Tinkering with Tech

By Rob Van Nood, Educational Technology Specialist

With inquiry-based tech classes, Lower and Middle School students are finding the intersection of making and play.

On the first day of my Tinkering with Technology class, I hand every student the same two Bluetooth enabled devices: a servo motor and a slider, which is similar to a dimmer switch for a light. I don’t tell them what these things are or how they work. “What questions do you have about these two items?” I ask, and the responses from first- to fifth-graders are very similar: “What is this?” “What does it do?” “What is it for?” With simple curiosities as initial motivation, I invite them to explore and play and see if they can discover their way to some answers.

“Hey, the cover comes off and you can see inside,” comes an excited exclamation from one side of the room. Soon everyone in the class has removed the cover of each device and begun exploring the electronic components inside. More questions are thrown out: “What is this thing? It looks like a battery.” And new curiosities: “I wonder if this slidey thing can control this spinning thing?” At some point in the first 20 minutes someone in every class makes a discovery that unleashes a whole new level of excitement and curiosity. “If you press this little button under here it makes a light turn on.”

It’s always amazing to watch the glee in a child who first discovers how to turn something on without instruction. I could spend three minutes explaining what these SamLabs devices were and how they worked, but the joy of discovery on that first day is what I am after. It’s that joy and wonder that will carry us through a year of tinkering together.

I’ve been tinkering with students since I first started teaching in 1995 and have developed my understanding of its importance through years of exploration and discovery with students in classrooms and in the Tinker Camp that I co-founded in 2009. I’ve also tapped into the work of the Lifelong Kindergarten research group lead by Mitch Resnick at MIT’s Media Lab. “Tinkering is at the intersection of making and play,” says Resnick, “and it is one of the most important pathways to develop as a creative thinker. It can be messy and meandering.  But what you lose in efficiency you make up for in creativity and agility.”

The process of tinkering starts with explorations that might seem rather random, but we don’t stop there. Once they have tinkered for a while, student curiosity naturally leads them to more focused questions and planned projects. What starts as tinkering with servos and sliders leads to the creation of a musical instrument or a working vending machine or a moving puppet theater. Sometimes there are just creations of whimsy and beauty and wonder.

We need tinkers in the world now more than ever. We need children who are constantly experimenting, testing out new ideas, and shifting plans based on what they see happening. When Lower School students take part in my weekly Tinkering with Technology class, or Middle School students in my Programming class, I want them to develop a playful and creative attitude in their exploration of the world around them. And just as importantly, allow them to experience new things and show how capable they really are.

Video: Watch the companion piece, "Tinkering with Technology"