Book Review: Tinkering by Curt Gabrielson

Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff

Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff, from Maker Media, is great for parents or educators who have some experience tinkering and are looking for ideas for projects and advice on improving a tinkering workshop and fostering a culture of exploration. Author Curt Gabrielson draws on his extensive experience as a tinkering teacher at the Community Science Workshop in Watsonville, CA, to provide plentiful anecdotes, detailed step-by-step science projects, and deep thinking on what making a tinkering workshop work. The undertone here is science education and how tinkering in a well stocked workshop can support understanding of physics, electronics, chemistry, biology, and engineering. His examples and advice for stocking the workshop include a strong ethos of find it, reclaim it, reuse it, with great tidbits throughout on sourcing interesting materials cheaply.

Gabrielson mixes chapters of step-by-step science projects using tinkering materials with more general discussions on setting up a tinkering space, establishing a community of learners, and assessing tinkering in ways that are legible to standards-obsessed schools. For an established tinkerspace like reDiscover, these general chapters are gold, a peek into a successful long running program and the strategies that make it work. The specific projects are more appropriate to a classroom teacher looking to engage their upper elementary or middle school students on particular science topics.

Like so many of us, Gabrielson struggles to square the open-ended pure exploration playfulness of tinkering with programmatic, learning goal-based tinkering that uses making things as a vehicle for teaching a science curriculum. He has the advantage of working in a community enrichment center that sits outside of regular school system, though his previous experience as a classroom teacher peeks through. He’s steeped in the Exploratorium’s ethos of exploring physical phenomena for the joy of understanding the world around us, with advancement through the STEM pipeline a useful but nonessential byproduct, which is a great match for tinkering. The tone throughout is cheerful and insiderish, with an endearing element of us tinkerers against the misguided world of “edu-speak.”

While there is the occasional footnote or reference to research on tinkering, this is very much a book born out of Gabrielson’s experience and the many anecdotes he’s picked up along the way. Given how much experience he’s drawing from, he is able to go into amazing detail on many of the topics involved with tinkering, including learning from failure, posing open ended questions, safety protocols, communicating across culture and ability,

One quibble: I would have loved to see a hybrid of the topic specific project chapters and the general advice chapters, perhaps a few pages at the beginning of each project chapter on materials, equipment, and other considerations for setting up the capacity to run these types of projects.

Second edition (2015) reviewed, with color photos.

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