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Tinkering School at American School Foundation of Monterrey, Mexico

Amanda SimonsComment

On February 17 and 18, 2017, a Tinkering School team traveled to Monterrey, Mexico to present at the Live Curious Go Beyond Conference hosted by the American School Foundation of Monterrey.

Imagine, if you will, this image:

Blue skies, in a valley surrounded by mountains, the hot afternoon sun is beaming down. The San Franciscans certainly aren't used to this kind of February weather. The American School Foundation of Monterrey is a massive campus of interconnected vaulted ceiling buildings that are compartmentalized and subdivded into smaller classrooms. There's air conditioning. A giant cafeteria. Inspirational posters -- everywhere. Friends, we are far, far, away from 1960 Bryant Street.

Gever was invited to give the keynote and kick off the conference. His talk about dangerous things, the inherent bravery of children, and the ways in which Brightworks and Tinkering School foster both of those risky notions, helped to frame what the TS team's experience would be like for the two days of the conference. Tinkering School was there to push the boundaries, to show what hands-on learning can be in the form of hands-on activities, and to lend a helpful ear to the many, many educators that stopped to chat in the hallways, after our workshops, and even on our way to the bathroom.

As part of our stay in Mexico, Piper and Amanda hosted a 50 minute talk on linguistic strategies at Tinkering School. We helped to expand upon some of the concepts brought up during Gever's keynote, and also give an insight into what those practices look like day-to-day during our workshops.

We boiled down what we do and how we do it to three main takeaways:

  • Don't dumb it down.
  • Create a shared lexicon.
  • Flip questions and statements.

    (We'll expand upon these notions in future blog posts, for sure!)

    The talk was well received, and also helped to contextualize some of the exercises that we led in our four Tinkering Challenge workshops.

Our first two tinkering challenge workshops were with students from ASFM, and explored ways in which teams could make tools to carry out a task. In our first session, we asked the students to create tools that could move really large washers from one cup to another, and also stack them on fence posts in precarious balancing towers.

Iteration after iteration yielded silly and serious duct taped, rubber banded, and wired poking sticks and makeshift spatulas that helped team move around clunky metal discs. Once a challenge was met, the teams begs for a new one and we increasingly made the asks more difficult all morning.

There was so much giggling and cheering in the sunshine, and it was wonderful to share those feelings with those young folks!

In the afternoon, we challenged an older group of students to create a track that could send a wheel down and back. The wheel was actually two paper cups duct taped together, and tracks proved to be more difficult than any of us could have envisioned. Wire and rubber bands and twine and duct tape and dowels were all failed track attempts. We experimented with slope and track width and with modifying the cups. It wasn't until nearly 90 minutes with all brains on deck that we arrived at a sort-of solution that allowed a modified wheel to painstakingly spin down some twine, but never back. 

There was so much frustration and so much cheering. The big take away from this workshop was the failure. We found out later that these students are used to having right and wrong answers. They are familiar with being told the correct way to go about a thing, and the failure of this challenge was a shock that proved more powerful than finding the solution. 

How could the TS facilitators set up a situation that they don't know the answer to? Well, actually, that's our job. The chats afterwards with both students and educators about that unexpected outcome was eye opening for all of us. 

We closed the conference by holding two sessions with adult educators. We asked them to solve some aesthetic tinkering challenges -- visually recreate some lines from a Beatles song -- and we also took these folks through a classic TS Post-It brainstorming session. 

The sessions were fun and useful and lead to a lot of great one-on-one conversations with people from around the globe. They wanted to know how to sneak TS Goals into their scripted public school curriculum. They wanted to know how to start Maker Spaces and inspire administration to drink the proverbial TS Kool Aid. They wanted to know how to stay in touch and pick our brains and collaborate on future projects. 

For me, the big take away was this: experiential education is valuable. It teaches the students while teaching the adults and allows real-time problem solving practice that can't be taught in a book or through a test. Selling the idea isn't the challenge -- for many institutions, it's convincing folks to take a leap of faith and try it on... and if it doesn't work the first time, simply try it again. It's the process itself that you'll learn the most from.  

What Would We Like Kids to Take Away from Tinkering School, with Respect to Fabrication?

Sean MurrayComment

Our big important goals at Tinkering School are about collaboration, problem-solving, curiosity and perseverance. Fabrication is just the medium through which we explore those goals. Team problem-solving is the end, fabrication is the means.

But, sometimes it's worth thinking about the means. What, exactly, would we like kids to take away from their time at Tinkering School, with respect to fabrication? Here are some thoughts:

PLUS & DELTA: Claw Machine

Lindsay Jones

For Heavy Lifting week I was excited about building a Claw Machine! Claw machines were a big part of my childhood and I realized, while walking down memory lane, that they contain some interesting problems that would be hard to think about, but easy to build. There would be simple, sliding movement, but in three dimensions.  I figured out the gist of how classic claw machines worked, so that our team could have a good understanding of what parts we’d need to build, and was ready to tinker out the details with the kids as we came to them.

Tool Training: CLAMPS

Tool TrainingPiper Alldredge

In this series, we offer step-by-step breakdowns of how Tinkering School helps kids use tools safely and efficiently. Feel free to use, share, comment and re-mix!

Clamps are great--they hold stuff together. For young builders, clamps are even more than a way to keep work from moving--they're a path to self-sufficiency and a step away from dependence on adults.

Fin holds; Maisy twists.

Here's our approach to training young builders on clamps.


At the beginning of clamp training, reiterate that all power tools the campers will be using are two-handed tools. Since both hands will be operating the tool, campers will need a way to hold their work in place, and (bonus!) maybe even hold tiny work to a larger, more stable object.


In our shop we have two basic kinds of clamps: squeezy and twisty.


Give a quick demo of the two types of clamps--with emphasis on the superior of the twisty variety. (The operation of Squeezy clamps is more easily-guessable, so these are often the first choice of campers. However, the extra 30 seconds involved in learning the operation of the Twisty is justified by their superior holding ability).

Squeezy: Show and tell how the clamp has two triggers, one smaller and one larger. 

Show and tell how pressing and holding the smaller trigger allows the jaw to slide backwards and forwards, making the opening larger or smaller.

Show and tell how repeatedly, firmly squeezing the larger trigger slides the jaw forwards, making the opening smaller, to grip work.

Twisty: Show and tell how there are two ways of interacting with the clamp--squeezing the tab to slide the lower jaw; and tightening the screw.

Show and tell how squeezing the tab allows the lower jaw to slide backwards and forwards, making the opening larger or smaller.

Show and tell how turning the screw makes the opening smaller, to grip work.

Be sure to show how either clamp can hold together two pieces of wood to be joined with screws, allowing the builder to use both hands in drilling. Also show how to clamp work to a workbench for greater stability. Actually screwing two clamped pieces together will add more context for the group.

Gali demonstrates on point clamping technique, using a twisty clamp, while a friend holds a 2x3 in place.


Let's face it--clamps lack the charisma and romance of the drills or chopsaw.  After many years of trying to make clamp practice fun and exciting, we stumbled upon the Clamp-a-Ma-Jig! The challenge is to build the largest structure possible out of scraps of wood--held together only by clamps.

Build up, build out and use as many clamps as possible! Challenge kids to build something taller than themselves, taller than you; build a limbo, spell your name--anything to get kids using clamps. (Before disassembling Clamp-a-Ma-Jigs, be sure to remind kids that when you un-clamp two pieces of wood, they will indeed, fall!)

And, now for the real fun of clamp training: the clamp-a-ma-jig! Build up, build out and hold a whole lot of 2x3s together with clamps. Build something taller than yourself, taller than the collaborator you’re working with, build a limbo, spell your name, you get the idea. Remember: clamps are heavy and pokey; when you un-clamp two pieces of wood, they are no longer clamped together!

Clamp-a-ma-jig limbo, because why not?!


Think Before Clamping: Encourage kids to ask themselves: which two pieces am I trying to hold together? Are the pieces massive enough that they won't move after they're clamped, or should I clamp them to a large object for stability?

Use hand to model how the clamp will hold the two pieces together. This is a great strategy because it replicates the actual shape of the mouth of the clamp and can help keep clampers from clamping to nothing.

Keep Clamp Tails Out of the Way

The long, unused tail of the clamp can get in the way of work, or even give an unpleasant poke. When possible, make sure that clamp tails are facing away from people!

Clamps spelled with clamps; anything is possible!


Talking About TSSean Murray

I learned our motto by week 2 of summer camp and embraced it ever since then: “Failure is data collection.” It takes a lot of stubbornness and determination to finish a project. I learned the highlights and pitfalls of operating from a visual versus a structural perspective. It was a challenging project, but I am glad we tied it. Honestly, it was wonderful to look at myself and the kids at the end of the day and just know how happy we were to just get messy. 


Sean Murray

It was a 5-day camp with 36 kids, held in the mayo factory. The theme of the week was "Monster City". The big projects were a pretty-huge-sized replica of the spire of the Chrysler Building (for King Kong to climb), a 40'x40' city made of cardboard and a moving, rolling Godzilla Monster (to destroy the Cardboard City at the end of the week.

Fingers and Brains

Pedagogy and PhilosophySean Murray

Picture this: it's Monday morning at Tinkering School. Seven-year-old Niko is about to practice using the power drill. He has his hands full with a drill, a battery and a bucket of screws. 

Niko asks a collaborator, "Where are the drill bits?" 

At this moment, the collaborator has two options:

"As Always, the Project Is a Surprise"

Pedagogy and PhilosophySean Murray

When kids walk in to Tinkering School, they know that they are going to build. They don't know what they're going to build. Unlike lots of workshops, we do not reveal the project to kids or parents ahead of time. Until the day of a workshop, after Safety Training, the project remains a surprise. We've found that this has a few advantages..

Tinkering School Is Not About Tools

Pedagogy and PhilosophySean Murray

Tinkering School is not about tools. It's about helping kids increase their confidence and abilities as problem-solvers. It's about tackling tough problems and making new friends. It's about experiences--not objects.

That said, tools are an essential part of those experiences. Kids experiences of using the tools should be as fluid and frictionless as possible. (A plugged-in chop saw with a sharp blade on a clean, clear cutting table is a tool. An unplugged chopsaw with a dull-blade stashed under a messy table is a series of Very Tedious Problems).

The Collaborator Must Be Stoked

Collaborator's ExperienceSean Murray

Engaged, enthusiastic collaborators (a.k.a. "adults") are the foundation of a great Tinkering School experience.Every kid, to some degree, mirrors the collaborators. Kids get stoked on a project when they see collaborators stoked on a project. Kids enjoy tough, open-ended problems when they see collaborators enjoy tough, open-ended problems. Kids treat people with consideration and warmth when they see collaborators treat people with consideration and warmth. 

Tinkering School is a trademark registered in the US Patent and Trademark Office.