Getting started with Computational Making: “Make something move”

//Getting started with Computational Making: “Make something move”

by Aditi Wagh* w/ Brian Gravel, Eli Tucker-Raymond, Maria C. Olivares

The starting point for designing an introductory making activity for teacher learning was movement. Movement is ubiquitous in our lives—it is everywhere, in forms that are visible to the naked eye and some that are not. The scales of movement can be from the microscopic to global patterns and phenomena. Cells in our body move to fight disease, transport blood and perform other bodily functions; gas particles move resulting in fragrances and odors; birds fly to migrate to warmer regions in the winter; agricultural produce move across different parts of the world to meet the demand for food. These examples illustrate that entities move in a variety of ways, leading to a vast range of outcomes and patterns in the world. Phenomena related to movement exist across many disciplines, each of which provide different ways to explain and understand phenomena related to movement.

The familiarity of movement in people’s lives and its ubiquity across disciplines made movement an exciting anchor point for the design of teacher learning opportunities in our project. In addition to familiarity, accessibility was also important to us because many of our teachers were novice makers. In other words, we wanted the first activity to be a comfortable entry point for all our participant teachers.

In our project, one way we are thinking about computation is as the combining of certain rules to produce some emergent behaviors. We study those behaviors that emerge from the rules we made, and we make adjustments to the rules and how they are combined to see how those adjustments change the behaviors. To begin working with this idea within making, we needed to design an activity that would invite teachers into a space of movement exploration through the use of different materials and tools in hopes of exploring how rules and behaviors could be a language for describing how their contraptions worked.

Three team members, Dionne Champion, Ada Ren, and I, led work around conceptualizing the design of the prompt, “make something that moves.” In this blog, I first identify the kinds of prompts we considered for this activity, and how we settled on this prompt to align with our goals for teacher learning. I also present some illustrations of teacher constructed artifacts from the workshop.

Seeking inspiration around making, movement, and disciplinary possibilities

In an attempt to scope out possible ways to kick off teacher learning in our project, we sought inspiration at the intersection of movement, disciplines, and making artifacts. For example, we looked at work related to raising awareness about STEM and social issues through public art and pedagogical resources created by informal learning spaces such as the Exploratorium. These searches and conversations around them opened up our imaginings of the kinds of artifacts that teachers could make as well as ways to design prompts to initiate the making.

One idea was to design a phenomenon-driven making activity. Teachers would design, use, and manipulate specific materials to model the mechanics of a phenomenon they wanted to explore. Through this design and making, they might come to understand the phenomenon in new ways. For instance, teachers might create a physical or computational sculpture of climate change to raise public awareness around the role of humans in climate change.

Another idea was to create a mechanism-driven prompt. For instance, participants might be asked to devise ways to model a particular kind of movement such as hopping or sliding by manipulating materials in specific ways. This inspiration came from Olin College’s Hoppers Challenge, in which freshmen engineers taking the Design Nature course create a “hopper” to learn about the engineering design process, bioinspired engineering, and to learn about themselves as designers and engineers.

The figures below provide examples of using simple materials to create sliding, hopping, and gripping.
mage result for olin hopper project
elated image

Inspired by existing design challenges from the Exploratorium and the PaperMech project, we also considered using paper engineering prompts – having participants use crafting materials to construct and explore generative engineering systems such as linkages or automata.

Finally, we considered prompts that would foreground computational rules and emergent outcomes – for instance programming visual patterns such as fractals that arise from the repeated execution of a small set of encoded rules.

These ideas provided a realm of possibilities for potential entry points into teacher learning of disciplinary computational making. Though many of these ideas were exciting on their own, we had several discussions with the larger group to think carefully about how they aligned (or not!) with our goals for teacher learning and research questions for the project.

Revisiting goals for teacher learning

Evaluating each of the ideas above led us to re-examine our primary goals for teacher learning. Did we want to highlight goals related to teacher exploration of specific tools through the creation of artifacts, or goals related to crafting and pursuing disciplinary and computational questions to explore through making? What would be a generative starting point to encourage forms of playful exploration of materials, tools, and ideas with teachers?

Ultimately, we decided to de-familiarize the familiar, where we would ask teachers to work with familiar tools and materials to create new kinds of artifacts and explore new ideas, in ways that might be more unfamiliar. Building from the general theme of movement, and this interest in defamiliarizing both materials and ways of working with them, we settled on the first activity prompt “make something that moves.” We carefully selected tools and materials that would be familiar and accessible for teachers who were novice makers, including different kinds of paper, brass fasteners, rubber bands, X-acto knives, rotary cutters, bamboo skewers, and glue.

With this simple prompt, we asked teachers to explore familiar materials to “make something that moves.” We offered new techniques for working with materials (e.g., using a rotary cutter to cut matte board, or a leather hole puncher to create holes for brass fasteners) and some inspirations like “motions” and “mechanisms” simulations on And together, we explored what they built, what they noticed, and the kinds of questions they began to ask as they worked to understand why and how their contraptions operated as they did.

The pictures below provide an illustration of the kinds of artifacts created by teachers.  

Christine, Donna and Lisa decide to make a rotating DNA strand (sketch on the right side of the page)

Lisa and Donna work on what they call a “scissoring mechanism”

Cara, Kayla, Tom and Christine make a “spinning Cupid”using felt, a plastic tube, a skewer, and a rubber band to celebrate Valentine’s Day.