Training week at the Omaha Children’s Museum

Added on June 7, 2014

Last week my fellow Maker Corps Mentors and I got to experience all of the different regular activities that go on at the Omaha Children’s Museum’s Makerspace, and started learning how to work effectively with the guests that come through.

Tuesday: wire automata

On Tuesday, we began by learning about wire automata and taught kids how to bend wire in various ways to make a crankshaft puppet. The activity was modeled on one presented by the Exploratorium, and involves having the kids bend wire around a special-made jig, then fitting all the pieces together to make a working crankshaft system.

For whatever reason, this activity seemed somewhat difficult to teach to the kids, possibly due to the fine motor control skills required to make a successful automaton (our guests range from ages 0-8). However, this was also the first day of an entirely new experience for all of us, so we may just need to get better at teaching it!

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Wednesday: paper circuits

The next day we broke out the copper tape, LEDs and batteries and taught kids how to make simple circuits on paper. This turned out to work very well with the kids, as we could explain the various materials and a couple examples, then watch/help them get their LED to turn on. The important goal as an educator in this activity seems to be getting the initial success moment, the literal “light bulb” moment when the LED turns on.

Once the kid gets the LED to turn on, their entire attitude changes. Whatever doubts or frustration they had disappears and they cannot wait to learn the next thing. I created an example that demonstrated push buttons, pull tabs and rotary switches, along with some creative ways to use the LEDs for fun effects, which I think served as a good motivation for the kids to figure out the activity.

Thursday: artbots

On Thursday we taught kids how to construct simple art-making robots by connecting a small DC hobby motor to a AA battery, and using a chunk of cork or hot glue to create a wobbly offset on the motor. Just like with the paper circuits, the kids really got excited when they make the initial connection of how to make the motor work, then spent a bunch of time building goofy little robots with markers and styrofoam bowls.

We set up a little arena so that kids could take their finished bots and pit them against each other to see who can make cool patterns. We set up a webcam on the ceiling and created a timelapse, which you can find below.

Friday: woodworking

Friday we broke out the quick-release clamps, saws, hammers and nails helped kids do some woodworking! This was definitely one of the most active and fun days at the Museum, as kids and parents alike could very intuitively figure out what was going on and get involved. I imagine that many guests heard the sounds of hammers and squealing kids and gravitated to the space out of curiosity, then immediately got excited when they realized that anyone can come in and make something.

One might think that woodworking seems like a difficult or dangerous activity for kids, but this was actually one of the safest and productive activities I’ve been involved with so far! Kids are generally so excited to work with these “grown up” tools that they take their responsibility seriously and tend to listen more carefully and have more patience.

We noticed that in this particular activity, parents were more likely to be more active with their kids. While this can detract slightly from the self-driven discoveries that the kid might have, it also encourages the adults to act in an supportive capacity and take a very active role in their child’s learning. We saw a lot of happy families working together in this activity!

Saturday: woodworking and stilt-building

On Saturday we continued our woodworking activity from Friday, which was an obvious hit with the guests, but also decided to extend an activity to the green space outside of the Museum. Earlier in the week we salvaged some great hard cardboard tubes and someone came up with the idea of turning them into stilts with the kids!

Fellow Maker Corps Mentor Shelly and I grabbed a table and some bits and pieces and headed outside to get to work. We hadn’t built any stilts before, so there was a bit of a mad dash in the beginning as kids wanted stilts and we were still trying to figure out how to make them with the tools we had. Eventually we came to a good solution, cutting the cardboard tubes into small platforms and bolting scrap wood handles to them. Before long, everyone had some stilts and were having a great time all over the green space!

This activity generated some of my favorite stories yet of guests doing fun things. For example, a large family from Kansas City dropped by and wanted to make some stilts. When the father realized it was rather difficult for Shelly and I to manage the crowd and build stilts with everyone in a timely manner, he pitched in and helped build great stilts for/with all of his kids! The father expressed how much they enjoyed the activity, and told me that it was the most fun they had all weekend while in Omaha!

Even more so than with other activities, I really love how happy these kids got when they realized that they could bring their stilts home and practice walking all summer, and share their experience with all of their friends. I’m hoping we can continue doing as many activities as possible where the kids get to take home something as cool as these stilts!