A version of this column appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Science Museum Oklahoma opens remodeled Tinkering Garage
The revamped Tinkering Garage exhibit at Science Museum Okahoma has been turned into a vibrant, hands-on space designed to help visitors of all ages master problem solving and explore science, engineering, math, art and technology.
Chris Syfrett hooked the foam, bubble wrap and duct tape device on the high zip line and paused dramatically before the big launch.
The floor facilitator for the Science Museum Oklahoma’s new Tinkering Garage was waiting for the nod from Will Blalock, 8, who had just finished making special modifications to the collaged contraption.
“I put like a fin in the top and it made a point for aerodynamics,” Will explained. “I just took something that was already made that was like a bottle and taped it on to add the weight.”
When the handmade apparatus slid to the end of the cord, it was a moment of triumph not just for the grinning Edmond boy but for the revamped Tinkering Garage.
“That is the process that we’re trying to do right there is create something, test it, see how you can change it, adapt it, make it better,” said Sherry Marshall, director of the Oklahoma Museum Network, a statewide collaboration of partner museums that includes Science Museum Oklahoma.
On Friday, the Science Museum is celebrating the grand opening of the remodeled Tinkering Garage, a vibrant, hands-on space designed to help visitors of all ages master problem solving and explore science, engineering, math, art and technology.
“It’s completely different,” Marshall said. “This is kind of version 2.0.”
Tinkering to learn
Inspired in part by the Tinkering Studio at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, the new Tinkering Garage is designed to give whole new meaning to the hands-on learning that is Science Museum Oklahoma’s stock and trade. While the ball wall with its PVC piping and the air tube with its soaring cut-up Dixie cups are unchanged, the heart of the 1,200-square-foot space has been fully transformed.
Long work tables are cluttered with compact discs, paper clips, paper towel rolls, yogurt containers and other raw materials, with plenty of scissors and tape spread around to make construction possible. Tall bins are filled with scrap cardboard, bubble wrap, plastic shopping bags and other recyclables ready to be turned into projects. And a floor facilitator greets guests as they walk through the wide, welcoming entrance to explain the day’s project, which changes every week or so.
“You can see it’s crazy-popular,” Marshall said, indicating crowded tables of busy visitors. “We want to help children kind of enrich their learning that they might be getting in school. This is a really great approach because it allows kids to take part in the scientific process. It’s not just sitting on an exhibit pulling a rope or pushing a button. They’re actually participating; they’re investigating.”
During the permanent exhibit’s recent preview and staff training, the Tinkering Garage challenge involved building a device that could go down the pair of zip lines stretching across a corner of the room. Unlike a make-and-take art project, there were no instructions on how to make the zip-lining contrivance. The idea is for visitors to figure it out for themselves.
“The facilitators help that learning process by asking rich questions … and really let them understand that failure is not a bad thing. Failure is part of the learning process,” Marshall said. “We have a sort of motto of ‘fail better’ because you’re testing things and retesting things and envisioning new ways of approaching things.”
Getting an experience
The purpose of the Tinkering Garage is to gain an enriching experience, not to make a souvenir. Tinkerers are urged to leave behind their handiwork so that others can modify or build on their designs. A few unique creations may be chosen for temporary display in the towering “Cabinet of Curiosities,” which includes a few inventions from museum staffers as well as some partially dismantled electronics.
“A big part of what we do in tinkering is how do things work? How could you make it better? One of the activities that we’ll do here is just a take-apart where kids take apart toys. There’s nothing more disturbing that seeing an Elmo filleted back and seeing the inner workings, but it helps kids understand, oh, it takes gears, it takes motors, it takes energy to make Elmo move,” Marshall said, adding the museum is accepting donations of unwanted electronics, craft materials and recyclables that can be used in Tinkering Garage projects.
“This is a real workshop. We’re not afraid to let the kids use the hot-glue gun. If they need a drill, we’ll let them use a drill. If they need a hammer, we’re gonna let them use a hammer. That’s a really big part of what the facilitators do is help the kids understand the use of tools. It’s like real tools, real learning, real risks, too.”
While the exhibit is built on the old-fashioned experience of working in the garage, a high-tech lab space in the back houses a CNC Router, laser cutter and 3-D printer that will be used in demonstrations.
“We’re still trying to figure it out. But it’s an area to help our community to sort of see the technology that’s out there and the really new and inventive ways that people are creating,” she said.
Friday’s grand opening also will celebrate a $4.1 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation that will fund the Oklahoma Museum Network for another five years. She said all five Oklahoma Museum Network partner museums now have tinkering spaces.
For Will Blalock and his mom, Vicki, Science Museum’s Oklahoma new Tinkering Garage was an instant hit. Not only did Will have a good time creating, his brain was challenged when he had to remake his zip-line creation because his initial design didn’t quite zip.
“He has been really enamored with science this summer anyway, and he’s been watching The Slow Mo Guys, The King of Random … on YouTube, and we’ve been doing lots of science experiments,” Vicki Blalock said, watching her son, his older sister Kathryn, 19, and two friends as they explored the newly remodeled space.
“They don’t want to leave. They’re having a really good time. I think it’s awesome for them to be creative and learn critical thinking and just try to figure stuff out on their own.”
Tinkering Garage grand opening
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.
Where: Science Museum Oklahoma, 2100 NE 52.