A few years ago, a teacher in New York asked me to describe how I would do a simple project in a classroom setting that retained key elements (open-ended, self-directed, engagement-based) of the Tinkering School pedagogy.
Doodlebots – an exploration of kinetics
There are six important ingredients:
– batteries (AA)
– wire (almost any insulated wire will work)
– motor (http://bit.ly/amI7ik – $1.09 each if you buy 10 or more)
– duct tape (although we’ve had some good results with scotch tape)
– pens (felt-tips produce the brightest marks)
– stuff from the recycle bin (plastic tubs, cardboard, lids, etc)
You may also want some scissors, a utility knife, and some stiff wire (home improvement stores sell a soft iron wire for tying rebar together that is easy for kids to work with – we keep a couple of rolls around just because it’s so handy).
Remember that this is an exploration, not a series of goals per se. We want the kids to discover the properties of the materials, share their discoveries virally, and build on each other’s ideas. The adult collaborator is there to help and should only offer suggestions when specific questions are asked. Avoid getting the kids into an “ok, I did that, what next?” cycle by never directly answering the “what next?” style questions – the kids will look to each other for inspiration. Only if there is a real drop in momentum should the collaborator actively nudge the kids in a direction (and often the best way to do this is if the collaborator starts building something themselves – the kids will see what they are doing and start to emulate it, then discover a new path).
Finally, don’t reveal all of the materials at once.
Stage 0 – prep
If the kids are young (say less than 6), cut some 6 inch lengths of wire and strip the ends (you need about 1/2″ of bare wire on each end of a wire). Each kid will need two wires. If it’s bigger kids, just put the spool of wire out and give them the wire-strippers to cut and strip their own wires.
Cover the table with butcher paper to protect it from getting covered in doodles.
Stage 1 – playing with motors
Put the motors, the wire, the tape, and the batteries on the table (one motor and one battery per kid). I like to say “These are for you.” to make it clear that they each now “own” a motor and a battery. Allow the kids to discover how to get the motors going. There is no potential for disaster here and when the kids get the motors going they will revel in their success. Often there are a few kids with enough of an inkling of how motors and batteries work that they will get things going. If after 10 minutes of fooling around, no one has a motor going, the collaborator should demonstrate. Once the motors are going, let the kids play with them for a good 10-20 minutes. If there is active exploration of spinning motors, let it keep going.
Stage 2 – Vibration
All it takes create motion is some vibration. The easy way to do this is to put tape on the shaft of the motor, or tape something to the shaft of the motor. Often a hunk of tape is sufficient.
Stage 3 – Chassis
Bots need bodies. Introduce the collection of recycled materials. No two creations will be the same, and it’s not a competition (although sometimes kids will compete with each other spontaneously) so it’s not important that everyone get exactly the same materials in this stage. Just put the pile out and suggest that they might want something to attach their motors to – the kids will pick out the things that inspire them. This stage takes a while. There are an infinite number of solutions to the problem of getting the motors to move the bots, so let the kids discover these the same way they discovered how to get the motors going – let them fool around.
Stage 4 – Doodling
Bring out the pens. You hardly have to say anything, but if they get distracted decorating their machines (a perfectly acceptable behavior), select the most disengaged child and ask if you can “try something”. Add the pen to the bot in the least sophisticated way possible and set it down on the work surface to see what happens.
Lots of people have done this project in one form or another, but the Exploratorium also has a nice write-up for use in the classroom.