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. :)

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