Thursday, May 5, 2016

Final Project: Cosplay Playlist!

 As is quite clear to anyone in this class by now, cosplay is the current focus of my research. It makes sense, then, that I chose to make an LRNG playlist around it for my final project. That playlist can be found here (it’s still in unpublished preview form).

Cosplay—a portmanteau of the words “costume” and “play”—involves portraying a media character both by wearing a costume (usually one you’ve made yourself) and by sometimes roleplaying that character. These can be characters from any media—TV, movies, video games, comics, books, etc.—and can even be costumes of objects or themes from media instead of characters. Cosplayers tend to gather at fan conventions, where they have fun with other fans and are often asked for pictures. I love that I get to both engage in cosplay and study it, because I’m a huge fan of various media and am active in online fandom, so I was very happy to dive into it for the first time in order to deepen my engagement with fandom and explore something that always looked like lots of fun!

Why do I think this is educationally important enough to make a playlist for it? As I’ve explored cosplay as part of the Re-Crafting Math project, I’ve discovered that cosplayers learn a ton from this process, especially from making the costume themselves. They develop craft and design skills, as they work on making their costumes look accurate to the character and technically accomplished. They learn technology and science skills, as they learn how to search the internet for useful resources, maintain content in cosplay blogs, and sometimes even add high-tech aspects like LEDs or 3D printing to their costumes. They are engaging in literacy discourses in their interpretation of the character, and sometimes they can even add a critical element by, for instance, questioning gender norms by cosplaying a character that does not share the cosplayer’s gender. They build confidence and explore their identity as they act in-character while wearing the costume at events; it takes a lot of guts to, for instance, pose menacingly with a weapon for a photo when you’re normally a very subdued, non-threatening person! They develop relationships with other cosplayers, both ones they meet online and in person. And most importantly for the Re-Crafting Math project, they have to use a great deal of math to make a complete costume. Sewing in particular requires math concepts like measurement, symmetry, and 2D-to-3D spatial reasoning as sewers envision how 2D fabric will look on a 3D body, and how to join together 2D fabric pieces so they will curve and fold properly. Clearly, this is an educationally rich hobby!

The XPs I chose as part of the Cosplay Creation playlist more or less follow the sequence that most cosplayers follow when they begin to get involved in this hobby. In surfing online fandom spaces, they see cosplayers of characters from their favorite media and begin to become curious. Perhaps they were impressed by others they saw cosplaying at cons or in their group of friends, but haven’t tried it themselves yet. This is all covered in the “Get Cos-spired!” XP. Often, the first cosplay a person will do is a “closet cosplay” compiled from items the cosplayer has lying around at home or finds at thrift shops. This is an easy and cheap way to get started, and still gives the experience of becoming someone else for a day. Oftentimes, this motivates closet cosplayers to want to try making their own cosplays. It could also be seen as a form of “tinkering” with clothing and sometimes using it in unexpected ways until it looks the way youth want it. As we know from Resnick and Rosenbaum (2013), tinkering is an important competency for developing creativity. That’s why this is my second XP. I next ask youth to make a cosplay page so they can engage with the online community of cosplayers, and also so they have a place to record their progress and post photos. Then they are asked to choose a character (or object) to make a cosplay for. They have a chance to reflect on this decision in their blog post about it. Because I know how much math is inherent to sewing, especially for spatial reasoning, the “Take a Sewing Lesson” XP is not optional. Next are two XPs around making the costume, one for the outfit, and one for props (optional). Because youth need to make at least 70% of the costume from scratch in order to earn the badge, they are asked to take many pictures of their process and record it all on their cosplay pages. This not only helps them engage more deeply with the online cosplay community because it gives others the ability to follow their process to make the costume themselves (just as the youth in turn did based on someone else’s tutorial to make the costume in the first place), but it also encourages the use of reflection in action (Schunn, 1983) as they think about when to take pictures of their process and how to write about it later. Finally, youth have the opportunity to engage in two XPs while wearing their final costume: attending a fan convention and participating in a cosplay photoshoot. These are both integral to the cosplay experience, as they provide a motivation for completing the costume, an opportunity to pose in-character, and a chance to expand their horizons of fandom to other fans and perhaps even other fandoms. They are expected to write posts about these experiences as well.

As for reflecting on my own design process, I think the most important change suggested by my classmates was to try to make the XPs more open to youth who might not have financial or geographical access to in-person events like sewing lessons or conventions. They suggested I make the “Take a Sewing Lesson” XP digital instead of local, both because the local XP builder is still a bit limited, and also because they thought there should be a greater emphasis on learning sewing from online tutorials for those youth who cannot find or afford an in-person lesson. They also had a great idea for a free alternative to a fan convention—throwing a costume party with friends! These suggestions were super important for making my playlist more widely accessible.

The other big change I ended up making on my own was to change all the submission requirements to include a link to the youths’ write-up about the matter on their cosplay page. At first I had asked them to submit photos and write-ups directly to the LRNG site. But upon reflection, I realized that posting them publicly on a blog was a much more useful and authentic way for youth to engage in the online cosplay community. Cosplayers love browsing through other cosplayers’ work online for inspiration and admiration, and without online tutorials, most costumes would be almost impossible to complete. By ensuring that all parts of their design process is on a public blog, this playlist helps youth to give back to the cosplay community, while also documenting their learning process and developing their written communication and reflection skills.

I kept many tenets of constructionism in mind while making this playlist. I already mentioned tinkering and reflection in action. At a very basic level, I followed “One of [Papert’s] central mathetic tenets… that the construction that takes place ‘in the head’ often happens especially felicitously when it is supported by construction of a more public sort ‘in the world’ (Papert, 1993, p. 142). All the XPs in my playlist require a tangible (i.e., “in the world”) submission, even the supposedly “abstract” ones like “Get Cos-spired!” and “Choose a Character.” These tangible, shareable artifacts are mostly in the form of posts to the youths’ cosplay pages, but some of them involve non-digital artifacts as well, such as the costume itself. I think successfully constructing a costume could be evidence that youth have constructed some new ideas about spatial reasoning (and perhaps measurement, proportion, symmetry, etc.) “in their heads.” From a material feminist standpoint (Taylor & Ivinson, 2013; Buchholz et al., 2014), the textile crafts of sewing, at least, involve materials like fabric and sewing machines that traditionally have been more associated with women. Cosplayers, too, are still majority female, though the gap seems to be closing. But successful cosplay costumes are often considered “cool,” thus valuing in a new, modern way these traditionally feminine materials and practices around sewing (and sometimes cosplay even involves knitting, crochet, embroidery, and other textile crafts).

I also feel that the cosplay community could be viewed as a sort of “samba school”-like community, in which, like the Brazilian samba school that Papert described in his 1976 essay, cosplayers of all ages and skill levels gather and are welcome to learn from each other, as they all work toward a common endeavor of creating something for a capstone event—Carnival for the samba dancers, and conventions for cosplayers. In both, we see “the weaving of education into the larger, richer cultural-social experience” (Papert, 1976, n.p.), as learners learn not because they are forced to, but because it is simply part of the experience of exploring a new dance move or a new technique to make foam armor. For cosplayers, that experience extends beyond the digital realm of cosplay blogs and even the physical realm of fan conventions, to include the experience of media consumption, of being a fan, of solidarity with other fans, of geeking out with your friends who are also fans, of reinterpreting a character, etc. This is why I wanted this rich context to be preserved in my playlist; I made it mandatory to reflect on choice of character to cosplay, to engage in the online cosplay community through a blog, as well as to experience the community in person at events like a con (or a costume party if a con is not possible).

It was highly rewarding to create this playlist, and I hope to continue to refine it with feedback from mentors, peers, and youth themselves. I think many youth will be interested in it, and I hope it will help to validate their interests in media as educationally important, and make a positive impact in their lives!


Monday, April 11, 2016

Building with Makey Makey

In light of last week's reading, New Opportunities for Interest-Driven Arts Learning in a Digital Age, this week we explored a tool that allows us to combine the arts with the digital: Makey Makey. This is a board that you hook up to your computer, and then you hook various conductive objects (e.g., metal items, food, water, even graphite patches drawn on paper) to the board with alligator clips, and these objects become keys for your keyboard or replacement mouse buttons. Since the hooked-up items work just like buttons on your keyboard or mouse, they work with anything on your computer, but we were encouraged to use them to interact with Scratch projects. I think this allowed us to strengthen the connection to our interests.

Since I'd used a Makey Makey with Play-Doh, food items like bananas, copper tape, and graphite before, I decided to look around the MILL during make time at the end of class last week to find other potentially conductive items. I noticed a jar full of metal bobbins and had an idea--why not hook up several sewing-related metal items? After all, sewing is something I'm interested in these days! Beside the bobbin, I found a needle, needle threader, and pin, and now I had enough items for all four arrow keys. I temporarily lamented the fact that the MILL doesn't have any pincushions to hold the needle and pin, but I found an alternative: a sponge paintbrush. Here are all four items, with the needle and pin lodged in the paintbrush, each one in an appropriate position for the arrow key I planned to hook it up to:

Hooking them up to the Makey Makey ended up considerably messier:
I then thought it would be clever to find a sewing-related Scratch project with which I could interact using these sewing-related metal objects that were now arrow keys. I searched the Scratch website until I found the Rainbow Sewing project, which features a needle that, when you put the "pen" down and control it with arrow keys, "sews" a line of rainbow "thread" onto the fabric-like background.
I found that the Makey Makey had trouble detecting when I was touching the pin and needle, and I had to squeeze them rather hard for the computer to react as if a key was pressed. They might have been too small to make an adequate connection to the circuit, or perhaps they were made of impure metal and were not conductive enough. Nevertheless, I managed to "sew" the following word on my screen (almost) entirely by using the sewing-related arrow keys:
I made a few mistakes because touching pins and bobbins is a little less precise than pressing arrow keys! But ultimately this experiment worked out, and I'm quite pleased.
I'm grateful this class and my lab's research in general has encouraged me to document my projects, such as through the photos and descriptions I post on this blog. The reading this week emphasized how important it is for youth to do the same with their art projects, and how we need to work together with youth to develop platforms to make it easier for them to do so. Scratch is nice because it is open to the "publication" of "draft" projects and works in progress, but it could be even better. It could have space for youth to journal the sources of their ideas, their design decisions, etc. One thing we have to keep in mind is that currently, online "success" is measured by the number of views/ likes/ shares a post gets. A work in progress is not likely to get as many of these as a completed project, so we need to find some other way to motivate the posting of works in progress.
While it did not turn out being relevant to my project this week (though it certainly was in other weeks!), I was glad to see that the reading emphasized the extent to which media properties inspire young people to make art, whether it's fanfic, fanart, or fan videos like machinima. Since I've been deeply embedded in online fandom for many years, I know this is true. A favorite movie, TV show, or anime can motivate deep dedication and tons of creative and critical work. My only concern--and this concern is shared in the reading--is that this kind of work tends not to be acknowledged in society. My favorite fan writers, translators, and artists do this entirely as a hobby. They need to seek income elsewhere. This is partially because copyright issues prevent them from making money off of a media property they do not own, but also because there's this unproductive attitude that fan work is not "serious" and that media posted online should be free to consume. I think we're missing out on a significant contributor to our economy by not properly acknowledging and paying for the real work these fan writers and artists do. In addition, a financial incentive would encourage more people to express themselves through digital art and share online.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Electronics Plus Textiles

I've been working with e-textiles--electronics embedded into textiles--for all four years I've been here at IU. I've made many projects of my own and facilitated more e-textile workshops for youth and adults than I can count. Some of my work can be found at this blog maintained by researchers interested in e-textiles. Therefore, I'm very familiar with sewing e-textile circuits, and making another one would not have been very educationally meaningful for me. I was relieved when Kylie gave me the go-ahead to explore making something else in the School of Education's MILL Makerspace.

Keeping in mind the Buchholz et al. reading about "rupturing traditional gender scripts" around electronics, I wanted to find a way to use electronic parts in unexpected ways. But before I found the parts I wanted to work with, I had no idea how I was going to do this. Without intra-action with the materials, agency to create had not yet emerged. I didn't just "have" this agency before I was inspired by the materials. This really helped me to appreciate the new material feminism perspective introduced in Taylor & Ivinson and explained for the first time in a way I could understand and buy into in Anna's presentation (let me know, though, if any lingering misconceptions about it show up in this post!).

I looked through the bins of various electronic and mechanical parts that had been donated to the MILL space. There were lots of hard plastics and metals, sharp edges and wires--in other words, materials with masculine gendered histories. I settled on a turbine-looking thing attached to a motor (it actually reminded me a bit of a hair curler), and a heavy black plastic disc that also had a motor. I had no idea where these parts had come from originally or what they were used for. Without those preconceived notions, I was free to use the materials in a way that was based solely on emergent properties as I tinkered with them. Here are those two motorized parts:

I used wire strippers to strip the plastic coating from the turbine's wires. That done, I tested whether the turbine worked by holding two 3V coin cell batteries to the wires. The turbine indeed spun! What could I do with this that somehow incorporated textiles? As the turbine spun around, I had a vision of fabric attached to the top of it, draped around it like a skirt, which would hide the metal parts most of the time, but spin when the batteries were activated, like a dancer's skirt. As I was exploring these materials, I also found out that the turbine could be propped up on the black disc piece, by leaning against the disc's motor. That settled the mystery of the disc's role: it would be a platform.

I then ventured back out into the space to find non-electronic materials to incorporate into my project. The felt fabric everyone was using for their e-textile projects seemed too stiff to me to have the spinning effect I was looking for. So I settled on ribbons and sequin tape. I also found some electric tape in blue, my favorite color, to use to attach things together. Here's a picture of almost all the materials I used, which followed the material phenomenon of "magnetizing" to my workspace (a phenomenon that Anna has discovered in her Early Inquiry Project):

I used the blue tape to prop the turbine upright against the disc's motor, and taped the negative lead of the turbine's motor to the negative side of the batteries. The positive lead has to be held in place on the positive side of the batteries in order for the device to spin. I also cut strips of ribbon and sequin tape. I did not end up using the white tape.

Next I tried attaching the ribbons to the top of the turbine with clear Scotch-like tape, but it didn't work. So I used hot glue instead. Here's a photo of the final product next to the hot glue guns:

When I was done, I was quite vocal about how I had made a project that "ruptured gender scripts" around technology because it repurposed mechanical, practical, masculine-coded pieces into a beautiful, playful spinning toy that incorporated feminine-coded materials like ribbons and sequins. Here's a video of the device in action:

Don't ask me to explain what this thing is supposed to be! It kind of reminds me of a merry-go-round or one of those spinning swing rides at carnivals. The important point is I tinkered with materials, let their properties rather than their original intended uses speak for themselves, and disrupted gender scripts by combining traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine materials. The agency to create such a thing was only possible in the free and open context of the MILL, with its assemblage of materials that cover a wide range of high-tech, low-tech, masculine, feminine, electronics, and craft, all working in intra-action.

Monday, March 28, 2016

My Scratch Project

Ta-da! Here's the Scratch project I made this week:

As you can tell, I'm still a gigantic nerd!
This project turned out exactly how I wanted it to, and I'm very proud of it! So, what did it take for me get so invested in a programming project? Papert and Resnick et al. are right; making it personally meaningful and developing a relationship with the project really helps! The open-source nature that allows for "looking inside" and remixing Scratch projects also helped me reach my goal.

The project is a remix of a "fruit catching game," only instead of fruit, you try to catch Star Wars: The Force Awakens characters in a trashcan. You get points when you catch the movie's villain Kylo Ren (and lots of points if you catch the wild card, Anakin). You lose points if you catch Rey or Finn, because they are heroes and they don't belong in the trash! Every time you catch a character, you see a little message. The game starts out with 10 points. If you lose all 10 points, then it's game over. If you last all 105 seconds without losing all your points, then you win!

Almost every decision I made here reflects some sort of joke about the Star Wars fandom, and each joke has multiple layers of meaning. I intentionally made the project to include those jokes and because I knew other Star Wars fans would enjoy them. There's nothing I and the fandom love more than making fun of our problematic favorite wannabe-Sith lord Kylo Ren. My choice of "trash" as the theme has a long history in fandom. I'm not sure of its origins, but when a fan calls a character or a romantic pairing they like "trash," they're acknowledging both the problems with the character/pairing and their own silliness in liking them. So they're calling both the character/pairing and themselves trash. In addition, I've seen fannish blog posts calling Kylo Ren a "trashcan" because he wears a "trashcan" on his head, and he's also a whiny brat who needs to learn a lesson, so it's even more appropriate to associate him with trash. There are also these two Tumblr images that further inspired the idea, which I credited in my description of the project. All of the things Kylo Ren says when the trashcan catches him are somehow based on his character or are plays on his actual lines. They are all about how he belongs in the trash. Finn and Rey's lines are similar, except they chastise the player for putting them in the trash. Poking some fun at my favorite fandom right now was a great way to make a personal connection to the project and to motivate me to do it well.

As for the process, I was really grateful that Scratch lets you remix other projects. There's no way I could have coded this whole game from scratch! (pun intended) I searched for "catching game" on the Scratch website and found this game, called "fruit catching game." I thought my remix would mostly involve design work, i.e., modifying the sprite's costumes to be the Star Wars characters instead of fruit and junk food, replacing the player character with a trashcan, switching out the background for a more Star Wars-y one, etc. I also added one "say for 1 sec" block to each character sprite, so they would react with a speech bubble when they touched the trashcan sprite. All this was quite simple, especially since I've worked with Scratch a little in the past.

However, there were some things about the original fruit catching game that I didn't like much. For instance, all the fruit that scored you points (i.e., Kylo Rens in my game) fell from the left side of the screen, while most of the junk food that lost you points (Finn and Rey in mine) fell on the right, so it was too easy to just stay on the left until time was up, and avoid most of the junk food. To resolve this over-simplicity, I had to tinker around with the x-positions of the sprites. Just like the kids in Mindstorms tried different numbers for angles to see what would happen to the Turtle in LOGO, I also used trial and error on the x-position numbers, until I figured out that the negative numbers were for the left side of the screen, and the positive for the right, just as you would expect from a coordinate plane. I also found that the numbers went pretty high up, into the hundreds. I modified some of the numbers, but left others the same. It's still not quite as random as I'd prefer, but it's okay.

I also didn't like that the original game simply said "Game over" at the end without telling you if you had "won" or not, no matter how many points you had collected. The "Game over" made it sound as if you always lost. I wanted to make it so you really could lose if your score got too low, but if you got enough points by the end of the 105-second timer, you would win and see a "Congratulations" message. This required more advanced programming than I had ever done before in Scratch. I looked at the existing blocks on the stage. At first I tried to use the "lives" variable, but I quickly realized that the original programmer hadn't specified a real role for "lives," so I deleted that variable and all of its associated blocks. I used the score instead. To change the score to start from 10 rather than 0 (making it so you kind of have 10 "lives"), I had to change the starting score on all sprites to 10. This took some exploring to figure out why changing it for only the primary sprite (the trashcan) wasn't effective. I changed the original "Game over" message to "Congratulations! You took out the Star Wars trash!", and still had it appear at the end of the timer's countdown, but only if the score was greater than 0. This required the use of an "If-then" block and a green "greater-than" (>) operator. To make the "Game over" message appear when your score went below 0, I again had to use the "If-then" block and a green operator block, but it was "less-than" (<) this time. After this didn't work, I discovered that you had to drag the score variable into the green operator block, instead of typing the word "score." The last problem I ran into was that the "Congratulations" message would work if you won the game, but the "Game over" message that would stop the game before you reached the end of the countdown would not work. I clicked on the little question mark button (Block help) and opened the help text for the operator block. In looking at the example code they had there, I realized I had forgotten a "forever" loop! What a rookie mistake! I've programmed e-textile lights to flash forever so many times that I should have known better. After I added the "forever" loop to the "Game over" code, it finally worked. The "Congratulations" code doesn't have a "forever" loop. Instead it's programmed to appear after a "wait for 103 secs" block.

I really saw the benefits of Scratch's "remix" function. I learned things about variables and operators that I probably never would have if there were not already examples of them in the project I remixed. If I'd started from scratch, I probably would have made a much simpler project and would have stuck to those blocks I was already familiar with. Being able to remix, and having motivation through a personal connection to the topic motivated me to go beyond my comfort zone. This is the way learning should always work!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Toy Hacking

I live in a small apartment, and when I moved there, I didn't bring old toys with me from my parents' house. The only electronic item I could think to bring to class for Toy Hack day was a light-up Christmas decoration. I also brought a laser pointer and a cube with an LED in it, but I opted not to take those apart. None of the things I brought seemed very interesting, so I was glad that Kylie brought a few more for us to choose from. I picked out a few toys before settling on one. Here's a picture of all the items I was trying to choose from:

My Christmas tree, LED cube, and laser pointer are in the front-center-left. The three other toys I found in class were the shark car, a spy headband, and Darth Peanut M&M.
First I tried taking apart the Christmas tree. As I suspected, it was far too simple. I was able to twist the tree part off, unscrew the battery compartment, and easily remove the entire electronic module from the tree's base. It appeared to just be a single color-changing LED. I don't know what controlled its color-changing pattern. I didn't see a circuit board or anything programmable. Perhaps it was integrated into the LED itself. I was easily able to put it back together. In any case, I was unimpressed and wanted to try hacking another toy.

The "guts" of the light-up Christmas tree. The ring near the bottom was just hot glue, which was the only thing holding it all together at the top of the base.
I finally chose the Hot Wheels shark racecar. First I played around with it to see what it did. It had three buttons on top, each responsible for something different, like lights, growling noises, and one button that shot the car forward, with the shark's jaw moving up and down as the car drove. There had to be some pretty sophisticated electronics for all that to happen! Taking it apart, it turned out, required a whole bunch of unscrewing.

Look at all those screws! And that's just the bottom layer!
Inside, the toy gave up its secrets. I found buttons below the buttons on the outside, a circuit board, an LED, and a speaker. But the motor was in its own compartment, and I still wasn't sure how it worked. Remember how in my last post I said I didn't know how a motor made things move besides just directly spinning? I could see a single motor, but it was facing the wrong direction for it to be directly spinning the wheels. It was perpendicular to the axle rather than in line with it. I decided to focus on finding out how that worked, since I knew this was a gap in my knowledge of machines.

Well, it took a little more unscrewing and finagling, but I finally split apart the motor's compartment. And I had an exciting moment of realization that I'm sure a young Papert would have been able to relate to: Oh! Gears!

I never had an emotional attachment to gears the way Papert had as a child. I knew they could turn each other, but I never knew how they worked when attached to actual motors (maybe I should pay more attention to the gears in my bike!). The most surprising aspect of this discovery for me was that some gears were at right angles to each other, entirely changing the direction of the spin. That was how it was possible for a motor perpendicular to the axle to spin the axle!

This was an extremely satisfying discovery for me. I could finally appreciate why Papert's "object to think with" as a child had been gears. But I also realized a few other things. Electronic toys like this are not meant to be taken apart. I'm pretty sure I broke some plastic pieces in forcing open the motor's compartment, so I don't think I could ever properly put the shark car back together again. This difficulty and "black-boxing" of how the electronics work is greatly limiting to the kind of learning that can happen with these toys. They are not "construction kits" "designed for designers," as Resnick and Silverman put it. But they could be! If toy cars like this were modular, easy to take apart and put together again in a different way, with easy access to their electronic parts (i.e., no white compartment "black-boxing" the motor and gears!), then kids could learn so much more from these toys, and probably have even more fun!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Building a Scribbling Machine

Constructionists often distinguish between "planners" and "tinkerers" (e.g., Resnick & Rosenbaum, 2013). Planners are more "top-down" and have a predetermined goal and an idea of how to get there, usually using formal rules to help plan. Tinkerers, on the other hand, use a more open-ended "bottom-up" approach that involves iterative exploration, and they may not have more than the vaguest of goals, which could change at any time as new ideas emerge while they work. I have always considered myself more of a planner. For instance, I think about stories for months before I ever write a single word down. I like to outline papers before writing them. When I start a project, I almost always have a very specific goal, or at least a theme, in mind. I don't know why I'm this way, but I suspect it has something to do with anxiety over the quality of the final product. Perhaps school, which values planning over tinkering, conditioned me to prefer planning.

But as this week's make showed, it's still possible for a planner to tinker! This week our task was to create a scribbling machine out of batteries, a motor, markers, and recyclable containers as the body. Our first goal was to get the body of our robot to move with the motor. Many of us stuck with that goal and did not incorporate markers. However, since I was familiar with the Maker Shed's Spinbot kit, I wanted to challenge myself to make a robot that could spin and draw in circles with markers. I thought that could make some nice spiral-like patterns. So I did start with a goal, but it was far vaguer than my goals usually are because I wasn't sure how to achieve it. I also continuously  "had a conversation with the materials" (Schon, 1983), getting ideas from the configuration of the materials themselves, especially when I ran into trouble.

I started by wanting to get the motor to spin the body of my robot directly, basically because I know that motors spin, and I don't really know how to get them to move things in any other way. This worked, at first. I cut a hole into the center of the bottom of a plastic pint-sized tub, and stuck the motor on top of it. I had to tinker around with the batteries to find out how many of the 3V coin cells were needed to get the motor to spin fast enough. Two were enough--at first.

When I added three Sharpie markers, though, the device would no longer spin. I tinkered with it some more, by adding a third battery, by taping the markers lower on the tub, by putting the motor inside rather than outside the tub, etc. Nothing worked! It appeared the contraption was too heavy for the motor to spin, even with an additional battery.

First iteration

The materials seemed to be telling me that I needed a lighter body. I tried a plastic cup, but poking a hole in the bottom caused it to crack. So I went downstairs to the little cafĂ© in the School of Ed and got a paper coffee cup. When I poked a hole in the bottom of it, though, the hole turned out to be too big for the motor's pin to grab onto it. I puzzled over this for awhile. Finally, just as classmates were cleaning up the area at the end of class, I caught sight of a notecard right before someone picked it up to put it away. It really did feel like a flash of insight! The card was lighter than the cup and would be easier to spin. So I carefully hot-glued it to the pin of my motor, then glued the card to the bottom of the cup.

My "light bulb moment:" A notecard as an "intermediary" between the motor and the cup
Second iteration
At this point, one of my materials failed me miserably. One of the wires on my motor broke off! I tried to solder it back on, but it just broke further. So I had to find a new motor and re-glue it to the card.

Broken motor wire :(
The new motor worked great, though! Now all that was left was to attach the Sharpies! I found that the blue painter's tape was too weak to hold the Sharpies on while they were spinning around wildly, so I replaced it with duct tape. And now my Scribble-bot was complete!

Ta-da! Final iteration! (I'm holding the batteries up above the frame of the picture)
The materials held one last surprise for me, though. As my Sharpies were sitting uncapped on the cardboard, facing downward as they held up the contraption, they had been gathering little pools of ink. When I held the batteries to the wires (which I must do manually, because the motor needs to be held up by its wires in order for it to spin anything), the result was...well, not so much a scribble as a Jackson Pollock machine! Check out the video below!


I would say that I successfully explored and iterated with the materials in an experimental and open-ended manner, so this planner was totally able to tinker! I gained a lot of insight into how these materials worked, and the affordances and constraints of things like motors, wires, and plastic vs. paper. I even discovered something new about Sharpies! I learned the most when I got stuck. As Wilkinson and Petrich put it, "Failure tells you what you don’t know, frustration is making sense of that failure in the moment, and taking action leads to a new way of knowing." I truly did feel as if my insight about the notecard led me to a "new way of knowing" in which I was starting to understand how a motor could lead to motion of things that are not directly attached to it. Overall, it was a fun experience! I still don't think I'm ever going to be the type to tinker without a reason, though. :)

Monday, February 29, 2016

Digital Fabrication- 3D Printed Lightsaber

I've done lots of 3D printing and laser-cutting since we acquired these tools in Kylie's Creativity Labs and in the MILL makerspace in the School of Ed. I've learned a ton in the process. Having both made my own designs, and downloaded them off the internet, I definitely think that the process of creating your own design is more powerful for learning. But I learned how to design 3D models in a Fine Arts class, using the program Rhino, which is expensive and thus inaccessible to me most of the time (it's only available on a single computer lab on the whole campus). I've also tried using the free program TinkerCAD to design things from scratch, but I was frustrated by its limited functionality when compared to Rhino.

So I haven't done much designing since my Art class. I definitely see Blikstein and Worsley's point in their Makeology chapter about "keychain syndrome" vs. "deep projects." But is it ever possible for a premade file downloaded from the internet to become a "deep project" rather than the equivalent of a "keychain"? I think so, in the sense that it can still be instructive for learning new things. To illustrate, let me tell you about the largest 3D print I've ever done: a 3D printed lightsaber!

In case it isn't clear yet from my previous entries, I'm a "planner" type of maker. If I don't have an idea or a theme, then I'm not going to feel motivated to make anything. That's why all my 3D printing and laser-cutting projects have been related to cosplay, or at least to fandom of some sort, from my first laser-cut project of a paper lantern from the movie Tangled, to a laser-cut flame illuminated by EL wire for a costume of a character with fire powers.

This lightsaber project was no exception. As I've written about on this blog before, I cosplayed the character Kylo Ren from the new Star Wars movie at an anime convention with a group of friends. However, I borrowed his lightsaber from one of my friends while there. If I ever wanted to cosplay him again without that friend and her lightsaber being present, then I needed to acquire my own. And well, when you have access to a makerspace, why not make your own?

I started by browsing Instructables and Thingiverse to find an easy DIY lightsaber project. It had to be relatively easy, because I was starting this on a Tuesday and I wanted it to be complete in time for another anime convention that Friday, Feb. 19. I didn't cosplay Kylo Ren at that convention, but I had a friend with me who also likes the character and wanted to carry his lightsaber around.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a super-detailed set of around 20 3D models to make any lightsaber you want, in any combination. This included Kylo Ren's crossguard lightsaber. However, I immediately ran into the weaknesses of working with premade models. The group who made these models did so based solely on the trailer released almost a year before the movie itself. So the crossguard lightsaber they made does not match all the details of Kylo Ren's lightsaber design. It was by far the highest quality lightsaber model for 3D printing that I had found, though, so I decided to use it anyway. After reading through the instructions on both the Thingiverse page and the Instructables page (which didn't actually provide any new information), I chose the pieces I needed to print to the best of my knowledge. I set up a 3D printer with red plastic to print the laser blades, and another one with silver to print the handle pieces. However, the latter had so many pieces that they would not fit in one print. So I set up the crossguard piece to print on a third printer. Here are pictures of the blades and the handle in the process of printing:

The red lasers!

The handle pieces!
 Unfortunately, we ran into a material constraint: the printer that was supposed to print the crossguard piece got clogged and failed to print. Justin had just restarted it on a different printer when my friend and I arrived on the Friday of the con. We still had all the pieces to make a regular single-bladed saber, though! I didn't check back on the instructions to assemble it; I could remember well enough, and it was pretty intuitive. The laser went inside the tubes, and it was easy to tell which pieces went on top, which ones connected tubes together, and which was the cap for the bottom. Everything that connected did so by screwing into place. The group had designed these materials well so that they could give feedback to suggest their proper assembly. Here's my friend modeling the single-bladed saber from inside the MILL before we went to the con:

The Force is strong with this one!
We did discover that the instructions were not exactly 100% clear (which in some ways is actually better for learning, though in our case it led to a waste of PLA too!). I had assumed from the pictures that we would need three silver tubes to make the handle long enough. The tubes were quite large, though; we only needed two, so we had an extra one. There was one "ring" piece that I couldn't figure out what to do with at all. I thought it was supposed to connect two tube pieces together, but it didn't appear able to do so. Finally, the handle-topper you see here was originally meant to go on the bottom, because that would make the saber look more like Kylo Ren's. But there was no way to attach it to the bottom along with the cap. In looking back at the available pieces, it seems you have only one choice for a cap.

We were still super satisfied, though! We had to do some grinding down of the laser parts to get them to smoothly telescope in and out of the handle. Also we discovered that some of the parts were pretty loose, and if we wanted this to be permanent, some sort of glue would probably be necessary.

The next day, we returned to pick up the crossguard piece and to finish assembling the lightsaber as intended. And it worked! The round tip pieces where the short lasers come out from the handle, though, are super loose and more in need of glue than are any of the other pieces.

Behold: the ultimate tantrum device! And its instability is movie-accurate too!
I learned one more thing about the failings of 3D printers from this process. My friend wanted to make her own yellow lightsaber out of the extra pieces. So we set up one 3D printer to print her some silver handle accessories and a cap, and another to print the yellow blade. Well, the yellow blade started out okay while we were there, but...this is how it ended up:

Oh no! D:
Later I found out from Justin (our Makerspace assistant) that this probably happened due to the print platform not being completely level. I didn't even know that was a problem that could occur! In the end, my friend just took home her lightsaber handle, which she said would still be good for cosplay, because you could hang it at your belt without the threat of the telescoping blade falling out. There is no way to prevent the blades from falling open when you tilt these sabers in a certain direction. I think I'll need to add some string or something if I ever take mine to a con.

So, during the course of this project, I learned a lot about the weaknesses of 3D printers, which I guess are more likely to appear when you're doing a huge print, and I learned how you often need to refine a print after it's completed, especially if it has moving parts or multiple parts that need to be assembled. I've also become fairly competent at replacing the color of the PLA. This was definitely way more challenging than a keychain.

I leave you with a picture of some of the fun things you can do once you have a cosplay prop. Here's "Kylo Ren" writing in his diary while hugging a stuffed pink owl, because that's so in-character!

"Dear Diary,
Hux made fun of my pink owl today, so I threw a tantrum."
(all credit for this caption goes to my friend Sarah!)
Special shout-outs to Justin for making this possible on such short notice, and my friend Sarah for her companionship at the con and for being such a good lightsaber model in my photos!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Online DIY Challenge

I did make something this week, but it was 3D printed, so I'm going to save its story for next week's blog post. Instead, I'm going to talk today about a cosplay I made last year entirely by following an online tutorial. Just in case you're unaware (i.e., just in case I haven't blabbed about this project enough in class!), exploring cosplay--portraying a fictional character through costume creation and wearing and/or roleplay--is my contribution to the Re-Crafting Mathematics project, in which we're investigating educational connections between traditional textile crafts and math. My craft is sewing, and cosplays are what I sew, because I am a nerd and proud! This has the additional benefit of connecting to interests that many youth have in favorite media, so it could be a route to math learning that they may actually enjoy.

Cosplay is not often cited as an example of the Maker Movement, but I think the two are compatible (as well as compatible with constructionism). Both makers and cosplayers follow their interests and passions to make items that are personally meaningful, intending to share them with others. Both sometimes use online resources and in-person mentors to learn how to make their chosen project. They even both have big events where they can show off their work--Maker Faires for makers and fan conventions for cosplayers.

Just as you can find Instructables and other online tutorials to make items that are more stereotypically "maker," like laser-cut constructions, Arduino projects, or drones, you can also easily find online tutorials to create cosplays, as long as others have made the same costume you want to make. I have used online resources for all the costumes I've made so far, even if sometimes only to find reference images. In the case of my cosplay of Dirk from the webcomic Homestuck, however, I followed an online tutorial for almost every step of the process. I also did more of this costume by myself than with any other major costume I've made. The result was recognizable, but not perfect.

Here's what Dirk looks like, wearing the outfit I made:

I had already bought the shirt, and I laser-cut and 3D printed the sunglasses and sword, so the tutorials I followed were just for the hood, cape, shorts, and gauntlets. Here's where I found them:

It's worth noting that lovejoker put up his cape tutorial before we had seen this outfit in complete form in the webcomic, so the cape is a tiny bit inaccurate. Instead of a single point as in this tutorial, Dirk's cape has two points that extend outward to his sides. I wanted those points to look stiff and triangular rather than droopy, so I also came up with the idea to add stiff interfacing between the two layers of the cape. So these are two examples of modifications I made to the online tutorials.

To make this costume, I had to do a ton of math. I had to take the recommended measurements before buying the fabric in order to figure out how much fabric I needed in the first place. I needed to redo the measurements when drawing the pieces out on the fabric. And that's where I ran into issues. In conventional sewing, you trace a full-size pattern from paper onto your fabric. I didn't have a full-size pattern; all I had was some not-to-scale drawings online, with measurement guidelines. So as much as I measured and re-measured, a ruler wasn't going to help me with things like angles. I ended up messing up the angles for the back of the cape. I didn't realize this when I drew on or cut out the fabric because I hadn't yet sewn the pieces together and incorporated seam allowance, which makes the final product an inch or so smaller than the pieces you cut. That's another mathematical/spatial aspect of sewing that I haven't gotten the hang of. You need to be able to not only envision the two-dimensional fabric wrapping around a three-dimensional body, but also envision that fabric missing half an inch along all its edges for seam allowance. None of this was in the tutorial; basic sewing skills were assumed. But it's not something you can really learn until you try it yourself--several times!

Here's the cape, with too wide of a central angle and not enough space between the top and the midpoint.
I had tried to make this cosplay entirely by myself based on the online tutorials, the way a lot of cosplayers do when they have no one else in their lives who knows how to sew. But this was an over-ambitious goal. I ended up taking the costume to a Mending Day at our local public library, where my sewing mentor Gail Hale helped me problem-solve all sorts of things. For instance, when I told her that the online tutorial had made the front pieces of the shorts the same size as the back pieces (resulting in shorts that didn't fit me well in the back), she told me that almost no pants are ever really like that and showed me an example of some scrubs pants that someone had brought in. This shows how sometimes you need real-live help even if you're following online instructions.

Basically, there is always more to the story than the steps you find online. You often need to customize, the way I had to modify the cape shape and add stiff interfacing. The tutorials often don't help you troubleshoot problems you run into, like with the cape angles. And without an expert on hand to ask, you have no way of knowing if the tutorials are actually advocating the "wrong" way to do something that is conventionally done some other way that works better (like the size of the shorts in the back). Ultimately, however, it worked out in my case! Take a look:

I have improved the sword since this photo was taken!


Monday, February 15, 2016

Froebel's Gifts: Gift 2

I explored Froebel's second gift along with Josh. As you can see in the picture below, the second gift consists of a sphere, cylinder, and cube with loops for hanging so they can be suspended from a frame with string, and holes drilled in them so you can put them on a rod and slide and spin them. Our box came with an extra set of the solids, without holes or hanging loops, to explore their "pure" forms.

I hadn't known much about Froebel's Gifts before reading about them in the Inventing Kindergarten book. I had been expecting the cognitive and aesthetic dimensions, but not the spiritual ones. That made quite an impression on me, as someone who also believes that the divine can be encountered in nature. With Gift 2, we begin to see the natural harmony inherent in geometric forms. A cylinder sort of looks like what would happen if you morphed a sphere and cube together. And when you spin a suspended cube, you can see a cylinder form within the spinning after-image. When spinning a cylinder on its side, a sphere appears. These solids are all intimately related to one another, and are the basic "building blocks" (a metaphor that would not exist without Froebel) of solid geometry.

When playing with Gift 2, we tried the spinning as suggested by the instruction booklet. But we also explored physics concepts by hanging the shapes up and making them swing like pendulums or hit each other to see how every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We explored rolling to see how things move. I found the sound that the sphere made when it knocked against the box to be very aurally satisfying. We further explored sound (which is both aesthetic in the form of music and physics in the form of sound waves) by seeing how the different pieces sounded when knocked against each other. I wondered what I would have done with these shapes when I was a child. I told Josh I probably would have tried to turn them into people. I then proceeded to stack the sphere on top of the cylinder on top of the cube, in the iconic column that's pictured above. I had a sudden flash of insight and passed one of the two rods through the cylinder, giving my figure "arms." I concluded that it now looked like a person.

I'm kind of glad that the forms of nature, knowledge, and beauty are not huge deals in the second gift just yet. They become more prominent in subsequent gifts. As is clear from the description of Josh's and my play above, we regularly blended symbolic play (forms of nature, e.g., the "person" I made) with aesthetic play (forms of beauty, e.g. in the musical sounds we made) and play with natural properties (forms of knowledge, e.g., in the physics of movement and forced that we explored). It was hard to tell the difference between these forms. I think this may be true with all the rest of the gifts too, which makes me wonder why Froebel and his followers were so keen on separating the forms. It's true that each form has something unique to offer: forms of nature provide an appreciation of ordinary objects and the beginnings of symbolic thought (Vygotsky!). Forms of knowledge bring attention to scientific and mathematical properties. Forms of beauty bring an appreciation for aesthetics, symmetry, and relationships between parts and wholes. I just think it's hard to truly draw the line between the forms, and wonder if they were ever negatively constraining to the first kindergarteners.

It's interesting that the order of Froebel's gifts seems to follow a progression that begins with solid, 3D geometry, and only later introduces 2D geometry in the form of flat tiles, then lines (1D) in sticks, and finally points in the form of perforating paper (then, of course, the progression reverses in the remaining gifts). By beginning with solids, which are the most concrete and the most likely to resemble real objects that children would encounter in their everyday lives, and progressing to more abstract 2D and 1D forms, Froebel was foreseeing Piaget's progression from concrete to abstract. But then by reversing the progression, and ending once again with 3D forms in peas-work and clay, Froebel "re-valued" the concrete, as called for by Papert. Froebel truly was way ahead of his time!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Paper Circuit Lightsaber

I've made paper circuits before, and in fact at a Maker Faire once, I bought circuit stickers and a conductive pen with real silver ink. So when we made paper circuits in class, I wanted to challenge myself by going beyond the basics. Looking back at my process now, it seems to fit pretty well with Resnick's (2007) Kindergarten Spiral from this week's reading.

First, Imagine: I knew we were doing paper circuits, so I started thinking about what I could make. Since I've been so involved in geek culture and cosplay, I wanted it to be relevant to that somehow. I've recently been deeply entrenched in the Star Wars fandom, so...the obvious answer was a lightsaber! And since my favorite character is Kylo Ren, clearly I was going to start with his lightsaber. Here's what it looks like:

Create: Once I had the materials in my hands, I knew I wasn't going to use my stickers or pen. The conventional LEDs shed more light than the stickers, and silver wasn't the right color for this. I tried out three LEDs on a coin cell battery to see if I could get the effect I wanted. The answer was yes!

When I tried sketching out the circuit on paper, though, I realized that the copper tape would interfere with the look I was going for:

Then I had the idea to fold a piece of paper, put the positive legs of the LEDs on the outside, poke holes, and put the negative legs on the inside of the folded paper! I had never seen a paper circuit done this way before. I had to figure out a way to make it work without having a prior example. So even though I knew how to make paper circuits, I created a new challenge for myself because I wanted my final product to look a certain way. Here's what my outside originally looked like:
And the inside:


I made a hole in the paper over where the battery went so that the positive lead in the front could touch the positive side of the battery. But... I found it only worked when I pressed the tape in the front down so it would go through the small hole. And even then, it was temperamental, sometimes lighting only 1 or 2 of the 3 LEDs. This is where I started playing around to try to improve things.
Play: I tried various techniques in order to improve the connections, since I knew stronger connections would make the lights shine more easily. I reinforced the connections on the inside with additional tape, and put some tape directly on the negative side of the battery. After doing so and seeing that the circuit no longer worked, I realized I needed to move the tape so it did not touch the positive side of the battery at all. That's why there's a bit of a clump of copper tape below the battery in this picture:
It worked much more easily now! (I still had to press down on the battery, though) It was time to go show it off!

Share: I excitedly showed my lightsaber to my neighbors. Both Justin and Josh (also Star Wars fans) had pretty much guessed what it was supposed to be. I took it over to show Kylie as well, and while I was over there, I saw Charlie's project. He was making a cube with small square holes in it, and there were tabs of copper tape sticking out of the holes. Of course! I should make a tab for my battery! Behold the power of sharing! I later went back to Charlie to find out more about his project, and I ended up helping him figure out how to make his circuit work. So sharing goes both ways!

The tab bringing the positive lead through the hole, to more easily contact the positive side of the battery
 At last my circuit worked with little effort. Here is the final product:
Does that look Sith-y enough for you? :D
Reflect: In reflecting on my learning process by writing this post, I saw again and again how constructionist concepts played a role in my learning. My goal was interest-driven: I wasn't satisfied to make a simple circuit. No, I already knew how to do that. I wanted to make a lightsaber. And that required challenging myself to do something I'd never tried before: build a paper circuit on two layers. Manipulating the materials helped me to better understand both how they and how circuits work. I had to make many mistakes in order to achieve my goal. And finally, sharing turned out to be one of the most useful contributions to this project.
...Back to Imagine Again: I now can't help but think about how to extend this project. Perhaps I could make a blue or green lightsaber (and the silver pen would work well for those). I've also been thinking about making a full-size Kylo Ren lightsaber, ever since I cosplayed him a few weeks ago at an anime convention. I borrowed a lightsaber then; I don't have one of my own. Why not make one? The important thing is to never stop imagining!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Creative Learning Space: Bloominglabs

Bloominglabs is an adult maker/hackerspace here in Bloomington, located in a warehouse. While it has a paid membership structure, once a week on Wednesday evenings they open it up to anyone. I visited on two Wednesdays (once from 9pm-10:45pm, and the following week from 7:40-10:40pm).

The diversity of projects is incredible. The projects involve electronics, computers, 3D printing, laser cutting, woodworking, metalworking, and even sewing and painting. They even have welding and are setting things up to be able to support auto repair. It seems most projects come from individual interests or needs—for instance, one man painted with acrylic paints on laser-cut acrylic just because he wanted to test how it would turn out, while another had a busted carburetor on his motorcycle and needed to fix it. The most impressive project I saw was an electricity-generating bicycle that lights up a giant Menorah, which as far as I can tell was made only because its maker wanted to do it. It seems it’s pretty common for non-members to bring items in for repair on Wednesday nights too; I brought in a voice-changing mask I bought for a costume, but the voice-changing part wasn’t working and needed to be fixed (it just needed to be re-soldered). Another man brought a sewing machine that he couldn’t get to work, which one of the few female members of Bloominglabs helped him out with. Sometimes members work on improvements to the space. For instance, I saw someone using the wood tools to make a shelf on which he mounted a TV above the door in the big room, to keep a watch on the laser cutter, which has a camera on it.

The bicycle-powered Menorah! I couldn't get a better angle because it was tucked between a shelf and the wall.
The community ranges in age from teenagers to upper middle age, and they all seemed very welcoming and friendly. Most of them are men, though I know one female member well and saw or heard of a few more during my visits. Some people seemed content to just hang out and watch videos together. Others helped each other out with projects, like an expert welder helping weld a broken piece of the motorcycle carburetor, or the woman helping with the sewing machine. Others worked on projects alone, such as a couple people modeling objects for the laser cutter or 3D printer on their computers. Visitors are always welcome on Wednesday nights, and there’s always someone willing to show them around. When I walked in the first week and explained my problem, people seemed to know who would be most helpful to me, and he immediately wrapped up what he was doing and turned to my project. There seems to be opportunity both for watching an expert help you with your project, as I did, and learning from them how to do it yourself. They also seemed very willing to help each other and work on the same project together depending on their strengths. For instance, one young man was taking apart his broken PlayStation 3. He occasionally called over a friend to help him with the difficult bits. Once he was done disassembling it, he gave it to an expert in electronics to solder the broken parts. They seemed to divide labor based on skillset rather than on authority. There were no clear leadership structures or hierarchies that I could see.

Besides values of general friendliness, there also seems to be a DIY spirit, a quirkiness, and an openness to ideas and guests, no matter who they are or how crazy the ideas. There’s also an etiquette to cleaning up your tools (there were signs all over saying, “Don’t maroon tools on uncharted workspaces!”). Each tool has its proper place, or at least an area where others like it are kept (like a wall on which you hang screwdrivers and other hand tools).

These posters showcase some of Bloominglabs' values: a repair-it-yourself spirit and an expectation to clean up after yourself.
The space is large, loud, and eclectic. There’s a front room with large tables pushed together in the middle, where people gather with their computers and smaller-scale projects. The large table supports social interaction, to help build a more cohesive community and a spirit of helping each other. There are wires everywhere here, as well as shelves, old arcade game consoles, screens, and a 3D printer. A smaller room to the side of this one houses the laser cutter with its ventilation system. In the large, main space, there are huge power tools for working with wood, metal, vehicles, etc., as well as more ordinary hand tools. I spotted one sewing machine (besides the one the man brought in), but no fabric or thread, except for a lone spool of conductive thread that no one was using. There are also quirky objects spread around the space, like a USB hub made out of an old lamp, or giant circuit boards that decorate the walls like framed art. While members claim that the space is more organized than it used to be, thanks to the untiring efforts of a man who spends almost every day in the space, it is still crowded and cluttered with stuff. The function the clutter serves within the culture of this space is to provide constant access and inspiration, even if not for the exact thing you’re looking for, at least to the look and spirit of the kind of thing you could be making. There are some kinds of projects that are less likely to occur to you in the space's current material configuration, such as more crafty low-tech projects, but there are even exceptions to that, with the painted laser-cut acrylic, a small table loom built from scratch, and a project I heard about involving light-up fairy wings. So the creative process is well supported, and even if the materials may not seem to call out for certain types of projects, the people in the space are receptive to any idea and will help your dreams become reality.
Part of Bloominglabs' large main space


Sunday, January 24, 2016


When I was quite young, perhaps 3 or so, my parents bought me a large Playskool dollhouse for Christmas. Molded out of white and pastel plastics, it came with several rooms, furniture, and a doll family consisting of a mother, father, baby, and teenage girl who I guess was supposed to be the babysitter. Over the years I accumulated more dolls and pieces to add to the dollhouse. It became one of the main foci of my play for the next several years.
My dollhouse looked something like this, though this one has more pieces than mine did.
 Playing with the dollhouse probably helped structure my ideas about gender roles and what families are like, but that's not what I remember most fondly about it. Instead, I remember how much fun I had making the dolls characters in my stories. Even if most of the stories I played out with them were about mundane everyday life, I enjoyed having characters in my control and putting them in various situations.

My story-making wasn't limited to the dollhouse; it's just the oldest and longest-running example I remember. I did the same with baby dolls, Barbies, stuffed animals, McDonald's toys, imaginary friends, and nearly anything I could personify. While media helped me figure out what a story was, these toys helped me to create my own. I really think pretend play with these toys helped me to structure my thinking in a narrative manner, something that persists to this day. I also still greatly value good stories and imagination. But more importantly, by taking on the perspectives of these toys-as-characters, I practiced empathy, perspective-taking, and emotional skills. Because I was the oldest child, it was several years before my sister was old enough to play with me. So pretending with my toys and imaginary friends was how I started to practice getting along with people.

I believe these experiences were crucial for my development, both as a storyteller, and as a person who tries to get along with others and make a difference in their lives. Narrative is still my favorite form of literature both to consume and write, and concrete examples described as narratives are best at helping me to understand complex phenomena. And I still think of my life primarily in terms of the way I relate to other people. So the dollhouse and other toys like it helped me structure my thinking both cognitively and emotionally.

Here I am, c. 1994, with the Playskool dollhouse beside me.