Tinker Lab at Camp Kala

[vimeo width=”500″ height=”400″]http://vimeo.com/101148170[/vimeo]

This video was made by a teaching assistant, Yuwei Zheng.

Last week I taught a Make/Design/Tinker/Hack class for middle school students at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. It allowed me to stretch and explore many of the topics we’ve been researching with the Agency by Design research team. For the first time I drew concrete connections between traditional art making and engineering and design and now I feel confident about how I will bring more of this into my classroom at Oakland International.

Two main sources of inspiration were the Nueva Design Institute I attended in June, and the ever inspiring Exploratorium and their “The Art of Tinkering” Book. Below is the brainstorming I started at Nueva.


I began by thinking about how artists make marks and how we might be able to explore that through making drawing machines. This type of thinking on paper I learned is part of a new field called Visual Thinking in which visual imagery is just as important as the text. Since I’ve been taking notes like this for years I was thrilled to hear that there’s a whole field out there to explore. If you’re interested I encourage you to start by watching this great Ted Talk by Rachel Smith.

making marks3


We first looked at and then watched an ART 21 video of Cai Gui-Qiang who uses gunpowder and explosions to make prints. (We silenced Qiang’s metaphor for art making as love making. I had forgotten it was there!) The students then created their own tools and experimented with mark marking and then presented their most exciting discovery to each other. We also tinkered with printing and added sticky foam shapes to cardboard tubes to experiment with how printmaking can use movement.


Next we played an adapted version of THE ELABORATION GAME, a close-looking activity developed by the Agency By Design researchers at Project Zero. In my version three different artists/observers take turns elaborating on each others’ drawings and writings. During the regular school year at Oakland International I’ve found that ELL students need to be concretely taught to Elaborate, what that means, and how to do it. This activity forces them to search for words deeper than the surface.

take apart

The PPC (Parts, Purposes, Complexities) Thinking Routine has been a central activity created by Agency by Design and a very helpful way of looking at objects and systems. As with my ELL students I found the middle school students more interested in pulling the object apart than recording their thinking on paper. It’s an enthralling activity that consumes kids’ attention and leaves them with exciting questions. As the student on the left wrote for the complexities of a computer mouse, “How it ***ing works!” This is the same 10-year-old that taught me to solder two days later.


teaching teacher

Using the same objects we had taken apart, plus an array of other awesome items from the East Bay Depot the students were asked to transform these objects into art experiences, sculptures, games, or other. This was where I felt super excited and engaged, because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. The kids went into all different directions, combining two items into one (a pencil sharpener and fan), creating a game out of Angry Birds, or making delicate sculptures from reclaimed computer pieces.

During this HACK session we started learning how to re-claim motors from toys and solder on our own wires. Above the kids are teaching me how to use my new soldering iron. The transition of my role from teacher to learner in this moment made me feel like this was becoming a real MAKERSPACE and that all skills were fluid and able to be explored in this kind of environment. It’s important to note that the students in this summer camp were self-selected and came in with an inclination towards being curious tinkerers and hackers. Middle school also felt like the right age for tinkering and hacking. My thought is that my high-schoolers wouldn’t want to hack what they might consider trash and would prefer more refined materials. I look forward to trying out some of these playful activities with the high-schoolers.

design process




Above are images from the last two projects and part of the exhibit at the end of the week. I knew I wanted the kids to design their own drawing machines so I first scaffolded the project with the Exploratorium’s “scribbling machine.” This project in itself can be hacked and designed in so many ways that the students from the beginning created unique machines. We also looked at a number of artists who make drawing machines including Tyree Callahan  and Sam Van Doorn. Then, using what they had learned to date they were challenged to design their own drawing or art machine. This gave us the opportunity to learn more about the full design process that I had just learned at the Nueva Institute. Starting with a Saturation Board in groups students brainstormed then planned out their ideas on paper. After that they started to tinker, solder, play, and experiment. Then we had group critiques and students refined their machines. Some were able to actually draw but others were prototypes of their ideas. These machines were out of this world exciting! It felt less like a MAKERSPACE and more like Nueva’s INNOVATION LAB.

I was disappointed not to incorporate the user centered interviews, which I think develop a deep sense of empathy, but we did do a couple design challenges during the week that did include interviews (i.e. design a nametag for your interview partner). At Nueva the arts classes do not incorporate the interview process into the arts classes because the director told me art is often times more about self-expression, but for me it was such a powerful and important part of the design process that I’m excited to think about how to use it in my arts class this coming year. I also think that the definition of art is so fluid and unconventional that even the interview itself could be considered an act of art.

The last project we worked on was another Exploratorium inspiration – an Automata. This was an EXCELLENT project – so great in fact that  I will write a separate post about it soon.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *