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Tinkering with scribble machines

Over the course of the past year, I've been pleasantly pushed by my good friend Marsha Ratzel -- a remarkable middle school science teacher in Kansas who blogs at Reflections of a Techie -- to incorporate more tinkering opportunities into my sixth grade science classroom. 

The way Marsha sees it, kids NEED chances to ask and answer their own questions -- and they NEED chances to get their hands on materials to make stuff.  That IS the core of innovation in fields committed to design and engineering, right?

One specific project that Marsha convinced me to try was work with scribbling machines that she first learned about on the Exploratorium's Tinkering Studio blog. Here's how the Exploratorium explains just what a scribbling machine is:

A Scribbling Machine is a motorized contraption that moves in unusual ways and leaves a mark to trace its path. It’s made from simple materials and demonstrates the erratic motion created by an offset motor.

For me, the scribbling machine project -- something that we spent the past three days working on -- became a way to give my students chances to experiment with the impact that variables have on an experiment. 

As they designed their scribbling machines, I challenged them not just to create cool patterns on paper, but to figure out WHY their machines were creating the SPECIFIC patterns that they were creating.  At Marsha's urging, I also started to challenge them to design machines that they could easily modify to create MULTIPLE patterns.

"Can your machine create solid AND dotted lines?" I'd ask.  "How about circles AND straight lines -- or parallel AND crossed lines?" 

I also challenged the students to create clean designs, designs that used materials responsibly and economically, and designs that used materials in innovative ways. 

In the end, my kids came up with some pretty interesting contraptions. Here's a pretty conventional design:

Here's one that was recognized for using materials in an innovative way:

And here's one of the funniest:

What I loved the best about spending the past week scribbling was that my kids got their hands on materials and completely dug the experience. 

It was nothing short of refreshing to watch them enjoying the chance to work with one another -- testing out ideas and challenging the thinking of their peers.They FELT like engineers for a few days all while learning a little bit more about the steps that scientists take to study things deliberately. 

"The difference between a kid and a scientist," I'd say time and again, "is that a scientist plays with a purpose.  Can you figure out WHY your machine is acting the way that it is acting -- and can you make it do what YOU want it to do?"

That's GOT to be worth something, right?!

I'll share a few tips next week for teachers who are interested in tackling a scribbling project in their own classrooms.  It is definitely doable -- but it takes a bit of planning and some specialized materials that you may not have readily on hand.

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Related Radical Reads:

Teaching Innovation with the Curiosity Box

Educon Notes: Innovation in Education

What if Schools Created a Culture of Do Instead of a Culture of Know?

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