Playful Computation and Contraptions at Amazeum

IMG_3629 (1).JPG

After the workshop in Little Rock, I took the beautiful three-hour drive to Bentonville in Northwest Arkansas, home of Amazeum, a relatively new science center doing lots of experiments with tinkering, maker residencies, and creative learning across a variety of settings.

IMG_3777 (1).JPG

This maker residency is the first of a series of three visits for me over the next six months to collaborate with the team, host discussions about teaching and learning, lead trainings on new activities and create a collaborative art piece for a public event later in the summer.


The first topic we explored is computational tinkering with paper circuits and chibitronics chibichips. We had a initial session where participants worked in pairs to explore the realm of circuitry and programming, two topics which can sometime feel intimidating.

IMG_3542 (1).JPG

In this workshop, the emphasis was on collaboration and playfulness. The combination of craft materials and computational tools lowers the threashold to participation and gives everyone a chance to find a entry point even if they’re not too confident in their programming abilities.

IMG_3577 (1).JPG

In less than two hours, each team made something that represented their current understanding of the topic and suggested future avenues for exploration. Two projects took fireflies as inspiration for really cool creations that blinked and almost seemed to communicate with each other.


I loved the ingenuity of this group that wanted to make a rainbow themed paper circuit but didn’t see all of the right colors. So they too a sharpie to the white gumdrop LED to make their own custom purple and orange lights.

And this caterpillar circuit really took the artistic element to the next level by diffusing patterns of the light and the textured 3D grass. This group reflected on their process spending a lot of time just messing with the board and the makecode editor before starting to build. We talked about how important it is to give learners freedom to just explore ideas for these topics without expecting a defined product right away.


In addition to experimenting with computational tinkering, the other emphasis for the residency was thinking about connections to automata. Amazeum will be the host of the next iteration of the Curious Contraptions exhibition of Caberet Mechanical Theater automata that Nicole built a welcome sign for earlier in the year.


It’s an exciting venue for the exhibtion and we’re thinking about ways to support the show with hands-on workshops, guides for collabortive builds and ways to engage the public in interactive events. This week I introduced the Amazeum team to Cranky Contraptions, a introductory automata activity developed by Ryoko and the Tinkering Studio team to explore discreet aspects of motions and mechanisms.

IMG_3774 (1).JPG

I had participated in the activity at the BAME meetup in december but this was my first time trying this workshop with other people. Together with the Amazeum team, we prepped materials, made a couple of examples and set up an environment for tinkering with tools like drills, glue guns, pliers and wire snips.


The first workshop with half of the edcuators went really well and there were some cool experiments with both the mechanisms and the artistic elements. The wooden cranked automata lowered the threshold for automata experiments by removing the element of having to build a box and spend a lot of time initially prepping the frame.


I liked how participants could decide how much to focus on creating a single automata vs just playing with the materials. Most had something semi-finished at the end of an hour or so of building, but a few people just enjoyed testing out initial ideas.

IMG_3792 (1).JPG

The group also reflected on the initial spark for building the cranky contraptions and how some people were influenced by having a specific story in mind and others let the mechanisms drive the process. I think both ways of coming to the activity resulted in interesting designs. With all automata explorations it’s important to give learners the multiple pathways toward creating their own personally meaningful explorations.

For the second iteration of the workshop, we had some time to prep a few more examples based on the feedback from the participants. One of the things that I wanted to try was showing three ways to make both the pivot points and the limiters for the rod connectors using different materials.

In the second workshop there seemed to be a little more wild prototypes based on the examples shown. Participants tried to do things like adding multiple toppers, different arrangements of blocks and some really cool aesthetic elements. 

IMG_3715 (1).JPG

I'm looking forward to the next chance to visit Amazeum in at the end of august. During that visit I plan to spend more time prototyping automata extensions to share at public events and through online instrutables. As well I'll be back in bentonville to complete this cycle of residency at the annual Tinkerfest event. It's so much fun to work with this group of eductors and learn from their experiments with making and tinkering.