November 28, 2012, by Jean Kaneko
As the Chief Tinkerer of The Exploratory, it’s been my pleasure to work with hundreds of children, educators and parents in Los Angeles to bring Tinkering and Making STEAM (Science,Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) related learning opportunities into Classrooms, living rooms, parks, parties and community events. Our projects empower children to be curious, take risks, make mistakes, explore, and soar into possibilities they didn’t know existed.
Our after-school programs incorporate Design Thinking, Inquiry-Based Project Learning and lots of fun. Our most recent project is Theme Park for Bugs. The children begin by researching bugs using books, x-rays, and the internet. Then they use water color pencils and water color paper to create their vision of their unique bug. From there, they make their bugs using recycled materials, bristles and motors, or wool and felting needles. When making with bristle bots, they start by exploring circuits using alligator cables and then progress to batteries, DC hobby motors, and a switch. For those needle felting, the super-sharp needles encourage focus as they “jab – up and down” into wool allowing friction to make felt out of wool in the shape they desire. After weeks of struggling and failing forward, they are rewarded with LEDs, conductive tape or thread, switches or clasps to add eyes that light up when they close the circuit. This allows them to understand the difference between series and parallel circuits.
After they make their bugs, they brainstorm what kind of theme park rides their bugs might enjoy. From drawing to prototype, they work with other children to practice their collaboration, communication and flexible thinking skills. Prototypes are new for most of the children, as they have not had much opportunity to have the time to re-work ideas. Our 10-week classes are designed to enable the children to revise and reflect as much as they need. They always ask if they can take their project home early on in the sessions but by the 3rd class, they start to value the opportunity to reflect upon their work and to return a week later with new ideas. Many even ask if they could work on their projects at home, because 1 hour was not long enough. What’s remarkable, is that this class takes place after 8 hours of school!
Prototypes made with paper allow for “failing – fast and often” and practice using masking tape – a skill in it of itself. The pride is undeniable.
From prototype to building, the children continue working with different group members. Adding new opinions in the middle of a project requires a lot of practice in flexible thinking and collaboration skills.
If you’ve noticed, these are not Middle/High School aged children but rather Kindergarten to 3rd grade. The physics and math behind the theme park rides is too advanced for this age group but that doesn’t stop them from “thinking with their hands” and making. The younger children find that their limited fine motor skills allow them to contribute to the group using scissors and tape while the older children scaffold for the younger children. The multi-age group also allows children of different stages of development to work at the level they feel the most comfortable, yet provide them with the ability to stretch themselves over the 10 weeks.
What makes The Exploratory truly unique is our ability to integrate not only STEAM with story-telling, writing, and social studies, but also the habits of mind that innovative thinking requires.
Another example of this is the Tinker Games.This past summer, The Exploratory campers celebrated the London Olympics by paying homage to the Pentathlon, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary. Each group of 3-4 children were responsible for designing and making one of the five games as a part of The Exploratory Tinker Games. One group created Go-Cart/Archery. They measured, cut 2×4’s using a circular saw, drilled holes and made a go-cart and then made bow and arrows by cutting down bamboo from the backyard. These children are Kindergarteners and 1st graders.
Another group decided to make a Human Mousetrap Game. Using a zip line, they designed and made a cardboard cage that would capture the player when lured under it by home made cardboard cheese. They had to measure themselves to come up with the average size hole required to capture a child. They learned how to use a compass to make a perfect circle for the triangle swiss cheese lures and then collectively decide rules and game setup.
The 3rd game was called Go-Kart Fencing. Together they made 2 go-karts, cut bamboo for swords and used cardboard for head protection and chest plates. When they realized that they had no way of knowing if one was hit by the opponent fairly, I gave them conductive fabric, a battery pack, some wires and a buzzer. They created an open-circuit on the chest plate, put conductive fabric on the end of the “sword” and when the ball closed the circuit on the chest plate, the buzzer would sound.
The 4th game was called Catapult Dodge Ball. Two teams faced off against each other using kid designed wand catapults – some powered by motors and others by hand.
Finally, every Tinker Games needs an award platform and medals. One group made a platform using bamboo, they cut themselves and rope using lashing technique. Others made medals using LEDs.
There is nothing like the feeling the kids get when they have sweated in the unusual high temperatures of Los Angeles, used up packs of bands-aids, gotten their frustrations out by playing water balloon dodge ball and then flying down a hill in their own designed and built go-kart.
The Exploratory is currently readying a unique Maker Space where school groups can come on field trips to use 3D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines and other tools of making. We are doing Makeshops with teachers to assist them in developing projects that align with state standards and incorporate Making and Tinkering. In January, we will be starting Infant/Toddler Parent and Me programs, where the smallest children and their parents will be introduced to science concepts and given the space and time to allow the innate human desire to try and fail and try again. It is our hope that parents will gain an understanding of the value of letting young children explore and construct their own understanding of how the world works.
We are grateful for all those that have opened their doors to invite the Tinker.Make. Innovate bug into their lives. You can see more of our projects at www.theexploratory.com and tinkermakeinnovate.org.