Research and Development
The Tinkering Studio group is first and foremost a Research and Development program within the Exploratorium dedicated to developing hands-on activities that explore learning and creativity through making. For over ten years we have been developing ways in which learners can explore science, art, and technology by building projects, solving problems, and creating personally meaningful solutions to achieve their own goals.
The creative engine where our activities and exhibits are developed is called The Learning Studio. Physically adjacent to The Tinkering Studio, this is where members of the team collaboratively try out ideas, build prototypes, discuss experiences on the floor, and occasionally get up to really weird experiments.
The pedagogy that we base our work on has its origins in constructivism, a term coined by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget that expresses the belief that knowledge is actively constructed in each learner’s mind based on our own individual experiences; it is not simply passed down from a figure of authority through direct teaching. According to this philosophy the most effective way to teach is to create the conditions for learners to set their own learning goals, and provide them with the tools and the environment to reach their own conclusions, and that is exactly what we strive to do.
We have also been heavily influenced by the theory of constructionism, which is Seymour Papert’s expansion of Piaget’s ideas. It posits that learning can happen most effectively when people are also active in making tangible objects in the real world.
We develop our activities and exhibits through experimentation, reflection, and constant iteration. Here’s an inside look at three development arcs.
Wind Tubes is an activity that allows visitors to explore moving air with a variety of everyday objects. It was developed during the “Summer of Tinkering” of 2007, when we self-imposed the goal of developing four new activities in four months. We set out to explore the theme of “wind” with no preconceived expectations of what the final activity would look like. Along the way to perfecting our first wind tube we explored horizontal fans blowing air across a pegboard so you could build propellers, a jerry-rigged homemade air hockey table, and many other false starts and dead ends. The final design is deceptively simple, yet allows for rapid iteration with simple materials to get flying contraptions to spin, float, tumble, or shoot straight up.
A Marble Machine is a creative ball-run contraption, made from familiar materials, designed to send a rolling marble through tubes and funnels, across tracks and bumpers, and into a catch at the end. One of the oldest and most venerable of our tinkering activities, it has its origins in Bernie Zubrowski’s book Raceways: Having Fun with Balls and Tracks. The original intent was to build a personal surface that would allow for the modular placement of a variety of objects that could function as tracks, tubes, jumps, receptacles, etc. We wanted to use easy to find and familiar materials, so pegboard was the obvious choice for the board, and over time we have accumulated a collection of hardware and household items (lengths of corner moulding for tracks, kitchen funnels, clothespins, broccoli rubber bands, copper pipes, etc.) whose use can be playfully subverted into creating a ball run.
In the last few years we have devoted a lot of effort into turning this individual activity into a social and collaborative one, and went through many incarnations of what we refer to as the “Marble Machines fort,” a larger pegboard surface that allows multiple visitors to the museum to build next to each other separately, or to join their efforts together into a combined ball run.
The Musical Bench is an exhibit which makes music when people touch, kiss, or hold hands. It uses simple programming, an Arduino board, and the musical talents of Eric Rosenbaum to turn the electrical resistance value, as current flows through two or more people’s bodies, into an ever changing musical motif that shifts its pitch up or down accordingly. Over the years we played around with playful ways to approach electricity and an understanding of circuitry, and one of the most viscerally powerful experiences for people is the realization that their bodies are conductors! Initial experiments focused on using ice balloons as conduits for the electricity, and as you touched them the melting ice would affect resistance and create interesting notes. Then one night Karen and Mike were working late at the museum and decided to modify the only drinking fountain so that it would make music as people drank from it! Another variation was called Ohm is where the art is, and encouraged people to take off their shoes and stand on two conductive pads, then touch, kiss, or hold hands with each other to produce various sounds. Eventually, we thought of modifying on the the benches scattered all over the museums so that they contacts would be in the arm rests: the benches are long enough that it really take two people to activate the exhibit.