The Tinkering Studio
The Tinkering Studio
The Tinkering Studio is a public space at the Exploratorium to support the creative ideas of visitors, collaborators, and staff. It is a place to explore science, art, and design in meaningful ways—based on personal ideas, questions, and explorations—enabling everyone to build a new understanding of the world.
Mike Petrich, Karen Wilkinson, Walter Kitundu, Luigi Anzivino, Ryan Jenkins, Bronwyn Bevan
Coming from a constructivist philosophy, the Tinkering Studio provided a rich experience of the design process in practice to a cross section of the population who would not have that opportunity otherwise. The project is an extension of the kinds of public interactivity that the Exploratorium offers. We look forward to seeing how this interfaces with schools.
The Tinkering Studio
1. Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the challenge posed to you? Did it get you excited and why?
Our team's challenge was to create an environment filled with vibrant, compelling science and design activities that would encourage the museum visitor to slow down, become engaged in a project, and get lost in the cycle of design and exploration. Whereas museum visitors typically spend 40 seconds at a standalone exhibit, we have found that they tend to spend anywhere between 40 minutes to 3 hours when engaged in a self-initiated project. The main challenge for our group was how to develop new educational activities that are engaging for the public, while at the same time continue to sustain our own professional output as a design team. The space is intended to provide visitors with opportunities to experiment, mess about, and “think with their hands”; even more importantly, we designed the Tinkering Studio as a laboratory for other museums, after-school centers, and other institutions that might be interested in supporting their public in making, tinkering, and design-based activities.
2. What point of view did you bring to the challenge? Was there anything additional that you wanted to achieve with this project or bring to this project that was not part of the original brief?
The Tinkering Studio is based on a constructionist theory of learning which asserts that knowledge is not simply transmitted from teacher to learner, but actively constructed by the mind of the learner. Constructionism suggests that learners are more likely to make new ideas while actively engaged in making an external artifact. The Tinkering Studio supports the construction of knowledge within the context of designing and building personally meaningful artifacts. We create opportunities for people to “think with their hands” in order to construct meaning and understanding.
3. When designing this project, whose interests did you consider? (Discuss various stakeholders, audiences, retailing, manufacturing, assembly, distribution, etc., for example.)
We design interactions for an audience rich with ethnic diversity, and spanning all ages and genders. It is not uncommon to find strangers collaborating on detailed projects for many hours, or to witness teenage boys sewing soft circuitry-based designs, or for underserved girls to become engaged in soldering, welding, and other tool-based activities. We design activities to allow for an easy, albeit interesting, entry point (“low threshold”), which leads to an experience rich with possibilities (“wide walls”) and with a “tall ceiling” that allows for complexification.
Many of our activities are immediately evocative for the novice, yet allow for deeper interest and problem-solving for the expert. One of the goals of the Tinkering Studio is to uncover ways for visitors to continue their experience at home; to that end, we have been experimenting with a variety of invitations: vending machines that provide the opportunity to take home an unusual or hard-to-find item (e.g. a pager motor, super-bright LEDs, etc); a website and blog providing instructions on how to do many of our activities at home, and insight into our own design and problem-solving process; and special family events to engage all ages.
4. Describe the rigor that informed your design. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) If this was a strictly research or strategy project, please provide more detail here.
As we developed the environment and activities for the Tinkering Studio, a number of design principles emerged. These principles are focused on three distinct aspects of the work: we pay close attention to (1) the design of the activity itself, (2) the elements of the environmental design that implicitly guide participants toward stronger interactions, and (3) facilitation guidelines that inform the ways and extent to which we lead participants down an optimal individual experience.
(1) Activity Design (thoughtful approaches to interacting with materials, tools, and technologies)
- Activities and investigations should build on visitors’ prior interests and knowledge.
- Materials and phenomena should be evocative and invite inquiry.
- STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education is a means, not an end in itself. Such content is often acquired as a way to achieve a learner-directed goal, but should never itself be the goal of the activity.
- Multiple pathways of knowledge and investigation should be readily available.
- Activities and investigations should encourage learners to complexify their thinking over time.
(2) Environmental Design (guides for the design and use of the studio setting)
- Examples from past projects and current activities should be visible and available to seed ideas and inspiration.
- The physical layout of the Tinkering Studio should support individual initiative and autonomy.
- Adjacencies between activities should encourage the cross-pollination of ideas.
- Activity station design should enable cross-talk and invite collaboration.
(3) Facilitation (principles that inform the interaction between Tinkering Studio staff and museum visitors)
- The facilitation should be welcoming and intended to spark interest.
- Facilitators should try to focus visitors’ attention while being mindful of each individual’s own path toward understanding.
- Facilitation should strengthen understanding by helping learners clarify their intentions through reflective conversation.
5. What is the social value of your design? (Gladdening, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, labor-mindful, environmental, cultural, etc.) How does it earn its keep in the world?
The goals of our work in the Tinkering Studio are to:
- Increase participants’ engagement and identity as competent and creative learners
- Develop learners’ understanding and fluency in scientific concepts
- Encourage continued use of the Tinkering Studio by Bay Area youth programs
The Tinkering Studio engages learners in direct interactions with concepts, processes, and phenomena in ways that engage their imagination and identities. It allows visitors to shape activities according to their experiences and interests, while engaging in science- and design-based concepts. In its active, creative, social, and collaborative forms, the Tinkering Studio provides an interesting context for studying the concept of Activated Young Learners. This includes examining how such creative and interest-driven activities deepen engagement and commitment of children in elementary and upper level school.
Tinkering Studio activities include experiences such as using circuitry to design electronic jewelry, or working with balance, symmetry, and turbulence to create and understand different behaviors in flying objects. Science and design are the means by which understanding of the world is created, not the ends.
The Tinkering Studio is organized around monthly themes, such as cardboard, circuitry, chain reactions, plastic, and light, which encompass scientific principles, natural phenomena, complex concepts, and tools. We incorporate the work of artists and exhibits as part of the these themes, to show a wide range of ways in which the same ideas can be explored.
6. If you could have done one thing differently with the project, what would you have changed?
One thing that we wish we would have done differently is incorporate more media-based tools into the repertoire of activities. The process of trial and error, the evolution of thought within an activity, the many iterations a project goes through, and a storyline of the narratives that often develop during an activity, all provide crucial insights into the learner’s process and progress. We would have liked to more tightly integrate into the environmental design the means to record, produce, and distribute these forms of documentation to new visitors in the Tinkering Studio.
We imagine that a video-based documentation tool would also be useful when sharing this work with other interested institutions around the world. We often wish we had a clearly designed invitation for participants to spontaneously share their thoughts and experiences in a video “confessional” of sorts, and find ways in which documentation ceases to be intrusive, and becomes participatory instead.