Tinkering Fundamentals

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This summer I took my first MOOC, and I’ll write later about the experience, but right now I’ll focus on this particular course: Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist’s Approach to STEM Learning offered by San Francisco’s Exploratorium: The Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception. I dove into the class purely because I wanted to build my STEM credentials, but I discovered much, much more and rediscovered some core values that had been drilled out of me by the increased emphasis on standardized testing (At what point did I become comfortable with t-shirts that said “Do your best on the Test”?).

Background: The Rise of Tinkering

A book published by Make on Tinkering, a cover of Make, and the Exploritorium's own book on Tinkering.

A book published by Make on tinkering, a cover of Make, and the Exploratorium’s own book on tinkering.

TinkerTo busy oneself with a thing without useful results: Stop  tinkering with that clock and take it to the repair shop.

To repair in an unskillful, clumsy, or makeshift way.

-From Dictionary.com

“Tinkering” is popping up in edu-speak in discussions concerning STEM education, the Maker Movement, and Project-Based Learning. Regardless of subject area, educators should know about and practice tinkering.

The Maker Movement gained mainstream recognition with the debut of Make magazine in 2005. Since then, the movement has crept into enthusiasts’ workshops and frontier educators’ classrooms. By the early 2010s, Education Week and the Economist had articles tying the Maker Movement to large communities and classrooms. Now, education circles recognize it as a legitimate teaching practice. Resources such as Invent to Learn; Design, Make Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators; and Design Thinking for Educators guide teachers into redesigning their classrooms to incorporate tinkering and making.

A screen capture of tinkering in the classroom produced for Tinkering Fundamentals.

A screen capture of tinkering in the classroom produced for Tinkering Fundamentals.

The push for tinkering in the classroom seems to be a reaction against the streamlined standardized testing and automated, results-based, feedback-generating devices and programs implemented in schools. Tinkering demands students and educators use their time inefficiently and produce works in progress and not polished products. One of the real problems with creating a maker or tinkering-based classroom is developing meaningful assessments that will ultimately prepare students for the standardized tests they face. As much as we hate to acknowledge it, students must practice taking standardized tests to do well, and since these tests are increasingly important in our culture, educators ought to do some amount of drilling for these tests. Except for grading portfolios and reflection journals, there seems to be no easy way to connect the Maker Movement with the PARCC assessment. We are caught between a circuit board and a Scantron.

Tinkering Fundamentals: During and After the Class

tinkering 1

During the first half of the course, I completed the assignments diligently and posted on the discussion boards. The class focused on building and playing with circuits, and I raided electronic stores for LEDs, wires, battery casings, and solder.  Yet, I wondered if I was really approaching the activities with a Tinkering Mindset. The midcourse reflection assignment forced me to stop reading, pause the videos, and really ponder the purpose of tinkering.

Time dedicated to tinkering yields incomplete projects and failed prototypes, but it also provides an invaluable opportunity to explore new ideas with old things, or old ideas with new things. Despite the frequently unuseful fruits of your labor, the act of tinkering is fun, creative, thought-provoking, and meaningful. I still have circuit-based projects lying around my living room and office because my mind is still revisiting those experiences and quietly improving my prototypes until I can get back to them. There is also an emotional attachment to the objects: each embodies the experience and the learning that produced them. The circuits I originally wired work like a study guide because they remind me how a series circuit and a parallel circuit function. And I need these reminders, I tell myself, first because I’m a Language Arts teacher and not yet comfortable with most electronics, and second, because learning about these things helps me understand the world better.

My very own Scribbling Furby.

My very own Scribbling Furby.

The class did not just provide an eye-opening experience into the world of circuits; it alsotaught me how to design a tinkering unit based on the verbs: Explore, Apply, Analyze, and Create. First, we explored circuits first by trying to make a working one. By connecting wires, I discovered hands-on the difference between series and parallel circuits and how to engineer a switch. Next, we applied the new information and changed up the materials by using paper or fabric instead of free-form wires. After taking these familiar materials and applying them to a new concept, we analyzed how circuits work in the world around us. I took apart a Furby and combined the pieces with an earlier project: The Scribbling Machine. In doing this, I revisited older concepts, perfected a prototype, and added new ideas. For the last project, we created our own toy by using the MaKey MaKey.

By breaking down each step, you can replicate this Tinkering Unit to many different subjects, and The Exploratorium offers many ideas, videos, and guides to get you started. But if you don’t find what you need there, ask yourself these basic questions to get you into the Tinkering Mindset.

Explore – What raw materials can I have students play with to introduce this abstract concept?

Apply – What can students create using this abstract concept? What familiar materials will they use? How can I make something familiar, old, or boring unfamiliar, new, and fascinating by introducing this abstract concept?

Analyze – Where in the real world can students find this abstract concept in practice?

Create – What tools would help students create something new using this concept? What tool uses this abstract concept to help people create?

Infographic about the class

This class is very difficult to summarize because of all of the wandering topics and musings. Talking about the value of creativity, innovation, and tinkering is like opening Pandora’s Box and trying to repack its contents: stacked and organized. Instead, I tinkered with infographics and data to provide an overview of the class. Some of the data is self-explanatory: length of videos, pages of reading. Some of the data are subjective and the infographic does reflect some personal bias.

The rest of the data comes from the frequency of words and phrases as they appeared in the discussion boards’ search results. The favorite artist and tinkering tools were determined by looking at which appeared in the most posts. The most talked about Tinkering Tenets use a larger font. Searching the discussion boards this way showed me some surprising results (for example, high and low tech tools are of equal value), and it also taught me what others thought of the class and what others were most interested in; the word cloud neatly shows science equal to art, fun and learning both appear larger than assessment and creativity, and struggle and failure do make an appearance.

Tinkering Fundamentals

The Fundamentals of Tinkering

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3 Responses to Tinkering Fundamentals

  1. Pingback: GAVL – Joining a Digital Learning Community | Kinetic ED

  2. Liz says:

    I am just finishing up the Tinkering Fundamentals course from this summer and much of my thoughts are reflected in your own. I loved the hands-on activities and would love to be able to spend extra time continuing to mesh art and science. I am lucky enough to be able to give my own children this type of education. We are homeschoolers precisely because these standards do not mesh up with standardized testing. Proper communication is essential to success, but so is being creative and finding solutions to problems…so sad that we can’t find a way to convince legislators. 🙂


    • cjgaul says:

      I agree with your sentiments. I think homeschooling is a good solution while we wait for legislators to get with the program. School reform starts with putting your money where your mouth is. Slowly but surely I see improvements, but these are the exception and not the rule.


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