This past weekend, Tinkering School hosted a special session of English Language Learners from China. We had been coordinating this session for a couple of months, and the preparation involved lots of chatting between our Director, Karen, and the Program's Manager in China. They corresponded mostly about TS vocabulary words and concepts to help prepare the students for the loads of information they would received at the workshop about how to use the tools and how to treat one another and the space while at TS.
This workshop was unique for a lot of reasons, and through this collective experience, we all learned quite a bit about each other and about our TS programming.
In our one day sessions, at the beginning of the day, our Tinkerers usually don't know one another. So, part of our job as Collaborators is to frame the students' interactions with one another. We teach them how to get to know each other in such a short time frame, and how to work together to build things as a team even though this might be their first time together in the same room.
Because this particular group of humans traveled together from another part of the world, our introduction to the space became more about us introducing the space and the goals, and less about the students learning how to interact interpersonally.
Opening circle was a lesson for all of us in word-learning, word-pronouncing, and concept explaining. The Tinkerers were accompanied by a couple of amazing translators (Wil and Vee) who were eager to assist when communication became tricky. Karen also hopped in and wrote a few words on a wipe board as we chatted so that the students could visualize some of the vocabulary we were using.
After an amazing morning session of getting to know one another, we jumped right into tool training and practice.
In tool training and practice, the Tinkerers learned to use the chopsaw, the clamps, and the drills. On a personal note, during this part of the session I realized how often we heavily we rely on language to convey certain concepts -- a clamp as a substitute for a hand, a chopsaw as a means to make wood a specific length, the importance of wearing goggles and headphones to protect eyes and ears from shop danger. As I went through the tools with the students, I found myself more silent than normal, more careful with my word choice, more aware of my body language, and for allowing the time and space that we don't normally to do things like pronounce a word all together a few times before moving to the next instruction.
All of the extra time and space that we dedicated to discovery was totally worth it. In the photo above, Sonny and Jimmy took the time to see how soft and smooth the wood was after cutting it with the saw. Throughout the day, we all shared so many moments where the focus became less on our communication gaps and more on the collective experience of learning a thing using a specific tool.
After tool training and practice, we ate lunch together and chatted about the project that we would try to build as a team. The project was a challenge: build a thing to safely take a bowling ball on a ride. (Like a rollercoaster!) Try to incorporate a turn and a drop. Don't let the bowling ball hurt anyone or the floor. You can't release the ball with your hands; you must build a mechanism to do so.
The Bowlercoaster-like challenge is a classic at Tinkering School. We always give it different constraints. It's applicable to a number of age and developmental ranges. It's also a project that often presents an initial set of problems that, once overcame, the solution can be replicated over and over to make a track longer or more complex path of travel.
Sidenote: what we hadn't expected was that for these teens who easily understood physics and geometry-based concepts, that the communication of iterations from the students to the Collaborators would be challenging.
In the group that I worked with for most of the day, our design session had a steep learning curve for all of us. We had to develop our own contextually specific language through which to communicate to one another.
We quickly learned about our cultural differences in measurement systems, and had to work as a team to overcome those differences. During brainstorming, I tried to explain standard measurement (the unit that ALL of our measuring tools use) to metric measurement (the unit of measurement that these folks were taught to think in), and we collectively decided on a solution that involved visually demonstrating distances and lengths and then converting the visualization to the (mostly meaningless) numbers on our 16 foot tape measures. This became the number language that we used -- 34 became the code name for the height of the track, 5.5 was our width, and 84 was the length. I further explained that 96 was the code for how long our longest pieces of wood were, and as the day unfolded, I kept thinking about how silly standard measurement is.
After our lesson in measurement conventions, my group set out to build tracks that the bowling ball could roll down. We were attempting to make something that was safe and sturdy and was easy to replicate. After a design session in which the Tinkerers conferred with each other in their native language and then explained the concepts to me via illustration and a couple of iterations that failed, we finally landed on a prototype that worked! Two long tracks were connected and angled by a fairly simple in construction, but complicated in design wooden bracket. The bracket was made of two right triangles connected by a 7.5 inch piece of wood. To simply our communication around these components, we decided to call them "Cats."
The rest of the day consisted of meowing at each other and telling cat jokes. We killed the Cats! We had to repair the Cats! We had to make more Cats! It was easy to remember and funny to say, and made for some amazing and silly stories at the end of the day.
By the end of the day, all of the Tinkerers had created a really tall and fairly stable rollercoaster for the bowling ball to travel. The Collaborators gained a new perspective on extracting and implementing kid-designed mechanisms. I learned about how silly units of measurement are. We also made a bunch of working Cats!
It was an amazing, eye-opening, fulfilling day of Tinkering, and I was excited to see this new iteration of the Classic Bowlercoaster!
Check out all the photos from the day on Flickr!