Tinkering School

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Week 7 - Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

Sean Murray

This week's theme is Rolling and it's focus is on two major projects. One is a marble run that is full of delight and whimsy. The other is a challenge: With control, ride a gravity powered cart down a ramp of our design and take an intentional right turn.

The beauty of both these projects is that they speak for themselves. When kids ask "Do you like it?" we can ask back "Do you like it?" (an on-going attempt to keep us from being the arbiters of value and praise). When the kids ask "Is it good?" we can respond with "Lets run the marble" or "lets put it on the ramp" and the projects will give the kids all the feedback they need.

So we run the marble and we put the carts on the ramp. The feedback is immediate, powerful and empowering. We are up against a challenge of our own design. Success is measured in growth and refinement towards our goal, not by the approval or admiration of adults. The motivation is both internal and external, but it is in no way artificial.

After 4 days of cart after cart helplessly rolling down a ramp, out of control and unable to turn deliberately (often turning on accident), frustration grew. The adults this session are playing it particularly dumb and not being super helpful with design ideas (on purpose). But we tinkered and fiddled, iterated and restarted and this morning at roughly 11am a cheer erupted from across the school. One group had done it. With intention and an accuracy a cart rolled down the hill and its pilot deftly rounded the major turn and crash landed into the soft surface at the end of our course.

We figured it out for ourselves.

But that's not the end. Many of us hadn't figured it out. Most carts didn't ever make it across the finish line. Despite each piece working alone, the marble maze never fully connected. Like any real engineer, designer, maker, artist, or scientist, 90% of new ideas (those not from kits, those not simply re-hashing another exploration or creation), flop. They fail and they fail hard and without fanfare. Failure is the nature of innovative creation. It is data collection and when mixed with reflection it becomes the most powerful tool for refinement. It's the heart and soul of problem-solving. And for the kids (and ourselves), there is nothing we can ever do to make failure feel good. Not hitting our goal sucks. It always has and always will. But somewhere along the line we hope to plant a seed that though it sucks, it is useful. Over time we may even come to embrace it, revel in the discomfort and learn to appreciate the lessons only mistakes and mishaps can teach us.

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