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Question: How can we help novice makers learn from the materials they use in the tinkering process?

Our Response:

Imagine being a kid again, sitting in school, forced to memorize countless pages from a book. Maybe you like this book, but if you’re like many kids today you’d rather learn by actually doing something and being coached along the way on how to be mindful of the process you’re engaging in. Today, learning has changed. Learning is tinkering.   


Tinkering is part of the maker culture and thinking about this deeply we realized that kids in developing areas make some of the best stuff. As the saying goes “necessity is the mother of invention”. So we asked ourselves, how could we actually help this process? How could we actually help kids (especially in areas of need) more formally learn how to make good stuff from everyday objects?

The Approach:

  • We went to Mexico City and partnered with a local school to run a workshop with some eager kids. As it always is with kids, time and attention are limited, so we choose a specific application area to work with – generating electricity from household objects. 

  • First, we created a design probe made up of two parts: a collection of found objects that could generate electricity and a guidebook explaining how to use these materials.

  • The materials used were lemons, potatoes, water, salt, and self-made conductive dough. We tested every material before we took it to the school kids in Mexico.

  • While compiling this design probe, we grounded our work in feminist maker pedagogy. 

  • Then we conducted a 2-hour 15-minute workshop with 12 students between ages 13-15 and allowed them to work their way through the material based design probe in multiple 45-minute sessions.

  • Accompanying this workshop was a pre-questionnaire, group interviews, video, and audio recording which allowed us to collect lots of data to analyze.


The Outcome:

In this paper, we contribute insights for designing tools to support tinkerability through an understanding of how tinkerers learn from and with materials. Our study at the school in Mexico City shows that by focusing on the materials at hand, tinkerers can be resourceful in their creative endeavors, learn to manage their fears of failure, reflect on how they can scale their design ideas, and also find ways to work with other tinkerers in shared settings. Informed by our results, we proposed unique design principles that can inform both physical and digital tinkering activities.  Observations and interviews of students using our probe suggest that we should: (a) encourage learning from and playing with material properties and (b) support social interactions.

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