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Tinkering School

The Blog of the Sleep-Away Program at Elkus Ranch – Updated every night during camp

Session B : Post Script

Check out this awesome map Daniel Bigler, a collaborator, made last week. The data comes from a camper’s cell phone¬†running a tracking app¬†during one of the initial runs.

Elkus Adventure

Session B : Seniors – Epilog

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Unsure how to even describe the problem (An Australian cattle car? a downhill trackless train?) we dove right into one of the most complicated and finicky projects we have ever worked on. This week saw Tinkering School’s first simulation of rack and pinion steering. We also invented a lever based form of steering we don’t know the name of. Our wheels turned like car wheels instead of wagon wheels. Behind each of these steering cars a series of complicated linkages allowed dependent cars to track behind smoothly and predictably.

However, all of these feats of cleverness and ingenuity play second fiddle to, and merely act as evidence of, the real goals of Tinkering School; Teamwork, persistence, independence, risk taking, trial and error and exposure to the unknowns of genuine problem solving (to name a few). This week kids faced major setbacks and frustrations and faced them with courage and persistence. They made space for new friends, included even the most ardent loners, and were kind and forgiving to the silliest mistakes and gaffs. They built a thing they were proud of, and loved the people they were building with.

Read the story in order.

Day 1 – Intros, Tools, The Project

Day 2 – It begins

Day 3 – A Train Takes Shape

Day 4 – Restful Exhaustion

Day 5 – Tinkering

Day 6 – Cohesion

Day 6 & 7 – Improvements, Hubris, Destruction and Deconstruction

P.S. – A Map of the Action

Day 6 & 7 – Improvements, Hubris, Destruction and Deconstruction

The day starts sluggishly. With two great successful runs behind us, today is a day of improvements, decorations and maybe even a Collaborator run. Most of the kids have a feeling of accomplishment and many can’t wait to ride their cars again. Some repairs and tweaking is in order.

It’s worth taking a moment to look closely at the individual solutions engineered into each train. Team Piki went with a steering wheel. One of the trickiest parts of a steering wheel is binding to round stock. It tricky, hard to get something strong enough and hard to attach to things that are hard and round. Piki skipped by all of this by using a square 2×3 and simply rounding it right where they needed it. This then let them hook up to a caster at the base.

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In the middle of it they rounded out one section and created a a cradle out of plywood. This allows for simple smooth turning. Attached to the wood are screws around which string is tied. The string runs through a pulley and across the cart to an eyebolt that it tugs on when it turns.

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The whole thing ends with another piece of ply rounded to mimic a real steering wheel. The whole thing is startlingly responsive and stable.

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Nooi went with a different approach. A large lever feels like steering a classic red wagon. A complex series of attachments make everything more intuitive (slamming the lever to the left actually turns you left). A series of hinges simulate car steering gives the whole thing excellent and predictable handling.

Nooi Steering 1 from Tinkering School on Vimeo.

Nooi Steering 2 from Tinkering School on Vimeo.

Here is a close up of the joint hidden underneath the car.

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Once we are fueled up and ready to go, things shift from sluggish to playful. Nova tries her hand at steering the Piki’s engine car.

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Team Nooi gets some better break pads on. Yesterday their breaks where sufficient, but today is wet and foggy and we are all worried about slipping.

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Portrait of Two Tinkerers: Bay and Althea.

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Nooi’s new breaks are creating lots of headaches. No one is arguing they aren’t worth it, but we are all getting frustrated.

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Your not quite Daily Sheep.

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In the middle of the night stray tinkerers and sleepless collaborators installed a swing. It was the source of quite a bit of fun this morning.

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Team Nooi hits a wall with their break reinstallation. The previously mentioned sleepless tinkerers and staff had hidden the marshmallows we need tonight for the bon fire and had created a scavenger hunt to find them. Team Nooi uses the scavenger hunt to let their brains wander and their hands rest.

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With a sweet new chair on the caboose Piki is ready for another successful run.

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And successful it is. Three successful runs behind them and the confidence builds. Each run is faster than the previous but each one in total control. They are brimming with confidence teetering on hubris. Though none of us know it yet, the ramifications of this will be painful and destructive.

With a custom tow-hitch made by some of the collaborators, we drag the Piki Team back up the hill.

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A slight over acceleration rips one of their bolts out sending one cart to the shop and leaving a smaller train to be dragged to the starting line.

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Nooi gears up with hopes for an equally successful run.

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Eric gets ready to bravely attempt to record the event with his camera while also handling the breaks for the rear car.

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Another fully functional run with only minor rear wheel damage! A slow ride up tied to the car is the reward for a solid run.

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After the carts are repaired it’s the moment the staff has been waiting for; The Collaborator Run. Can these carts handle the weight and intensity of the staff?

Yes!

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Except not quite.

One of the wheels sheers of on the very final turn and we have to stack one cart on another and tow it back up. The entire camps seems to come along for the ride.

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Minor repairs quickly become major rebuilds and downtime shifts into decorating time.

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Portrait of a Hood Ornament: Dr. Sebastian keeps an ever vigilant eye on the road ahead.

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It dawns on the tinkerers that the carts aren’t the only thing that might benefit from a fresh coat of paint.

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At long last the Nooi cart is ready for a collaborator run. Josh is pretty excited.

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Team Nooi’s car preforms admirably and only requires minor repairs after the staff takes it for a wild and fishtailing ride.

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With several fantastic runs behind both teams, Piki gears up for their last run of the day. Everything is going as planned. Collectively they are brimming with excitement and decide this is the run to ease up on the breaks and really see what this thing is capable of. It’s the most natural urge in the world and nearly inescapable for teenagers. If nothing went wrong last time, let’s try a little harder and a little faster. It’s this urge that drives progress, that feeds bravery, fuels learning and feeds engagement.

At Tinkering School we talk a lot about dangerous done well. How to ramp slowly up to something dangerous, figure out its perimeters and risks and how to mitigate against those risks. Iterative escalation is how we find the faults in our systems. It is this same process that leads to something going wrong. When done right, what goes wrong is very minor. Luckily what went wrong was pretty minor.

Some were between these two photos team Piki crashed.

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It was a hard sight to see as the cart began to fishtail and swerve as the momentum of nearly 900 lb. of kids and cart traveling at nearly 17 mph overwhelmed their brakes. Miranda and Reid where shaken from the second to last car. They came out of it with minor scrapes, a little road rash, and that special kind of exhaustion that comes from spiked adrenaline.

The cart suffered a far worse fate.

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Moments like these really bring out the best in the campers. Sol was driving at the time and the weight of the crash felt heavy on his shoulders. But team member after team member consoled him reminding him that it was a collective decision to go so fast. They let him know that anyone could have been driving and that no one faulted him. Hanna was particularly affected by the intensity of the incident and her friends gathered around her. Other campers tended to the basic needs of Miranda and Reid (getting them snacks and water) while Josh and Nova applied ruthless amounts of sanitizing alcohol to the wounds before bandaging them. Both riders would eventually, bravely, get right back on the cart.

We all agreed that given the setting sun, and in deference to the intensity of the incident, team Nooi’s next run would be postponed until tomorrow.

We deconstructed the busted cart, placed the pieces in the fire pit and held a special vigil; saying goodbye to a friend that had treated us well. With over exaggerated symbolism Josh had Miranda and Reid light the first matches.

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And thus began camp fire night. In his own form of iterative escalation Josh attempted the biggest fire Tinkering school has yet seen. In the spirit of caution, it was only a little bit bigger and right next to the fire pit was a wheelbarrow and a 5 gallon bucket full of water.

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And then we got to enjoy one of Tinkering School most tried and true traditions. Playing with fire. Over the week we created a lot of sawdust. With just the right flick of the wrist at just the right angle one can get the sawdust to spread out to just the right density to ignite like flash paper.

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Everyone takes a go and with a little of the excited energy dissipated we gather in a circle to say nice things about each other. The prompt is, “Tell us about a moment where you saw someone else being excellent.” It’s an exercise in empathy and outward thinking and specific praise. What followed was a nearly half an hour of campers telling fantastic stories about other campers doing things both big and small to help others, work hard, follow through, support each other, and making each other laugh.

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From there we began making S’mores.

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Playing dramatic games where kids would write something funny or serious on a piece of wood, a staff member (or Mike who had a great dramatic radio voice) would read it allowed in some accent, then toss the wood into the fire.

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Eventually the calming energy of a warm fire works its magic on the crowd and we grow quieter and fall into small groups.

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Day 7 is a half day. Its a day about saying goodbye and showing off to parents. Proud mamas and papas are found everywhere.

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Proud staff members are also easy to find.

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We run demos to show off.

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We take a cheesy group photo (check the flickr for a higher resolution copy if you want one)

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We repeat a common refrain, “Tinkering School is not about having a downhill train, it’s about having built a downhill train.” And with that we say goodbye to our creation and deconstruct it.

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See you next week!

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