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December 1, 2014

Tinkering Is Serious Play


The maker movement shows that creativity, playfulness and ingenuity can fuel STEM learning.

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Gas-powered Roman chariots, singing greeting cards, play dough circuit boards, and homemade voltage detectors are just a few of the science projects you might see when you apply a maker approach to STEM education.

The maker movement celebrates creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship through the design and construction of physical objects. Maker activities may come across as playful, even slightly wacky, explosions of inventiveness. But in education contexts like schools, museums, libraries, and after-school programs, research shows that if the invitation to creativity is accompanied by intentional structure and guidance, maker activities can be channeled to support deep student learning (Blikstein, 2013; Vossoughi, Escudé, Kong, & Hooper, 2013).

At the Tinkering Studio in the Exploratorium, a museum of science, art, and human perception in San Francisco, we've been developing maker activities for almost two decades. During this time, we've observed how tinkering can support children's development of productive science learning identities. By this we mean that young people become interested in science, feel capable of doing science, and want to do science (Krishnamurthi, Bevan, Rinehart, & Coulon, 2013).

Productive science learning identities are crucial for students choosing to pursue science academically, professionally, and through lifelong engagement. STEM-rich maker activities are powerful places for this identity work because they can accommodate a wide variety of interests and experiences, they blend intellectual and socioemotional engagement, and they provide opportunities for young people to develop, pursue, persist with, and accomplish original ideas and solutions in which they can take pride and ownership.

From Wind Tubes to Circuits

Wind tubes are an example of a maker activity that can serve as a motivating, engrossing introduction to scientific understandings.1 The wind tubes activity consists of two to three fans facing upward, each set to a different speed (low, medium, or high). A clear acrylic tube is placed over each fan, with an 8-inch gap at the bottom so that objects can be inserted into the tube and lifted up by the breeze. Children work with an array of low-cost materials—berry baskets, cardboard toilet paper rolls, pipe cleaners, straws, masking tape, pieces of cardboard, feathers, tissue paper, string, Wiffle balls, and so on—to construct objects that will float or fly.

The first object children make typically shoots up and out of the wind tube too quickly, or perhaps sinks down and doesn't fly, or bobbles erratically in the tube. They return to the worktable to refine the design, perhaps to add more stability, to streamline, to add weight or remove weight. They test and retest their designs.

Through this process, learners engage in making predictions, designing, testing, revising, and retesting. They grapple with the scientific phenomena of symmetry, balance, weight, and turbulence. When teachers use wind tubes in the classroom, they might provide a period of initial experimentation and then ask students to record their predictions, data, and evidence-based assessments of the relationship of design to flight. As students share their data, they are likely to observe that more than one design element produces similar results. Can they further explore these similarities to elucidate key scientific principles from their firsthand experiences? With students now personally invested in the phenomena, the activity opens the door for further studies of motion and stability, forces and interactions.

Making might look like fun and play, but as Edith Ackermann from MIT says, play is a child's most serious work (Duffalo, 2010). Indeed, both Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget have argued that play is a central developmental process for learning.

An example of channeling playfulness into curricular learning comes from the Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, California, where high school students have access to a making space, located inside their science classroom, to build and test their developing scientific ideas and understandings. As a part of the 9th grade physics class, led by Ed Crandall, students are asked to develop investigations that may often require designing and engineering various apparatus that they can use to test their hypotheses or assumptions. One student, a swimmer, explored whether it was possible to build a gill that swimmers could use to extract oxygen from water. Another student, a passionate graffiti artist, designed and experimented with different spray paint can nozzles.

A third group of students wondered why raindrops, falling from such dizzying heights, don't kill people when they fall on their heads. They decided to build an apparatus that would enable them to simulate and measure rainfall. Their goal was to use a counteracting flow of air to suspend a drop of water; when the water drop stopped falling, they could measure the air velocity to determine the rate at which the "rain" was falling. The process of developing the questions; identifying the parameters and variables; and designing, constructing, and fine-tuning a wind tunnel to accomplish their goal ultimately deepened the students' commitment to the process of understanding how friction, gravity, and velocity interact to save us from the force of falling raindrops.

As these examples show, maker activities not only help students develop deep, firsthand learning about scientific concepts, but also engage them in the practices of science and engineering (National Research Council, 2012)—developing questions, defining problems, testing solutions, responding to feedback, and generating explanations or solutions.

A Growing Movement

Making as an instructional practice has deep roots. John Dewey, Jean Piaget, John Friedrich Froebel, and Maria Montessori all promoted making as central to the process of learning. Seymour Papert (1993) argued that the process of physically constructing an object is an effective way for students to both develop and demonstrate understanding. The current maker movement extends and updates this history by integrating digital tools and technologies (such as small, low-cost microprocessors or 3-D design software) into activities that support young people's design and construction goals.

Across the United States, schools, science museums, children's museums, and libraries are designing and building maker programs. School districts in Abemarle County, Virginia; Scarsdale, New York; Lakewood City, Ohio; and Monticello, New Jersey, have created dedicated makerspaces. Brightworks, a school in San Francisco, has organized its entire curriculum around making and invention. Poughkeepsie Day School in New York's Hudson Valley has two different dedicated makerspaces for its preK–12 student body, including a media-rich makerspace attached to the library and a blended physical-digital makerspace that can accommodate paint, sawdust, glue, and other more messy processes and materials.

Although the research on making as an educational practice is relatively new, it has begun to document the ways in which maker activities support the development of students' productive science learning identities, collaboration, and innovation (Blikstein, 2013; Kafai, Peppler, & Chapman, 2009). Some scholars argue that making—if it's implemented with an equity lens that pays attention to the intellectual, emotional, and cultural resources children bring to the activity—has an especially powerful potential for engaging young people who have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields (Vossoughi, Escudé, Kong, & Hooper, 2013).

At the Exploratorium, we've developed a framework (see "What Learning in Tinkering Looks Like,") to evaluate the effectiveness of our maker activities; this framework can apply to the classroom as well (Bevan, Gutwill, Petrich, & Wilkinson, in press). Its dimensions of learning, which include student engagement, initiative and intentionality, social scaffolding, and developing understanding, are features of student activity and behaviors that we can look for, observe, and support to sustain student engagement in the scientific practices inherent in the tinkering processes (Petrich, Wilkinson, & Bevan, 2013).

From Fabrication to Invention

Some researchers caution that there's a risk of presenting maker lessons as step-by-step, recipe-like fabrication activities (Resnick & Rosenbaum, 2013). For example, Blikstein (2013) recounts how his students' introduction to using laser cutters and vector drawing software, which he envisioned as a starting point for creative invention, was such a hit that students became obsessed with repeating the same laser cutting activity each week. They had learned how to produce professional-looking acrylic key chains, and they were content to stop at that point and move into mass production. This phenomenon threatened to shift the classroom from a locus of invention to a facility for fabrication.

To counter such "temptations of trivialization" (Blikstein, 2013, p. 8), it may be important to keep in mind that a powerful aspect of maker activities is what some call "tinkering" (Resnick & Rosenbaum, 2013; Wilkinson & Petrich, 2014). Tinkering, we believe, differs from mere fabrication because it centers on creative, improvisational problem-solving. In tinkering, the purpose of the project may shift as the learner gains new insights and improvises new solutions. Because the end point is unknown and emergent, tinkering closely parallels the exploratory and creative practices of science and engineering.

Classrooms may need to alternate between fabrication and tinkering; fabrication activities can be useful to familiarize learners with tools or properties of materials and help them develop skills that can later serve more complex and creative tinkering endeavors. Fabrication can provide quick and early moments of success that can be important foundations for deeper learning. It's important to move beyond this phase, but the road from fabrication to invention is not a one-way street: As activities become more complex and students encounter new tools and tasks, they may need to return to more fabrication-oriented projects to become fluent with new techniques. An initial grounding in recipe-based activities can serve as the gateway to creative experimentation later.

For example in a tinkering class on circuitry, students begin exploring the basic concepts of circuits by connecting batteries, bulbs, motors, and buzzers using wires and clips. These "circuit blocks" become the foundations for finding out what works and what doesn't. Adding switches and other inputs or outputs both allows students to develop a general understanding about how to wire a circuit and helps them understand that there are relationships between the types of circuits they build and the brightness of bulbs, speed of motors, or volume of buzzer tones.

With these foundational experiences behind them, students are ready to move on to a series of circuit-related activities that each draw on the initial experience, but add new complexities and often aesthetic opportunities for play, exploration, and personal expression.2 For example, students may build "scribbling machines"—small objects that use markers as legs to move, leaving colorful trails that map their movements. Students pursue their own ideas for designing and customizing their machines, relying on the basic circuitry skills they developed earlier to power the offset motor that makes the scribbling machine move. Because their basic understanding of circuits has been established, when students' first designs don't behave as they planned, they are able to explore other variables, such as the construction of the body, the length of the legs, or the type of offset weight attached to the motors.

How to Bring Tinkering to School

Research and experience suggest a number of guidelines for bringing maker activities to schools. In a literature review prepared for the National Research Council, we identified the following elements that research suggests are important to developing tinkering as a context for learning (Vossoughi & Bevan, 2014):

Create environments for making. Dedicated makerspaces can promote a new level of commitment to making; projects can be left out overnight, and specialized tools can be sectioned off. But dedicated spaces aren't always possible: Many programs have instead transformed classrooms and other settings to support the development of a maker community. Ways to transform a classroom or lunchroom into a temporary makerspace can include placing examples of prior maker work around the room for inspiration, developing a maker language that stresses such ideas as iterations or drafts, designing and replicating experiments, and organizing work spaces so that students can organically begin to collaborate if and when it makes sense (Sheridan et al., in press).

Interleave fabrication and tinkering. Maker activities support student engagement in scientific and engineering practices through open-ended, creative making. When students are introduced to new ideas or processes, however, they may need simple and easily achievable opportunities to master key ideas, relationships, or tools (Blikstein, 2013). For example, in introducing the wind tubes activity, you might have students start with just one material, such as cardboard cut or folded into different shapes, to observe how key dimensions like size, weight, or shape affect flight.

Provide multiple pathways. Select maker activities that are open-ended and don't have one right answer.3 Invite students to write about or discuss the most challenging parts of their process and how these challenges led to the students' creations. The breakthroughs associated with the bigger challenges—for example, when a student persists through repeated frustrations to finally figure out the right gear ratio to propel a small motorized solar vehicle—are usually the parts of the process that students are most proud of (Petrich, Wilkinson, & Bevan, 2013).

What Learning in Tinkering Looks Like

Tinkering Is Serious Play-table

Learning Dimension

Learning Indicator During tinkering activities, learners …

Engagement"spend time in activities display motivation or investment in activities"
Initiative and Intentionality"set their own goals seek and respond to feedback persist to achieve goals take intellectual risks or show intellectual courage"
Social Scaffolding"request or offer help to solve problems inspire or are inspired by new ideas or approaches make physical connections to the work of others"
Development of Understanding"express a realization through affect or utterance offer explanation(s) for a strategy, tool, or outcome apply knowledge strive to understand"

Show that making is a common practice. Draw explicit connections between maker activities or tools and students' lives and interests. You can do this through class discussions about students' experiences with similar products, tools, or processes. Ask questions like, What kinds of objects in your house depend on electricity? What kinds of building activities have you seen or done at home? Who do you know whose job involves building or designing things? This process of relating the new to the familiar positions students as knowledgeable and experienced makers and opens the process to students who may not already think of themselves as makers or scientists (Vossoughi et al., 2013)

Don't equate making with tools alone. Although high-powered tools can be seductive, remember that making is a creative, person-led process. Making can include students lying on pillows on the floor crocheting, or sitting at tables with cardboard and glue. A room filled with tools but missing makers and their work is like an empty computer lab. Ensure that students will have the guidance and inspiration of an attentive maker by assigning a staff person to lead activities. Provide opportunities for students to share their knowledge of tools or processes they are passionate about.

Making Future Scientists

As we mentioned, tinkering activities can help produce students who are interested in science, feel capable of doing science, and want to do science. Some young people will channel these positive science learning identities into future studies and professions. Others will channel them into lifelong engagement with different aspects of nature (environmental stewardship, kitchen chemistry, and so on). Still others will stay tuned in to scientific developments in the news or in their local communities, or perhaps encourage their own children to pursue science careers.

Makerspaces, maker activities, and makers themselves already exist in many communities across the United States. Schools can partner with local museums, libraries, and community makerspaces to develop maker programs. You might want to test out a maker program in an after-school or family night context first. Once you and your colleagues see the active, joyful engagement that young people express in such programs, we can almost guarantee that you will want to seek out ways to integrate making and tinkering into regular school practices and classrooms.


Bevan, B., Gutwill, J., Petrich, M., & Wilkinson, K. (in press). Learning through STEM-rich tinkering: Findings from a jointly negotiated research project taken up in practice. Science Education.

Blikstein, P. (2013). Digital fabrication and ‘making' in education: The democratization of invention. In J. Walter-Herrmann & C. Büching (Eds.), FabLab: Of machines, makers and inventors (pp. 2–22). Bielefeld: Transcript Publishers.

Duffalo, K. (2010). Play: What's to be learned from kids? Part 1 [blog post]. Retrieved from Walker Art Center at http://blogs.walkerart.org/ecp/2010/02/05/play-whats-to-be-learned-from-kids-part-1

Kafai, Y. B., Peppler, K. A., & Chapman, R. N. (2009). The computer clubhouse: Constructionism and creativity in youth communities. New York: Teachers College Press.

Krishnamurthi, A., Bevan, B., Rinehart, J., & Coulon, V. (2013, Fall). What after-school STEM does best: How stakeholders describe youth learning outcomes. After-school Matters, 42–49.

National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Papert, S. (1993). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Petrich, M., Wilkinson K., & Bevan, B. (2013). It looks like fun, but are they learning? In M. Honey & D. Kanter (Eds.), Design, make, play: Growing the next generation of STEM innovators (pp. 50–70). New York: Routledge.

Resnick, M., & Rosenbaum, E. (2013). Designing for tinkerability. In M. Honey & D. Kanter (Eds.), Design, make, play: Growing the next generation of STEM innovators (pp. 163–181). New York: Routledge

Sheridan, K. M., Halverson, E. R., Litts, B., Brahms, L., Jacobs-Priebe, L., & Owens, T. (in press). Learning in the making: A comparative case study of three makerspaces. Harvard Educational Review.

Vossoughi, S., & Bevan, B. (2014). White paper: Making and tinkering. Washington, DC: National Research Council Committee on Out of School Time STEM.

Vossoughi, S., Escudé, M., Kong F., & Hooper, P. (2013, October). Tinkering, learning and equity in the after-school setting. Paper presented at the annual FabLearn conference. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University.

Wilkinson, K., & Petrich, M. (2014). The art of tinkering. San Francisco: Weldon Owen.

End Notes

3 For a collection of open-ended maker activities, see http://tinkering.exploratorium.edu/projects.

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