Afterschool Tinkering: Hardcover Journals

Lianna and I had facilitated our first Tinkering Club session of the year at Lighthouse Community Charter School. With an entire class filled with returning students, it’s safe to say that they are as excited about tinkering as we are!

We started with a project that has now become a tradition in Tinkering Club: journal making. We believe that journaling is very important to the tinkering process, and we always want students to have a journal during Tinkering Club. For some, this is their third journal that they have made with us. In the spring, we made cardstock notebooks and last fall, we made plastic fused journals.

Amy Dobras, one of the making teachers at Lighthouse and the head Lighthouse teacher for Tinkering Club this year, and Lianna explained the activity. This time, we wanted students to create hardbound, fabric journals. The reason we chose this type of journal was out of student desire to have a more permanent, substantial journal. We also believe that repeating activities with new material sets are valuable experiences in the learning process.

In making hardbound journals, we explored creating signatures, or bundles of folded pages that are attached together, by stapling or sewing folded pages together. The hard covers were created with chipboard and students attached their signature bundles to a narrow spine. The last step was to decorate their covers with fabric.





We’re looking forward to experimenting with different styles of journal entries and note taking throughout this semester!

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


Tinkering about Thinking about Seymour

“You can’t think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something.” – Seymour Papert

MIT Papert Event

Last week, the Tinkering Studio team traveled to Boston for a symposium celebrating the life and works of Seymour Papert at the MIT Media Lab. Seymour Papert was a revolutionary educator who designed the logo turtle, taught creative computing, and wrote many seminal books including the classic Mindstorms. His constructionist theory of learning, emphasizing collaboration, iteration, and agency, has formed the foundation of our work in the Tinkering Studio and has deeply influenced the entire maker movement. MIT Papert Event

The event featured many of Seymour's close colleagues, friends, and mentees who shared big thoughts and personal anecdotes in a series of keynote speeches and panel discussions. And since an event celebrating someone who advocated tinkering and play wouldn't make sense without a hands on exploration, we set up some stations where people could try out a sound machines activity that we've been developing with the Lifelong Kindergarten group and the LEGO Foundation.


In the prologue to Mindstorms, Seymour focused on how, as a child, he fell in love with gears, and that love for a material changed his self-perception and allowed him to become more interested in learning about math, science and engineering. So for the event we thought it would be appropriate to try to emphasize gear-based sound machines by creating five pegboard tables where people could work together, using the LEGO gears to expand their constructions. MIT Papert Event

Seymour's work also focused on the powerful ideas that can emerge when playing with programming and computation. LEGO sound machines lend themselves to these types of explorations and we set up several tables with interesting shakers, music boxes, and "cows in cans" that made different sounds when programmed using a version of Scratch on an ipad controlling a WEDO motor and sensors.


This combination of sound machine stations created a joyful cacophony of bells, drums, and shakers that was audible as people got off the elevator and joined the event. The large working spaces also encouraged collaboration and we could see ideas quickly spread around the working spaces. IMG_7731

It was great to see learners of all ages experimenting and working together to create interesting rhythms and complex constructions. Some of the participants came back to the stations at each break to keep working on their ideas and testing out new ways of building.

MIT Papert Event

Sebastian worked on one of the most compelling programmed instruments that included a disc with holes, a bright LED, a solar panel and a speaker. When the light passed over the solar panel in an off/on pattern it created a frequency that could be heard over the speaker. Programming the motor to move the light back and forth over different parts of the disc made a changing tone that sounded pretty amazing. This and other interesting examples really demonstrated the high ceilings possible when combining LEGO pieces with real world sensors and materials.

MIT Papert Event

One of the best things about this unique event was that it gave us the chance to invite some of our biggest inspirations, like Eleanor Duckworth, to try out our new activities. It was so cool to be able to reflect together on the activity design, faciliation, and materials with a group of educators and thinkers that we deeply admire. MIT Papert Event

All in all, it was really special event and a great place to continue the prototyping of some of our #LEGOtinkering ideas. We plan to continue to think about how environmental elements can support collaboration, the ways that programming can be more seamlessly integrated into the activity, and which real world materials can support furthered investigations. As well, hearing about and discussing the legacy of Seymour Papert also helped to see the context of this activity and the larger Tinkering Studio program as one of the "seeds that Seymour sowed" all around the world.


Takin’ It To The Streets! (or rather, to the Libraries!)

This is a guest post by Vivian Altmann

My Exploratorium program, Community Educational Engagement, facilitated drop-in workshops on “Tinkering with Tops” at SFPL branches throughout the city this December. We’ve done a bunch of different hands-on, making and tinkering workshops at branch libraries since about 2011.

In recent years, our main and branch libraries throughout San Francisco have really flourished as more than spaces to read, study, and explore books. They’ve developed into welcoming, active community centers with all sorts of programming for folks of all ages.

My on-call staff—facilitators from the XTech program—and I visited the Oceanview, Chinatown, Bayview, and Excelsior branch libraries laden with cardboard, golf pencils, scissors, hot glue, markers, mini-binder clips, washers (for weights) and LOTS of decorative washi tape. We tinkered with tops at each venue for about two and a half hours.

Several Exploratorium programs develop activities and methods of facilitation—the Tinkering Studio, the Teacher Institute, and the Institute for Inquiry, to name a few—but tend to implement those activities in somewhat controlled settings—I mean, if one can ever really call a classroom “controlled.” But you know what I mean: settings that are familiar, with participants of a specific age range, and in known numbers.

The challenge for me and for my staff is to roll with whatever the situation presents to us. What will the space look like? How big will it be? Will there be natural light? Will we have a separate room or be in a corner of the library trying to facilitate an engaging activity while staying quiet enough not to disturb the other library patrons? How many folks will show up? Will the ages range from preschoolers to teens?

One element that we can control is making sure to have enough facilitators working that we can cover almost all eventualities.

Several things surprised me. First of all, I didn’t think that making and playing with tops would keep kids interested for over two hours. But virtually all the participants stayed that long building, decorating, testing them out and adjusting, exclaiming, “Oh, I have another idea” and creating multiple tops. It certainly helped that we had a lot of staff to assist and with whom one could engage in conversation, bounce ideas around, and try stuff out. And making sure we had a huge array of washi tape, markers, and stickers inspired creativity in both decoration and design.

I was also surprised by how engaged and focused very young children could be with tops. In one particular instance at the Oceanview branch, a girl of maybe three worked with her mom to make a top that she delightedly decorated with all the glitter and rhinestone tape we had on hand. I’m guessing the concept of balance wasn’t too important at her age. But this little girl and her mom were investigating persistence of vision! The fact that her random (to my eye) placing of glitter tape on her top took on the look of circles of bright colored light as her top spun was magical!

Tops at libraryAt this branch, we were in a small room upstairs with windows letting in bright sunlight. Spinning in the sunlight made it look almost alive! I likened it to seeing time lapse video of a crowded freeway at night, with all the lights from the cars sparkling as they streak past. You could see her excitement when her top transformed in the sunlight. This is not a photo of that particular top but another one with glitter tape (Batman also makes an appearance) to give you an idea of how the tape might reflect when the top is spun.

Tops at libraryAt the Brooks-Burton Bayview branch, a little boy who was also about three worked with his mother to create this amazing top. At three years old, he was directing her to cut this exacting, symmetrical shape which they both decorated in Raiders colors. Experimenting with one of our facilitators, through trial and error, this boy came up with the optimal spots to glue the weights (on the underside) so that it spun for almost a minute. (We brought stop-watches.) This three-year-old was given the time, space, materials, assistance, and encouragement to create this feat of engineering!

Tops at libraryI’m struck by the sense of sharing and community that always unfolds during any of our off-site workshops. My XTech facilitator staff is adept at engaging anyone—from three-year-olds to older adults. (And in two cases we did in fact have an older adult stop by, solo, to hang out, chat, and build a top. After all, libraries are a safe, warm place to come into out of the cold.)
When one of my staff was asked by a group of girls at the Excelsior branch if they could make any shape and turn it into a top, she told them to try. I mean, why not? They ended up making six tops shaped like animals. Placing the spindle properly so that these oddly-shaped tops would spin was a challenge. But through some trial and error—success! All six tops spun well.

Creating the space, time, and lively atmosphere to tinker resulted in double-decker tops, tops shaped like sea creatures, tops that looked like they were so off balance that they’d never spin but balanced by strategically-glued hidden weights, tops with complex geometric shapes, tops that were works of art. A couple of teens who stopped by the Bayview branch let their sports allegiances inform their respective designs. They spent a lot of time playing with the best way to spin—the two-finger approach or the between-the-palms method. These older kids were most engaged with how weights versus no weights would affect duration of spin.

Tops at library

Tops at library

In the coming couple of weeks, I will be trying out “Tinkering with Tops” at two other venues—a family science night with about 50 families at an SFUSD elementary school and at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital’s schoolroom. Both situations should be entirely different from each other and from the library venues. But I’m looking forward to seeing what folks create now that I’ve been given a taste of the possibilities.

Tops at library


LEGO Balance: Initial Prompts and Starting Points

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


LEGO Balance: Extra Materials and Iteration

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


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

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


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

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


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