École Arbutus Global Middle School recently invited the MLab to speak to students in their gifted program about the work we do. Instead of lecturing, Jentery and I broke our time at the school into two workshops, with a short discussion in between.
To introduce the first workshop on “Kit-of-Parts” construction, with students we discussed the notion of moving between bits and atoms. Specifically, we highlighted the difficulty of moving between a tactile object and a version of that object stored as bits of computer memory. To demonstrate such movement, we provided each group of students with the parts of a 3-D model that we laser-cut in the Lab. We intentionally chose models of extinct animals in order to draw a correlation between our own work, which involves replicating objects that we cannot access or hold in hand, and their own learning objectives.
Before the groups could assemble the object, we asked them to arrange the parts as they might see them on a computer screen. While several groups arranged them categorically or according to size, one group chose to arrange their pieces symbolically into the shape of a flower. Once the pieces were laid out in front of them, most groups were able to predict what kind of animal their parts would create. At the same time, the students also pointed out certain pieces of the 3-D puzzles that did not immediately seem to belong. Once the students were allowed to assemble their puzzles, they were able to recognize how those seemingly useless pieces helped the puzzle take on another dimension, beyond what they could see in the 2-D form.
After the students assembled their models, we walked through some of the techniques, such as printing, cutting, milling, routing, scanning, modelling, and rapid prototyping, we use for research in the Lab. We also discussed how prototyping objects could be helpful for research in the humanities, and we encouraged the students to consider how it could be useful in other areas as well.
For a physical example of rapid prototyping, we provided students with sample kits, but we also brought along a few printed objects to view. While most of the students were familiar with 3-D printing, most hadn’t considered the limitations of the process. While passing around 3-D sculptures, students pointed out imperfections in the surfaces of the objects. These observations opened up opportunities to discuss the kinds of issues that emerge while remediating an object from the computer into tactile form and back again.
We based our second workshop on Hannah Perner-Wilson’s “Kit-of-No-Parts” construction. Perner-Wilson contrasts her concept of Kit-of-No-Parts with Kit-of-Parts development in industry, where “discrete components . . . function as modular parts within a coherent system” and are “optimized for speed, efficiency, and repeatability of assembly.” For Perner-Wilson, “the Kit-of-No-Parts approach emphasizes building outside of these systems.” (For details, read her MIT Architecture and Planning thesis, which she filed in 2011.) In order to prepare for the Kit-of-No-Parts workshop, we cut six interlocking square pieces for each student. We then asked the students to continue working in their groups and to use all of their pieces to form an object that would address a specific problem or serve a communicable purpose.
While the Kit-of-Parts workshop provided the students with a specific end goal, the Kit-of-No-Parts forced them to come up with their own object to not only imagine but also prototype. For the most part, we found the presence of the extinct animals from the first workshop influenced the direction of their imagination during the Kit-of-No-Parts workshop. While they built several different prototypes, each group designed their object with their animals in mind. For example, a house was made to shelter a woolly mammoth, while a dance floor was created for a dinosaur party.
We ended our discussion with the students by touching on the practicality of rapid prototyping. By building an object using only residual media (e.g., discarded cardboard), the students were able to practice the same method we use here in the Lab during the early stages of our research. After these activities, the students were quick to point out ways that rapid prototyping could help those of us at the MLab identify key issues we may encounter when moving between bits and atoms.