USF's Museum Blog

Tinkering at the Exploratorium

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by Melissa Zabel

Over the past few years, the number of making and tinkering spaces in museums skyrocketed! These spaces allow visitors to learn by doing, make mistakes, solve problems, and think outside the box.

As a museum studies graduate student, my first question about making and tinkering spaces is: How? How do museums and science centers design activities that inspire visitors to engage deeply in creating and problem solving?  Last summer, I investigated these questions first hand as an intern in the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium, a San Francisco museum of science, art, and human perception.

The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium

The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium

Tinkering Studio staff are prototyping a new activity surrounding linkages, rigid objects with joints that transfer movement. (Think of a scissor lift or the wheels of a locomotive.) Mechanical engineers study linkages extensively, but it’s boring for the average student to learn about them from diagrams in text books.

During my internship, I tracked the process of activity development. For two weeks, the Tinkering Studio worked closely with Noga Elhassid, an Israeli artist and teacher who creates highly animated linkages. Noga’s work is inspiring, for while her pieces demonstrate elegant mechanical movement, they’re also full for personality: an immense improvement on the dry textbooks!

The three big lessons I’ve learning about activity development are:

One of Nogas linkages - a woman rowing a boat.

One of Noga’s linkages – a woman rowing a boat.

1) Test your activity early and often.

This summer, I saw three distinct iterations of the linkages activity used with visitors. Each one has provided guests with a different challenge.

In the first iteration, visitors used cardboard strips and brads to create a moveable toy. A group of elementary school boys connected strips end to end and wielded their creations as “bendy swords”. These students used the materials, and they completed the challenge. However, creating flexible swords did not challenge them to grapple with linkages as machines.

Two visitors hard at work on their crankdriven linkage.

Two visitors hard at work on their crankdriven linkage.

2) Constraints push creativity

The second iteration required visitors to use a pegboard with the cardboard strips and brads to create movement generated by a crank. This challenge certainly pushed visitors to explore mechanical movement, but cranks are tricky to build on one’s first day with linkages.

 Linkage build on cardboard sheet by Noga Elhassid - a woman riding a giraffe.

Linkage build on cardboard sheet by Noga Elhassid – a woman riding a giraffe.

3) Providing basic examples and beautiful examples allow visitors to pick up an activity quickly and to be inspired to pursue their own vision

In the third generation activity, we used cardboard sheets instead of the pegboards. Visitors choose one basic linkage as inspiration and turn it into an animal. Clear and simple examples of linkages allow visitors to internalize their functionality quickly. Whimsical examples get the creative juices flowing.

This summer in the Tinkering Studio, we incrementally got closer and closer to an activity that allows guests to struggle with scientific concepts to create an original piece of artwork.

Looking back at my guiding question: “How do museums and science centers design activities that inspire?” I think my answer is: gradually.

Editor’s Note:  Melissa graduated from USF in December 2015.  She works full time as an educator at the Oakland Museum of California.

For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.

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