08 September 2006

costa rica

I keep meaning to write up my experiences in Costa Rica, from when I was there with David at the Foundacion Omar Dengo (FOD), but somehow, with all the registration stuff and the moving stuff and the life stuff, I keep losing days. So I might as well just do it now while I'm thinking about it, because, really, the hardest part is just getting started. Here goes.


So I was in Costa Rica for five days a week ago, but only two days of really doing stuff at FOD. Otherwise, I slept, and I caught up with David about my thesis and this term and stuff. The idea was that I'd be there for a two day workshop, but somehow the workshop ended up on the wrong two days, so I was only able to be there for one day of the workshop.

The first day with the FOD was mostly just talks for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and the FOD's work with this. I listened to David's talk. Had lunch with the FOD's robotics dept. In some ways, it was really nice to hear about OLPC, because i'm not really up to date on all the latest things. I tried to prepare a bit for the next day (when I wasn't at the talks). As a result, I ended up making a butterfly that flapped its wings when you pulled a string attached to its body... kind of like the butterfly at the top right there. Except out of wire. And I used some Costa Rican change as the counterweights for it. I really just intended it as a small physical example of something that can move that's made quite simply out of wire.

The second day was the workshop. I had maybe 20 or so teachers in the room. The goal was to help them creatively explore the use of wire in construction as well as structure and mechanisms. First we introduced the ideas. Then we had them go walk around the FOD and find examples of structure, mechanisms, and nature. Then we had them discuss a bit, brainstorm a bit, and start building. After lunch, I explained about about circular to linear motion, tried to talk about mechanisms, tried to talk a bit about cranks... etc. Jorge was a great translator. And then they kept on working. I was amazed at what they came up with.

So here are some thoughts on the process.

1.) when asked to give examples of structure and mechanisms that they found around the FOD, pretty much all of them drew some sort of picture. when talking about the pictures they had drawn, they gestured quite a bit about the motion it makes. really.... just a lot of gesture. This idea of gesture ties in quite strongly with the idea that there's a lot of information that cannot be transmitted via 2-d, and I think helped to illustrate the point that hands-on experience is really necessary.

2.) It was interesting to see/hear about the difference in experiences (past and present) of the groups. One guy knew about chassis, and as a result, when his group was trying to make a walking wire ant, he tried to build a wire chassis for the ant's body. Another group that used a plastic coke bottle for the body of a bird had a woman who commented that she used her knowledge of working with fabric to help her understand how to use wire. She seemed to kind of weave it around into the shapes she wanted. So I was really fascinated by the influx of past experience into the workshop.

3.) Many commented that this is time consuming. Yes. It is. But it's cheap. And when you're done with it, it's yours. You know it at the end. You know every last bit of it in a very physical way. And I think that the flexibility it allows for creatively is something that's unquantifiable. Wire can be quite expressive. There's something nice about the minimalism of it. I think the time commitment is worth it to certain people. If you don't have the money for other materials, but you do have the time, then what does it hurt? Even if you do have the money for some other materials, wire is just better in certain situations. And a very hands-on experience with it just helps you to intuitively understand when this material would be a good choice.

4.) a single two day workshop is not ideal. I think that to get at deep and structured... as Dewey puts it, disciplined... thought, repetition is necessary. Maybe a small project to start out with. And once the experiences accumulate, you start reflecting more and more. Your past experiences start affecting your future projects. And you gain an intuition for the design. So maybe a better way to go about this is to have one group that does several different sets of projects over time.... a cumulative effect.

5.) having people explore their environments in the light of an engineering project is good. there's a lot of knowledge that can be observed in physical objects. And it's good to get people started discussing why things are made the way they are, in the shape they are, and with the materials that they're made. (ok... that was a confusing sentence, maybe). In addition to just getting people actually actively observing their surroundings, maybe it also encourages imitation -- of nature, of existing design, etc. Imitation is the first step towards understanding. If you can observe something and then recreate it, you really must understand it. In Costa Rica, one of the groups made a to-scale version of an umbrella arm. After talking to one of the group members, it was clear that he really understood how the 4-bar linkage worked in a very physical way. And even if he didn't have the technical words for it, the understanding was there. I feel it's critical to have this understanding before abstracting it to technical words and equations.

hmm. yeah. that's about it for now.