Monday, July 25, 2016

It doesn't work! Lessons learned in a maker workshop

We made rubber band race cars with Windsor kids this month in collaboration with the public library's "Ready, Set, Go" summer reading program. There are lots of instructions on the web for making these little cars.  Ours involved old CDs, paper towel tubes, buttons, glue guns, and rubber bands.

When the kids arrived, we had a prototype to show them, all the materials laid out, and we dove right in.  All the kids were able to make their cars without much trouble....or innovation. I always struggle with finding a balance between having a set project that will meet with success, yet also allow kids to struggle and solve problems. In this case, the project was straightforward.  Except, it wasn't.

After getting his car ready to go, one little boy kept saying "it doesn't work, it doesn't work."  All the other cars around him were spinning across the floor as if by magic.  He was so frustrated.

And then I realized that I had fallen into a trap--the "focus on the end goal trap."  We, the adults, had jumped right in to making the cars without taking the time to talk about the mechanics of how they worked.   Finally, just as the workshop ended, he started to understand how the rubber band made the car go.

We had held a maker session, but jumped over the learning.  Well, I learned something!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Helping students understand our complex collection

Our historic machine tools are intricate, specialized machines that made.....other machines.  It has been a challenge to figure out how to help students understand how they worked without being able to touch them.

We decided to try an intro activity for students focused on gears--spur gears, rack and pinion, worm gears, and bevel gears.  We discussed each type of gear and then they had to figure out how each of the household implements in this toolbox worked. We discussed how gears transfer energy, transform energy, and change the direction of energy. They loved the mystery box and were excited to figure out what each implement was and how it worked.

After we explored all the household implements, pairs of students were sent out onto the exhibit floor with magnetized gear labels. I have never seen students look so closely at our machines--we suddenly had kids scooting around on their backs identifying gears I had never known about.

When combined with a discussion of water power, belts, and pulleys as well as a demonstration in the working machine shop, our students are finally understanding our collection.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Evolution of Manufacturing

 Our museum focuses on the evolution of manufacturing from the first iterations of the American System to the present day.  Most of the students who come to visit come as part of their history unit on the Industrial Revolution.

To explore the evolution of manufacturing, we use visual thinking strategies to examine images of manufacturing work through time. Students then use chronological thinking skills to organize the images and then discuss how work and manufacturing has changed.


Students have a context for the machines which they then examine on the exhibit floor. All sorts of contemporary issues come in to the discussion and students have much to ponder back at school.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Challenges with e-textiles

We had our first experiment with e-textiles in the Learning Lab this winter after school. The kids were to first design something with pencil and paper, include a component that would light up, and then design the circuit.  After completing the design on paper and pencil, they would cut it out in felt and sew on all the components.  Here's an example:

There were so many challenges with this project. First there was the design challenge. When given a piece of paper and asked to draw a figure, almost all of the students were completely stopped in their tracks. They simply couldn't come up with anything. We made suggestions such as a fish, bat, robot, etc. In the end almost all of them ended up copying one of our designs.

Designing the circuit also proved to stump almost all the students. In retrospect, I should have had an entire after school class devoted to experimenting with simple circuits as it was clear the kids didn't understand how to connect the battery to the LEDs.

The challenges continued when the students then needed to cut out their paper and then their felt. Many of them (4th and 5th grade) didn't have the manual dexterity to use scissors. We had to do the cutting for several of them.

I quickly realized the next steps would also be a problem--threading the needle and sewing. One girl had sewn before, but the rest of them quickly had difficulty threading their needle, knotting the thread, and sewing a straight stitch. I untangled many, many attempts.

This was a frustrating afternoon for many of these kids. For some, a lack of resiliency, made them give up almost before they began each step.

This project which combined art, technology, and basic craft skills proved to be really, really challenging. If I were to do it again, I would offer it only to middle school students and make it a multi-session program where we worked on each of the components more slowly.  

To be honest, I'm not sure e-textiles will come back to the Learning Lab anytime soon. They components are expensive and, while there is a TINY connection to our collections and history, I can think of other more engaging activities that help us reach our goals.

Coin cell battery holder
Conductive thread
Paper & pencils

Monday, May 23, 2016

Sometimes low-tech activities are the most engaging

We added a building challenge to the Learning Lab for our general public. This proved to be popular. Every day we would find new structures left behind. Here's what we did:

1" cubes, craft sticks, 3 oz cups

Challenge #1: Build a structure with one cube as the base.
Challenge #2: Using any size base, build the tallest possible structure
Challenge #3: Build a structure with just one cup as the base
Challenge #4: Feats of Balance. Make something stick out in an impressive way!

One day I went around the corner and discovered that this visitor had managed to get every cup stacked.

Visitors of all ages really enjoyed this challenge!

Again, low-tech challenges that visitors could easily grasp have been the most engaging for our general public.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Welcoming the general public to the Learning Lab--keeping it simple!

Our new learning lab is located right in the lobby of the museum. In thinking through what to do with the learning lab during the summer months we are open, we realized that unless we were offering specific family maker day activities, hosted by staff, we needed to come up with inviting activities that visitors could immediately grasp without help--our staffing is just too limited to have someone at the tables all the time.

We had learned from visiting other museum maker spaces that complex tinkering activities offered in spaces without staff don't easily engage visitors. Our answer was to set out simple machine models with short experiments for each model.  Families stopped by throughout the summer to try them out.

Here's an example for one of the experiments. We adapted these from the instructions that came with the models.

We were pleased and surprised by how engaging this activity was. Our museum is filled with complex machines. It seemed a natural link to then offer visitors an "Eye Spy" sheet to see if they could connect their simple machines experiments to the complex machines on the exhibit floor. Making connections between technology, history, and our collections is a goal we continuously explore.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Connecting our history to our tinkering programs

The American Precision Museum is a National Historic Landmark and engineering heritage site where we seek to connect history to technology and engineering. Our telegraph project accomplished this goal by connecting our magnetism tinkering workshops to our Civil War exhibit, Arming the Union.

We used these instructions.

Materials included:
Wood Blocks
Telephone wire
Wire Strippers
Perforated Metal Hanger Strips

We also offered this program in the summer for a Family Maker Day.  It provided a nice challenge for both adults and children. Everyone was excited when they were able to make their telegraphs work! 

This program provides a nice connection between history and technology. It was here at the American Precision Museum where new technological innovations had an impact on the Civil War.