This Summer Vacation, Tinker & Learn Life Skills

I find tinkering activities if designed well, are a great way to learn some essential life skills. Not just Timeless Lifeskills but also skills that need to be learnt urgently given the context of the 21st century, like developing curiosity, taking ownership of learning to satiate own curiosity, making learning fun, developing the power of observation, ability to formulate insightful questions, abstraction, creativity and problem-solving.

By well-designed tinkering activities I mean the learn design or pedagogy should take into account the desired learning outcomes and ensure that the experience is engaging and fun. For example, I consider Threshold Concepts while designing my workshops.

Meyer and Land have proposed the Threshold Concepts theory. They define a threshold concept as, “Akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.”

Thresholds Concepts are the fundamental building blocks of a discipline, which if not understood properly can be troublesome (make the students lose interest in a discipline) but if understood, they can be transformative (ignite deep interest in a discipline). For example, opportunity cost, elasticity, and incentives are some threshold concepts in economics; voltage, current, and capacitance are few threshold concepts in electronics.

Once you have figured out the Threshold Concepts for what you are planning to help your students learn you can then curate or create suitable tinkering activities. For the young students in my Tinkering with Electronics workshops, I figured that electricity, its relation to magnetism, voltage, current and circuits are few Threshold Concepts I should focus on and I designed the tinkering activities with these in mind.

I start my workshops by giving children electronic components like bulbs, LEDs, motors and buzzers and let them mess around with them for a bit, without any guidance (which is good fun for them, especially not being told what to do!). They end up wiring the components in different ways. I then ask them to observe what different groups have done and why in some cases the two bulbs in one combination (circuit) are brighter than in another combination. This leads to a discussion on series vs parallel circuits.

We then explore other questions like: In which type of circuit will the battery last longer and why? What type of circuit they think is used in their school/home? How can they find out if the Diwali/Christmas lights are in series or parallel? Sometimes the kids come up with interesting observation-based questions like one time a girl asked if there are two different types of electricities because in their school all the switchboards had two types of sockets, one for thinner pin plugs and one for broader pin plugs and this led to a discussion on relationship between voltage, current, and power.

I then ask the children to flip the plus and minus wires from the battery on each component. They figure out that the bulbs work just fine both ways but the LEDs work only one way and the fan on the DC motor rotates clockwise or anticlockwise when they flip the wires from the battery. With this empirical observation in mind, we discuss polarity.

At this point in the workshop, I usually demonstrate a remote-control car and ask students how does the car go in reverse? Since they have tinkered with the motors earlier they figure out that the switch on the remote must be somehow flipping the polarity, that is why the motors start rotating in reverse. To find out how a remote-control car makes a turn students observe closely and soon figure out that to make a left turn the left wheel stops moving and only the right wheel rotates and vice-versa. Once they have had this eureka moment it becomes simpler to explain to them that if we could make a circuit that can control the current to the two motors we can make the car turn left or right.

While designing the workshop another pedagogical idea I like to keep in mind is phenomenon-based learning, which is being adopted in schools in Finland with some good results. In phenomenon-based learning, students observe a real-life scenario or phenomenon, which could be a scientific breakthrough, or a current event, or a situation present in the students’ life — and analyze it through an interdisciplinary approach.

To adopt this in my workshops I get the students to put their knowledge of circuits into practice and they make a ToothbrushBot. It is a simple toy with a vibratory motor mounted on a toothbrush head. The vibrations transfer to the bristles and makes the brush head move. This becomes the engine and chassis. The students then have to exercise their creativity and come up with ideas to make this into a fun toy. They make creepy-crawlies, aliens and moving paper boats.

We then discuss that the switch on the ToothbrushBot could be replaced with a sensor. We look at the five human senses and how they help us navigate our way in the physical world by sending inputs about our environment to the brain and the brain in turn commands the limbs and other systems in our body. We also discuss how bats navigate and how radars function.

This helps students understand how robots navigate and do tasks based on the inputs they receive from their sensors, which are devices that sense the physical world and convert that input into an electrical signal. Like our brain, robots have computers (microprocessors) that decipher the signals from the sensor and then command the actuators (like motors) that convert electrical energy back into physical energy.

We then build a few robots, learn to control them and then senior students imagine how robotic machines could be used to solve a problem in their life, like a sensor-based irrigation system. We discuss trends like Internet of Things and AI and students ponder on more complex questions like the challenges, opportunities, and dilemmas of such a world.

Tinkering can be a great way to learn, with deeper comprehension, while having a lot of fun. If you (or your child) want to tinker with electronics / science / technology this summer vacation here are a few links for ideas and inspiration that will get you started:

– San Fransisco Exploratorium Science Snacks
Toys from Trash
Steve Spangler Science
Instructables (DIY projects)
– Coursera: Tinkering Fundamentals
– edX: Electronic Interfaces (build a simple BouncyBot and then step-by-step add sensors attached to a micro-controller; also learn fundamentals of electronics; this course is for senior students)