23 May 2007

thesis intro - take 1

1 Introduction
The basis of constructionist learning is that one externalizes one's ideas through some type of construction material. During the construction process one needs to learn, appropriate, and functionally apply certain ideas in order to realize what one conceives. The properties of the materials are not only crucial to what one does and does not learn, as they facilitate or obscure the ideas inherent in the construction, idealization, and thought process, but also crucial in determining which populations are allowed access to the educational content inherent in the process of constructing with the given materials. In this thesis, I will propose and examine an open set of construction materials that incorporates wire and other locally available materials in an effort to bring to the forefront the need for accessibility in understanding key concepts in structural and mechanical engineering in communities that have historically been under-represented in these fields; I will explore the theme of interactive, artistic, mechanical creations as a way for builders to express and incorporate their own interests and stories into their designs, and thus, find a personal access point to concepts in mechanical and structural design; and I will explore the range of possible artifacts and styles of expression afforded by these methods and materials, and in doing so, will explore the range of potential new educational content such a process could provide.

Pre-fabricated construction kits, such as LEGO, K'nex, Meccano, Erector, etc., have been around for many years and can be a great way to introduce people to constructing and robotics; the kits' materials enable rapid and solid construction, as the parts and their connections are designed for this purpose. However, the cost of these kits, especially the robotics kits, can be prohibitively expensive. As a result, only certain people, communities, and schools are able to access the kits, and thus the concepts enabled by using the kits. This is particularly true for poorly-funded and poorly-supported schools, such as those potentially found in developing countries, rural areas, and inner-cities. Instead of relying on pre-fabricated kits, I will focus on using wire, a material which can be found almost everywhere in the world, as the basis for mechanisms; other locally available materials, such as cardboard, as the basis for structures; and the GoGo Board, an open-source/open-hardware Logo-based board, as the basis for computation. By exploring the use of these materials I hope to show that deep concepts in mechanical and structural engineering can be understood through using simple materials and tools that are available and accessible to a larger population than the population currently reached by pre-fabricated construction kits.

In addition to allowing greater accessibility, the use of wire as the basis for mechanisms allows for the incorporation of locally specific materials as well as the local knowledge about these materials and their roles in the community. The use of locally specific materials enables a community to access new educational content and to appropriate this new content for their own local needs. This same ability to incorporate local materials also allows the builders to add their own aesthetic touches into the design. This is different from pre-fabricated construction kits where aesthetics outside of the ones afforded by the kits become simple adornment on top of an assemblage of parts. This ability to have aesthetics integrated into the design allows for a different type of construction to be explored, a construction where the aesthetics and the design are united into one whole. Combined with computation and sensing through the GoGo Board, it is possible to have, for example, a set of constructions centered around interactive 3-D story telling/animation. By having a kit focused around such interactive, artistic, mechanical creations, it becomes possible for the builders to express and incorporate their own interests and stories into their designs, and through this, mechanical and structural design becomes more personally accessible to learners who might otherwise have no point of interest.

Many people have achieved successful learning about systems, feedback, control, and some mechanics through working with pre-fabricated construction kits, yet because these kits' connections and shapes are pre-designed by the manufacturer, several key concepts in mechanical and structural design are left unexplored when using these pre-fabricated kits. Because the pre-fabricated parts are designed with connections and spacings in mind, the builder has to provide very little thought as to how to space and connect. Thus, using a pre-fabricated kit means quicker and more intuitive construction, but also means that the users of these kits never learn how to reason their way through the design process from material to part. By not going through the thought process from material to part, builders miss out particularly on concepts in geometry, in joining, and in material choice. In addition to providing an access point for new hands-on educational content, the ability to design your own parts also allows for the inclusion of aesthetic considerations into the part designs and the design of the whole.

In addition to providing the design for the parts, the makers of these kits often provide step-by-step instruction guides on how to connect the given parts into the intended whole. Combined with the pre-designed and pre-fabricated parts this affords almost effortless construction. Although many people often de-construct the final whole to use the parts in their own constructions, the fact that the beginning user can usually never make something that is as well-designed as what is first built can lead to dissatisfaction which results in a possible lack of motivation for future constructions and therefore for future learning. However, typical to design, the affordances that ease certain aspects constrain others, and such is the case with having construction start with the materials rather than the parts. The time it takes to construct something solidly starting with only the materials and tools is significantly longer than with a kit that comes with pre-designed parts and instructions on how to use them. As experience working with the materials and tools, as well as experience with thinking through the whole design process from start to finished machine increases, the time it takes to construct a sturdy, aesthetically pleasing, and functioning machine decreases. In an attempt to address the potential rough start of working with materials instead of pre-fabricated parts and in an attempt to break from the tradition of providing a step-by-step instruction booklet, I will attempt to provide a learning framework for gaining experience about constructing one's own designs with accessible materials and tools through the use of a hand-drawn booklet focusing on the “grammar” of mechanisms and structures, the design process, and possible ideas on how to find or scavenge local materials. Additionally, because mechanisms are notoriously hard to explain with static representations, I will provide a collection of animations that represent the funcions of the different mechanisms. All of this will be openly available via the Internet. It is my hope that through this work, I will enable the learning of mechanical and structural engineering concepts to as wide population as possible.

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