Creativity within Rules

Centrifugal Force toy
Originally uploaded by anselm23

There’s a book in the how-to section of the Design Lab called Making Things Move which contains a whole series of electronics and robotics exercises. And there’s also this other book with lots of electronics exercises called Vacuum Bazookas, which I’ve been experimenting with.

But something that Bill said at the Eli Whitney Museum during my last visit has really triggered me. He said he was using these books as inspiration. Batteries were really expensive, of course, as were electric motors and wire, and soldering opened up all sorts of cans of worms — especially in a risk-averse culture common among parents today. And electronics is a whole set of skills which I don’t yet have (So I dumped most of that problem, in the form of the Make: Electronics book, onto my science-teaching colleagues.)

Yet, as Bill helped me to understand, most of the machines discussed in these books can be built or at least approximated using other methods that don’t involve electrical systems at all — wooden dowels and rubber bands and ribbon and cloth, instead of metal and plastic parts and elaborate gearing systems. (There’s also Mini-Weapons of Mass Destruction, which is awesome for teaching some kinds of mathematics, but also will so grossly upset the culture of my school, I’m reluctant to really use it or push it).

So I’ve been trying that, in part to experiment with Andrew Carle’s point about “breadcrumbs” all over the school — you have to leave things lying around your school that encourage students to come to the Design Lab or Maker Space or Collaboratory or what-have-you… that make them understand that there are mysterious forces at work in the Universe, and that certain kinds of toys celebrate and help unfold that mystery.

I’m big into the concept of unfolding right now as you can see by the video here.

If I’m painting a painting for me, sure… I get to do whatever I want on a canvas, and make whatever I want to have happen there, happen. Nobody gets to tell me what the rules are. If it can be done with paint, and I can figure out how it happens, I can make it happen. Sculptural elements on a canvas? Sure. Piles of paint that look like waves? sure? Like mountains? Sure. If I’m painting for a potential buyer, I have to consider a lot of other factors, though. Will the painting be culturally appealing? Will it speak to its intended audience? Can I get paid for my time and attention to detail?

So… creativity within rules — of physics, or of magic, of art, or of science, of available technology, of appropriate and inappropriate culture and cultural appropriation, or of the real and perceived limitations of the body is always harder. It is especially harder if you’re trying to teach something at the same time.

It’s especially frustrating that this little mechanical doodad didn’t work. If it did, there’d be a little movie here celebrating the triumph, showing the floppy cloth at right spinning in a beautiful sine-wave parasol shape. (And consider how this might play with culture, or with magic, if we were to print or design a small mandala or prayer-wheel on the cloth? What could we teach? Would it add or subtract from the lesson that no such device exists in the world today that I know of? Or would we be teaching a new mode of mindfulness? What awakening could it inspire?)

I can’t lead my students to places that I haven’t gone as a designer. Andrew Carle had to build a carousel, so that he had something to show his students when their work surpassed his. I had to build a miniature model of a canal lock (Bad vid here, on Vine [thanks, Gordon!]) to help my students understand how the Industrial Revolution changed how people and goods moved, as well as how they were made.

I keep talking around my main point, though, which is that creativity happens within rules: rules from physics, rules from material properties, rules from biology, rules from culture, rules from mathematics, rules from technology. Some of those rules are easily broken; some of them can be bent for a time but not out-and-out broken. Some can’t even be bent. The thing is, traditional schooling now teaches the rules, and insist that the rules have to be learned before the experimentation.

BUT THAT’S NOT HOW THOSE RULES WERE DISCOVERED. And it’s not how most people learn which rules matter, and which ones don’t. They learn those patterns and those rules through experimentation, learning, and failure and success. And the folks who learn these lessons from built examples, even models, learn the lessons much more deeply than those who merely learn them from diagrams text.

Just like I have learned about how these devices work (or don’t, as is the case here) through experimentation. It wasn’t likely to work the first time I built it. There was a chance, but it wasn’t likely. There’s a whole lot of materials science I’ve got to learn first, and a whole lot about gearing systems, and probably a whole lot of maths.

But if I can get even a few of these toys working, I’ll get that trail of bread crumbs flowing. Today a parent came up to me, and grabbed me by the arm to say: “my kids went to the Yale Robotics Lab this weekend. They both have keychains produced on a 3D printer. They’re so excited to learn how to use ours.”


Creativity within rules. And teaching that creative, experimental process through modeling, through our language, and through our shared cultural values as a community of learning.

It’s the jazz riff. It’s summoning all the archangels of the planets and of the elements for one big conference. It’s reviewing a book in public. It’s building things for the joy and the learning. It’s coming alive, just because you can.

Via Flickr:
I’m working my way through a book on making movement in toys using electrical motors, and — because I don’t know how to work with the electrical bits, and because the design lab doesn’t have much electrical equipment — I’m just trying to build some basic gearing systems.

This one doesn’t work.

But if it did, the small crank on the left would turn the large wheel below it. This would turn the rubber band belt that joins it with the small disk on the right. And THAT would make the parasol spin in a beautiful sine wave.

In theory.

Beyond the toy, the beautiful winter wonderland of our campus.

I hope I can get this toy working tomorrow.

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