Marble Machine Environments

For the last couple of weeks of our residency at the Chabot Space and Science Center, we focused on thinking about how to create an environment for making and tinkering activities.

The Project Create activities normally take place in a big open hall which can be a challenging environment to run tinkering workshops. Eventually the team hopes to be able to create a semi permanent gallery for making and tinkering.

To help with them in the planning process we hosted a couple of design conversations where we looked at other tinkering studios and makerspaces. Additionally, Nicole built a physical model that they could use to plan out different configurations. But in the end, we thought that it would be most helpful to create a pop-up environment to show an example of dividing the larger room to create separate intentional workshops.

We thought that marble machines would be a good starting point to explore some environmental designs. The First Friday event on our last day had the theme of ‘games’ which seemed related enough, so we set that as a deadline to make a engaging, inviting and playful space.


For marble machines environment we wanted to create a collaborative working area. The exhibit builders at Chabot had already built some ‘pegbook’ sections (two 4x8 sheets with a hinge) so we thought that we might incorporate those into the design. As well, since the large hall sometimes needs to be cleared out for events we thought that we could show an example of a foldable surface. Together these elements worked to create a enclosed fort shape with lots of building surfaces at obtuse angles so people could collaborate.

Another element that we often consider is how to create examples or objects in the space to help convey the sense of new possibilities or high ceilings. We've been thinking for a while about ways to connect visitor built elements into some pre-built parts and we created a couple prototypes to test in the space.

The first simple idea was to have a switch at the bottom of a run that could activate something higher up. I built a quick example of a spinning flower that gets triggered by a copper tape switch.

I also experimented with a ball return mechanism powered by an arduino that controlled two servo motors. We mounted this prototype on the wall so that visitors could see some possible ways to continue exploring these ideas outside the museum.

It’s important that a tinkering space has playful and inspiring elements that make it feel more friendly and comfortable. Nicole took advantage of the tall ceiling and built a mobile with various balls to hang above the space. I worked on making a “bing bang boing” series of trampolines from TJs coffee cans.

One easy way to create a tinkering environment in science centers is by placing existing exhibits in new contexts. We had noticed ‘gravity well’ on a museum tour and thought that it would be might make a good accompaniment to the marble machine workshop space. I also took a page out of WICO on-call physicist Paul D who I remembered doing a bowling ball demo as an exhibit add-on.

And finally, we’re always curious about how to address prompts and signage in the space. We want to give people a clue about what they can do in the space. For marble machines we often tell people to make the ball travel slowly as a way to get them to observe the path closely. So for this environment, Nicole vinyl cut sticky letters to attach to a smaller board.

Andrea took the idea even further with the addition of an example marble run right on the same surface as the prompt. This seemed like a great way to give people a quick intro to the activity without overloading with info right at the beginning of the interaction.

The first friday event was packed with people and it was great to see how they used the environment. We noticed lots of people testing out the example before heading into the space. As well, kids and adults worked for a long time which to us is a good sign that the environment is comfortable. And lastly, the switches and trampolines seemed to provide a great challenge for those who decided to work them into their machines. The event was our last day at Chabot during this residency, but we hope to continue to think with them about how to create environments for making and tinkering