The Power of Playful Invention
By Jill Priluck
Oct. 25, 1999 PDT
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts -- Lifelong kindergarten is here to stay if the organizers of the Media Lab's MindFest have their way.
Robotics enthusiasts, hacking hobbyists, and master builders of all ages descended onto the Media Lab for a weekend conference designed to bring together playful inventors -- including teachers and parents -- from around the globe.
In a series of panels, exhibits, and workshops, MindFest [ http://www.media.mit.edu/mindfest/ ] participants shared lessons of constructionism and schmoozed with fellow tinkerers.
Fifteen-year-old Jonathan Spear of Massachusetts summed up the spirit of the event when asked why he'd come to MindFest: "I just build robots."
Organized by MIT Media Lab [ http://www.media.mit.edu/mindfest ] professor Mitchel Resnick and research scientist Fred Martin, more than 300 adults and kids attended the weekend event, co-sponsored by toymaker LEGO.
During his Saturday morning keynote address, Resnick discouraged educators from limiting science to a rigid hypothesis-data model. He gave the example of Alexandra, who made an invention using marbles, a conveyor belt, motors, and sensors after school at the Media Lab's Computer Clubhouse only to be told by a teacher that her project wasn't scientific enough for the school computer fair.
"This story tells an important lesson of the limited ways people think about scientific investigation and scientific method. In fact, Alexandra had many hypotheses along the way ... she was constantly coming up with ideas and testing them out," said Resnick, the soon-to-be director of the LEGO Learning Lab, a new Media Lab facility funded by LEGO.
Resnick said it was ironic that people who complain about the educational system tend to think kindergarten -- a mecca for playful invention -- works.
Indeed, there was no shortage of creative thinking at MindFest -- even insofar as deciding what to do first. The choices involved a panel on Robot Design Competitions, another on Virtual Tinkering, hands-on experience in the LEGO Construction Zone, and simply wandering from one exhibitor table to another.
One dominant feature of the meeting was the electronic treasure hunt. Using SEGA Dreamcast devices called i-balls, treasure hunters-turned-serial interruptors -- "Are you a tall, broccoli lover?" was an oft-heard question -- hitched their handheld devices to other i-balls in a frenzied effort to parse the clues. Getting to the end meant the chance to free a sword from the stone. The ultimate i-ball adventure was a game that gave wordmasters a chance to free the shackled LEGO knight from the clutches of evil with the black-sheathed sword.
"It's like designing an instant beverage, but the only way to sample it is without water. You can sort of taste it but it's kind of dry and concentrated," said Media Lab graduate student Rick Borovoy, who designed the popular i-ball games. "Seeing the culture of people it created -- even seeing the way people gesture with it -- is transforming. You see the light that shines through your technology."
Indeed, innovation didn't end there. From a tail-wagging LEGO dog to soccer-playing robots from Denmark, exhibitors brought all kinds of engineered creations. Another highlight was the "Cabaret Mechanical Theatre," a handmade automaton designed by Brits Sue Jackson and Sarah Alexander. MIT's artist-in-residence Arthur Ganson brought his kinetic sculpture, called "Machine with Wishbone."
Programming took center stage during an Extreme Mindstorms panel. Among the speakers were Stanford University grad student Kekoa Proudfoot, the first to crack the programmable brick; programmer Dave Baum, who created the application NQC for the brick; and 23-year-old Danish programmer Markus Noga, creator of LegOS, an open-source operating system for the Lego robots.
While one panelist described the limited processing capabilities that led to the first moon landing, one audience member yelled out: "Are you saying that we can go to the moon on our bricks?"
Another buzzworthy panel, "Why Are So Few Girls Tinkering?", explored the hows and whys of gender in the male-dominated world of playful inventing.
In the Construction Zone, boys gravitated toward tutorials on motors in addition to shock absorbers and tank treads while girls seemed drawn to more traditional LEGO parts and the arts and crafts table of popsicle sticks, bottle caps, and feathers, among others. Dads seemed attracted to all areas of the zone.