Tinker This Boat

by Zack McGarvey

I was working on a boat build at a high school in Beaverton. Every 6 weeks the kids would get new class schedules and some of them would stay in the class, some would leave and of course, there were always a few new faces sitting around the lofting table. As part of their orientation, we would have the new folks work on small side projects to build familiarity and confidence with the woodworking tools. One morning I noticed one of the new students, Kyle, sitting idly next to an abandoned, half finished tool carrier project. I asked him how things were going and he said he had screwed up his project. I asked if there was any way to fix it, and he replied, “It doesn’t matter, I’m probably going to drop this class anyway.” I asked for a reason. “I’m just not good at woodworking.” Instead of responding, I asked him to follow me into the wood shop, where I pulled aside another student, Joe, who was working on the stern post, part of the keel that had to be cut out of a hard chunk of oak after a long process of pattern making and tweaking.

I asked Joe, “How many times have you tried to make this piece?”
“This is the fourth one,” he replied. “The first time, the pattern was off, so the piece ended up being too small. The second time, the cuts were perfect, but the piece of oak was too thin. The third time, the wood split while it was being screwed to another piece.”
He sounded confident that he finally got this one right. I asked how he kept working on it.
“It’s annoying,” he said, “but this is my piece of the boat. I want to finish it. Each time it gets better.” He went back to work on his stern post, and Kyle and I headed back to the tool carrier and looked for a way to correct the mistake.

The class drop deadline came and passed, the tool carrier was eventually finished, albeit slightly shorter than planned, but failure and frustration didn’t win. Kyle was able to recognize his mistake as part of the learning process, and work past it.

Joe finished his piece too.

To the Moon!

by Michael Hyde

One of my very favorite “tried and true” Tinker Camp narratives that hundreds of kids love is our Space Mission. In this narrative, students are challenged to build a “spaceship” that can transport their entire team to space. Without any need for convincing, the play – and the learning – blasts off. Students design spacesuits, communication systems, lighting systems, decide what artifacts are important to bring, and even go so far as to sew their own flight patches and signs. It’s a big undertaking with an even bigger payoff; our campers and students are highly motivated to learn whatever it takes (sewing, soldering, circuitry, programming) to make the mission a success. It’s always a thrill to see what new element a group of students will bring to the story to make it their own, and every journey is different.

In 2017, my favorite tinkering moment, far and away, was the moment when a 5th grade teacher at my school approached me and said, with some doubt in her voice,  “We’re studying the moon and the Apollo missions. The students asked if they could build a spaceship in the makerspace and go to the moon. Do you think this is possible?”  My makerspace motto and default answer to questions that begin with, “Do you think we……?”  is always “Sure, we can try that.”  But in this instance, my response was, “Absolutely it’s possible! I’ve been to space dozens of times!”

I was thrilled that our students thought of this journey on their own, and that I’m part of a school culture that fosters making and tinkering. Our students can propose their own way to learn, and the teachers can honor it. I was also thrilled to be able to share with a colleague the work that Tinker Camp does. I showed her this charming video and she started to see the possibilities too.

The teacher and I had a few planning sessions so I could get a complete picture of her Apollo and moon curriculum. We would only have one hour a week for students to build their journey in the makespace, so it was important that we integrate our curricula as much as possible and make effective use of her regular class time. The movie Hidden Figures, about black women’s contribution to the space program, had just come out, so we had a great opportunity to ask student to discover, “Who is missing from the Apollo missions stories? Why?”   The curriculum started to take on a new life, both my co-teacher and the students more and more excited.

I learned that our first graders were also studying the moon, and we decided that we could to incorporate some design thinking into the process. Our 5th graders were challenged to design an interactive and immersive experience to take not only themselves to the moon, but our first graders as well. Designing for someone other than themselves increased the challenge level and the pressure. It made things real.

I decided to present the challenge to them with an immersive experience.  I blacked out all the light in my classroom with heavy black butcher paper. I projected a YouTube video with footage taken by a Russian satellite of the moon spinning – a very close-up surface view. I played a separate track of the sounds of the planets as recorded by NASA. The room was pitch black,  eerie, and even a little magical –  lit only with the light from the YouTube moon. We sat on the floor together in the middle of the room, watching the moon spin.  We talked and dreamed about all the things we would need to do, learn, and figure out in order to go to the moon. We generated question after question – some that even started off silly but led to some good research, like “What does the moon smell like?”  After we talked for some time, I passed out flashlights and headlamps that we used to find our way over to the work tables. The work tables were also covered in black butcher paper and off-set with white colored pencils. We worked like miners in a cave, writing down our questions, our hopes, and our ideas. Some students began to sketch designs for a spaceship, others drew pictures of things they would miss from home – like pets and parents. We hung these large papers up high on the wall, a map to the journey ahead.

From this dreaming session our whole mission unfolded. In our next session, students divided into teams based on what they were interested in. Students were always welcome to switch teams, or start a whole new team if a new need emerged.  Some students built the ship, others a ground control station. Another team built the surface of the moon that could be walked on while wearing the virtual reality helmet created by another group. They had to figure out how to work together and communicate between groups. Soon, they designated more roles and ground control became the group responsible for making sure that each group communicated their work to the others.  We worked for nearly two months, if not more, on this space mission.  Students came in during lunch and recess, and poked their heads in before school. They were invested, and committed. We probably could have worked on this forever.

The day of our moon launch was epic – parents came, other grades came. Some students had made space food to share with its own space-looking packaging.  We had moon cookies, and even some experimental space water. By the end of the unit, all of the deep learning was readily on display and our 5th grade students ushered the 1st graders (and parents and others) through the moon journey experience. Then, we had just as much fun tearing everything apart.

One of the main obstacles that can impede tinkering and making in the classroom is time. And yes, this whole experience took quite a bit of time. It also took quite a bit of planning and effort on the front end. It’s worth it. Once the stage is set and the students are tuned in, the ship almost builds itself. I’ve seen it at Tinker Camp session after Tinker Camp session, and it was true in my classroom. When you take the time to create something memorable, to create a moment for and with your students, the learning and teaching is engaging and organic, fueled by curiosity and imagination. When you give learning plenty of time and space  (no pun intended),  it signals to your students that the work and the learning is important. We don’t need to rush – things that matter take time.

This moon journey was such a joy for everyone involved that it’s now a  regular part of the 5th grade project-based learning curriculum at my school; we’re getting ready to introduce it to this year’s 5th grade.  It will no doubt continue to evolve year after year – and while the process we used is different in a few ways from the Tinker Camp narrative,  the principles are the same. Trust in the ability of kids, honor their imagination, and know that the best way to learn is by doing. I am fortunate that I had plenty of evidence and experience from Tinker Camp to know what is possible. I can say I have been to the moon and back. Where will you allow your students to take you in 2018?

Give a Kid a Bench and Grow a Curious Mind

by Denise Slattery

My dad had a workbench in our garage —  which is not especially unusual given that he was a child of The Great Depression and people who lived those times had to be very self-reliant. They learned from their parents or grandparents how to fix stuff and make things, all in a time when it was less expensive to keep broken things out of the landfill.  But my dad’s bench always had some kind of project in progress.  Mainly, there was a lot of fixing going on because in a household with six kids stuff broke — a lot — and my dad was Depression era-frugal, so buying replacements was rarely an option.


Denise and Makeda work together on building a sample spacesuit.

The bench was magnetic to me and I wanted to ‘do’ whatever was happening on that bench.  Some of it looked magical, like soldering to making metal stick to metal, or using strong-smelling compounds to mend things.  There was a really good goose neck lamp that I could bend any which way (which I did), a peg board with lots of cool, sharp metal stuff hanging off it (that I rearranged with delight), and best of all, a stack of boxes with little tiny drawers!  The vice at the edge of the bench was especially fun (great for crushing things!)  The bench was as tall as me, but when I climbed atop my dad’s tall shop stool, I felt like a queen on her throne.

In truth, I was not particularly welcome at the bench. It’s not that my Dad was neglecting me — he was an amazing father — but true to the times, he probably didn’t think that young girls belonged at the bench. The only time I could freely poke around at the bench was when my Dad was not around.  He wouldn’t show me how to use the tools or what the tiny metal bits in the tiny drawers did.  I learned on my own, through hands-on experiences like the vice grip could pinch a finger pretty easily, that the teeth on a hack saw are incredibly sharp, and that a box cutter is dangerous if not held properly. What I wanted, more than anything, was to learn ‘HOW TO’ so I could mess around with success!

Now that I’m well into my years and my kids are young adults, I continue to see the value of having a bench: a proper workstation where magic can happen.  I’ve set up benches in every home we have owned over the years, and even have my own goose neck lamp, peg board, and lots of stacked boxes with tiny little drawers!

Truly, I think one of the best things a parent can do for a kid is let them sit at the bench, or better yet, get them their own child-size bench!  With a little adult guidance, they can safely learn how to use tools, get a sense of how things work, and tinker with success!

Growing a Collaborative Tinkering Community

Written by Jinnet Powel

Jinnet Powell co-learning about electronics at a recent Multnomah Library event.

For the past year I have been coordinating Tinker Camp workshops offered through Multnomah County Library. These programs are shorter and smaller than our camps and are free to the public. Most of the participants who some are new to the Tinker Camp family, but more and more, I notice faces that I recognize. This always brings a smile to my face. In fact, there is one young tinkerer and her mom who’ve come to three of the events I’ve facilitated.  Not only is this positive confirmation of our program’s effectiveness — something that I yearn for — but having  tinkerers return repeatedly deepens their learning and deepens the learning of the entire group.

Learners of any age can be co-learners.

One of our Tinker Tenets, Share & Collaborate, means willingly sharing what you have learned with others. For example, after I show one participant how to wire a switch, I may ask her to mentor another tinkerer who wants to learn how it’s done. This concept of co-learning is one that we not only extend to kids, but we also encourage adults to become co-learners.

Please, check out our Multnomah County Library programs . And I hope to see you again and again.

The 2015 Tinker Camps.

The 2015 Tinker Camps.
Week 1, July 6-10, 2015 Week 2, July 13-17, 2015
Characters & Costumes:

What if you could become a superhero, a super spy or a magical fairy with a costume to match? During a week of Tinker Camp you will get to create your own character and create a suit or costume to match. Does your super hero have a utility belt with a collection of gadgets? Does your super spy have high tech gear built into her pockets and sleeves for stealth? Does your fairy have movable wings and twinkling lights? Our tinkering studio, filled with fabrics, sewing machines, LED lights and a whole collection of tools and materials will be your work space.

The Carnival:

Everyone loves a carnival. There are exhilarating rides, unusual characters and animals and challenging games. At Tinker Camp we will put on a carnival that you will design, build and run. Want to give a shot to creating your very own dunk tank? Want to invent mini-carnival rides from used toys? Want to make your very own unique stuffed franken-animals with glowing eyes? Have you ever dreamed of making hand cranked mechanical toys? Then join us for a week of carnival fun. You’ll also get a chance to try out juggling, tight-rope and stilt walking, and you’ll participate in a variety of theatrical and artistic experiences all based on the fascinating world of The Carnival. Come one, Come all!

Week 3, July 20-24, 2015 Week 4, July 27 – 31, 2015
Interstellar Mayflower: (reboot)

Imagine if it was your responsibility to save humanity. We will be doing just that by creating a spacecraft capable of carrying a select crew into the furthest reaches of space. Using motors, tape, lights and anything in our mad collection of materials and tools we will undertake a number of tinkering challenges designed to get us all into space.

Balloons and Rockets and Planes, Oh my!:
(for our middle school tinkers)

We have had flight-based themes before at Tinker Camp, but nothing like this. For our older tinkers, we are going to take flight to another level. The sky’s the limit in this intensive session where we integrate motors into airplanes, fire solid fuel and compressed air rockets, and even launch and track a data-collecting balloon.