessions and their creations reflected a great deal of personal expression, humor, and deep thinking.


All in all, I think this experimental workshop series really helped to create a special experience for us and participants. Although this pop-up makerspace was built and disassembled over just three days, the toy dissection and reanimation workshop supported people working together in a shared problem space, offered ways for dedicated makers to go really deep into the exploration, but still offered low threshold starting points for newcomers to the environment. I can't wait to experiment more with this workshop format here at the tinkering studio and in professional development workshops. And of course we're already thinking about ways to make the makerspace at Ecsite 2017 even better!


Tiny Theaters at Lighthouse ASP

Many of the activities we host in the Tinkering Studio are inspired by artist residencies and collaborations. This year's visit by tinkerer-in-residence Tim Hunkin was not only a great time to work together, but also prompted a new activity for us to try with students in the after school program at Lighthouse Community Charter School. Continuing on the idea of Tim Hunkin's "peep shows," we spent several weeks making Tiny Theaters. Tiny theaters take place in an enclosed cardboard shoe box and use lights and mechanical elements to tell a brief story when looking through a viewing window.


Before we dove into making our tiny theaters, we began the day by thinking about narrative and storytelling. The group worked together to tell an "exquisite corpse" style story, where each person added an element to the plot and said "and then..." to pass the story on to the next person. We ended up telling a silly story about a panda that likes peanut butter but makes a huge mess and a dog that helps clean it up. To me, this process was valuable for conveying that storytelling isn't something that's serious and unapproachable - we were able to work together to come up with ideas quickly and could shape the narrative as we went. This scaffolding helped to set the tone for the day and prepared us to dive into making our tiny theaters.

Some students weren't sure where they wanted to start and began by drilling holes into boxes as eye holes. We found that a 1" forstner bit was the perfect size to make a hole for viewing. The biggest challenge was getting through several layers of cardboard. In the photo below, Marla is showing Ahmed some helpful techniques for using the drill that she had learned earlier.


Other students came in with ideas right away; for example, Katrina wanted to tell the story of an activist she learned about on a school-day field trip the previous week who she found inspiring. She began with the elements inside the box first, building out the pieces of the story that she wanted to move, then added the circuitry for the lights and switches in the later weeks of the project.


Marla was inspired by the sea, and made a stormy scene with two sets of lights. The calm blue seas are replaced by a darker second scene that drops in, while the LEDs flash and flicker to replicate lightning.
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Antero decided to forgo the idea of a story completely, and instead built a complicated circuit with multiple lights that acts as a game. The goal is to move a dot of light that comes through a hole in the top of the box between the blue and white lights inside the box without them touching. It's a little hard to see in the photos, but it's really amazing in person. Along the way we also discovered that the hole in the top of the box acts as a pinhole camera too!
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Thalia incorporated elements of her paper circuit card into her tiny theater. The devil emoji pops up by pulling a string in the back to scare the children in the scene so they run away. Although it's unfinished in the photos, the plan is for the pop up to also activate a switch that turns on the light inside the box.

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In terms of curriculum development, I like how this activity followed our explorations of both paper circuits and sound, and was the perfect segue to continue into more complex experiments within those themes. Adding elements of movement and narrative made the projects more personal for each student than the original paper circuit cards. There was also a greater focus on designing circuits with more complexity - either by adding multiple lights, having more than one circuit on the box, or adding switches to animate the scenes. In the weeks before building the tiny theaters, the students at Lighthouse used piezo mics to explore harvesting sounds and recorded them onto greeting card sound modules. They were available as a material to incorporate into the theaters, but most in the group ended up choosing not to use them. I think if we had had more time to work on the theaters, incorporating recorded sounds would definitely have been in the next steps.

Interested in making your own tiny theater? In addition to the materials for Paper Circuits, it's helpful to have:

  • A shoe box or small box 
  • 1" forstner bit and drill for making eye holes (an x-acto knife works well too)
  • Coin cell battery holders (like these)
  • Popsicle sticks, tongue depressors, skewer sticks, etc.
  • Small weights like metal washers
  • String, yarn, fishing line, etc.
  • Hot glue gun and glue
  • Awl (to poke holes in the box for the LEDs)
  • Greeting card sound modules (for recording in the story)

Here's an example of a tiny theater that tells the story of Bruce Wayne turning into Batman to save Gotham City from the Joker. Each step uses either movement and mechanisms or switches that control LEDs to continue the narrative.


For building your theater, the beauty of this activity is that the possibilities are almost endless! There are many points you can start from, then build out new elements as you go. You can experiment with creating mechanisms that pop up, slide, drop in from outside the box, swing, or fold to help convey the narrative. You can explore circuitry by deciding where to place LEDs. You can use homemade switches to choose when you trigger lights to turn on and off. The sound modules can record songs, voices, or sound effects to add to your story. By using some or all of these techniques, you can create a small world in a box to tell your story!

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


Making of the Ecsite 2016 Maker Space

For the past four years, I've been part a group of tinkerers working with the Ecsite organization to create a pop-up makerspace for the annual conference of museum and science center professionals. Last year we were lucky to have an established fablab to host our makerspace at MUSE in Trento, Italy. But this year, I think it felt even more special to create a environment for making and tinkering from scratch in an generic conference room. A big goal of the makerspace at Ecsite is to encourage others to try our these ideas back home and I think that it's a important message to send that a makerspace can be anywhere, as long as educators and designers are deliberate in their intentions for creating an environment for learning. Here are a few of the elements that we thought about as we worked on the space:


Starting out with a blank conference room, we divided the space into a workshop area with really nice large circular tables and a presentation area in the front of the room. We created space for about forty people to be working at any given time which was the number we felt that our materials and facilitation could support. IMG_4015

We packed several art pieces made by Nicole related to the activities that we'd planned for the upcoming three days and arranged them on the door as a welcoming installation. Much like some of the large scale artwork in the tinkering studio, we hoped that this initial display would give a connection to activities we'd be running and get people curious about what might happen in the space.



The team from Science Center Netzwerk, especially Felix and Alexandra, did an amazing job collecting lots of materials that we requested beforehand. We started by laying out everything on the back tables to take inventory and then organized the workshop materials by activity so it would be easier to run multiple sessions during each day.



Happylab, an amazing fablab based in Vienna, volunteered to bring a bunch of digital tools and well as friendly wooden work benches. It was so valuable to not only have approachable and fun looking stations for the tools scattered around the room, but also a facilitator, Andreas, who introduced the tools and helped others get started. Without this personal connection, I think the fab tools would have just been technological window dressing and wouldn't have had the same impact on the participants.


Another thing that I really liked is that we gave opportunities for conference participants to contribute to the environment in various ways. For example, Jochen and I wrote an article in Spokes asking for conference-goers to bring electro-mechanical toys to the conference for the dissection and reanimation, so it was fun to see Meriem and others drop off stuffed animals to add to the collection. IMG_3976

Part of a makerspace is allowing for unexpected and whimsical installations like these used umbrellas that Jochen and Britta set up to create a different area for conversations in their 'spaces for becoming' session. This kind of personalization helped to make an environment a unique reflection of the people setting up and living in the space.



We created intentional opportunities for us and participants to share a history of the projects made in the space. We started by hanging up the toy dissection drawings after the workshop on the afternoon of the first day. As we kept accumulating objects and artifacts made in the space, we arranged them around the room and created small signs explaining the projects to newcomers to the space and valuing the contributions.


As the projects became more complex and personally meaningful over the course of the workshops, Sebastian and I wanted to document them as well as give participants the chance to take nice photos of their creations. So we set up a table off to the side of the room as a clean background for capturing what people made. IMG_4291

Another important consideration for the space is having tools available and accessible. We had some funny interactions like when Ian wanted to 3D print a bow-tie for the gala ball, but it was also really nice to have soldering irons and hot glue guns available for prepping activities and making examples. For me, a sign of success for the makerspace is that it's a place where people feel comfortable learning to use a new tool and can take advantage of the resources to accomplish their own goals and ideas.



I was happy to see that this pop-up makerspace offered opportunities for different modes of engagement. Walking around a room during a busy hands-on session, one could see makers intensely focused on their projects, conference goers and facilitators standing back and having conversations about the activities, and observers walking around the space getting a sense of the possibilities. Allowing for these different levels of participation supports people choosing to join in the experiences in a way that feels comfortable to them in the moment and can eventually lead to deeper interactions.


And while all these environmental elements like tables, materials, tools, and installations contribute to the makerspace, our real goal for the event was providing opportunities for fun, collaboration, and learning to happen between conference goers. As many museums and science centers continue to develop spaces for making and tinkering, we want to convey that at the end of the day the attitudes of the facilitators and the interactions and connections between people is what really makes a space a success. The makerspace at the ecsite conference provided so many opportunities for these types of interactions and it was exciting to see it evolve over the three days of workshops and presentations. A big part of that evolution was a new twist on our toy dissection workshop that lasted all three days of the conference and will be the subject of my next ecsite 2016 post.


Ecsite-for-All and Preconference Workshop

Earlier this month I attended the 2016 Ecsite Conference, a gathering of European science centres and museums in Graz, Austria. Over the next several days, I'll be posting about our pop-up makerspace sessions and a experimental series of workshops that we tried around toy dissection and reanimation. But to start, I wanted to share about the incredible Ecsite-for-All chain reaction and a tinkering pre-conference workshop that we held as a reflection on the event.


As a way to involve the local community in the conference, the host organizations, FRida & freD, Universalmuseum, and ScienceCenter-Network, decided to facilitate a large scale Rube Goldberg inspired chain reaction. Some of the sections were completed beforehand by groups at schools and other organizations and the rest were built on site by local participants. In a brilliant logistical move, they set up the contraptions on a series of pallets that coule be moved and reconfigured, all linked together with blocks at the start and finish of each to create a truly massive machine.

The set off was truly spectacular with over seventy-five pallets full of complicated physical contraptions, electrical components, and artistic elements. It was really cool how the chain reaction included sections created by preschoolers to art students, and everyone in between.






Since the chain reaction activity both exemplified many of the tinkering studio learning dimensions and provided a concrete example of a community engagement event, a group of us thought that it would be a unique opportunity for a pre-conference workshop around these topics. We encouraged participants to attend the chain reaction on the day before the session and make observations about the facilitation, environment, materials, and social interactions. IMG_3732

The next morning we starting the workshop by acknowledging the potential fuzziness surrounding both of the terms "tinkering" and "community" and began to construct a working definition of each for the conversations over the course of the day. The format for talking about "tinkering" was a little playful with people introducing their partners from other countries with an attempt at pronouncing the translation for tinkering in each person's native language. And Vanessa from TRACES and E-Fabrik in Paris, led the group in an initial conversation centering on the idea that working with other communities isn't about quick fixes or outward facing policies, but more importantly should be focused on changing ourselves and our processes to make authentic connections.


After the initial presentation and discussion, we wanted to give participants a hands-on experience to build on. As a example of a tinkering activity with a high potential for social scaffolding and collaboration, we picked an old favorite, balancing objects. Sebastian and others prototyped this activity at Open:MAKE events back in the PFA and at Maker Faire and we were looking forward to coming back to it with fresh eyes and a slightly different focus. IMG_3750

Of course each time we try an activity in a new setting, we learn about different materials and ideas. This time, we were intrigued by a honeycomb packing material which made for a nice and solid, but light base for the objects.


We thought this activity would be a good fit for the session because while people work individually to create an interesting balancing sculpture, they can then combine their creations to make a collaborative art piece larger than the sum of its parts. The end result was great, although next time I'll be sure to pack a couple of small computer fans to get the objects moving on the air for a more dynamic installation. After spending about an hour working on the activity, we had about the same amount of time to examine the learning dimensions as a tool for reflecting on the experience. IMG_3870

After analyzing the tinkering activity from a learner's perspective, workshop attendees got the chance to hear about five quick experiments in involving a specific community (internal staff, teachers, local youth, makers, and refugees) in a tinkering program. Each program leader shared about why they thought tinkering experience contributed to the community building, as well as successes and challenges of the programs. It was too short of a time to really go in depth, but I think it was valuable to get a sense of different models and ideas.


After lunch we went in depth on the Ecsite-For-All event. Just about half of the participants actually made it to see the activity the day before so we decided to print out some photos from the chain reaction and have people get into groups to describe things that they noticed either in the photos or in person the previous day. IMG_3883

We borrowed a reflection technique that I learned from Ricarose Roque to debrief the ecsite-for-all event, grouping our observation into green, yellow, and red post-its representing things we liked, things we had questions about, and things to improve upon for next time. It was a great tool and a nice visual way to present reflections to the larger group.


I hope that people left the workshop with some inspiration for how tinkering activities and events can be used to begin to build community with internal staff, local groups, and those not usually engaged with museums and science centers. It was really nice to have a specific experience to reflect on together and use as a model for how we can plan and debrief these types of events. To me it's much easier to have a shared real life experience to reflect upon as a starting point for larger discussions. And as a way to build excitment and generate interest, the chain reaction and subsequent workshop provided a great start to the activities, presentations, and conversations around making and tinkering that continued throughout the ecsite conference.


Embrace Your Tools: Soldering

Our public space give us the chance to introduce tools and techniques to museum visitors as they engage in the process of making personally meaningful artifacts. As we highlight the tinkering tenets for the national week of making, I wanted to write about soldering workshop as an example for “embrace your tools”.


The topics of soldering workshops that we’ve found to be successful like paper circuits and LED tiaras are playful and incorporate elements of art. They take into account the learners interest and give a reason for learning how to use the tool.

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Soldering irons can be seen as an intimidating for lots of kids and I’ve noticed that young visitors are often apprehensive to get started. We always are careful to spend time in the beginning explaining how solder works (like glue for metal), which parts of the iron you can touch, and some general safety tips. I think it’s important to both be serious about the fact that it’s a real (and potentially dangerous) tool but also that we trust kids in the workshop to take it seriously.


As a facilitator, after the initial explanation, I spend a lot of time watching kids to see if they’re getting comfortable with the tool. It’s important to be attentive but not overbearing as kids figure out the technique.


Over the course of the project I’ve noticed kids becoming more and more fluent with the soldering iron. When they first get started they are usually tentative with the iron, unsure about how to hold the solder or where to melt the metal. But after fifteen or twenty minutes you can see the difference feel more confident, are enjoying the process and reevaluate their abilities and interests.

These are quick interactions on the museum floor that I can see having a long-lasting effect on some participants. A soldering iron is a pretty accessible tool, not too expensive and easy to set up in a small space, but it opens up such a wide range of projects and possibilities.

Maker Faire 2014

I feel that in contrast to a very step-by-step instruction focused on completing a circuit board project, activities where people define their own goals and take time to build their own understanding of a tool’s parts and purposes allow for a deeper relationship with the process. When we say “embrace your tools”, this starts from the beginning, providing opportunities for people to get introduced to tools in a friendly, approachable and generative way.