Final Week at TechShop: Popup Portfolio

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
- Seneca

I came into the final week of my summer at TechShop Inventor Camp with a challenge on my plate. The camp was being led by two new instructors whom I sort of knew, but hadn’t yet worked with. Also, the lease on my apartment ended Monday, so I started the week a bit frazzled from hauling boxes and from the usual existential crisis that accompanies moving and being reminded that everything must eventually come to an end.

From the YouTube video. Renovated motor start to finish.

The original plan for the week was to iterate on my “Mistake Box” from last week, but it didn’t feel right with what the instructors, Jayla and Michael, were teaching. They were emphasizing the process of iteration, of testing your work with prototypes and making changes. After getting my bearings on Monday, I went in Tuesday to deliver a “pep talk”. A friend had shared with me a TED Talk on how to use chaos and frustration to fuel your creativity, and I decided to completely abandon the plan of doing the “Mistake Box” again and to try to focus on the theme of the week, “Process and Iteration”. Jayla and I bounced ideas off of each other, and we decided to show this time lapse of an old motor being taken apart and renovated. I ad-libbed a mediocre pep-talk about the importance of showing process and introduced them to the pair of Polaroid cameras we had at the shop, telling them to document their process!

UNCERTAINTY. I watched with uncertainty on Wednesday and Tuesday as I saw failure after failure happen and thought “damn, I really should have given that talk on failure!” A cardboard prototype started on fire in the laser cutter. Living hinges were drawn too thin and snapped. Joints weren’t measured properly and failed to fit together. When these situations arose, I made sure to ask the kids what had gone wrong and what they learned, but it would have been nice to make the process more explicit. The polaroid was failing… not the right exposure, taking selfies instead of process work (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I kept thinking “damn, I should have done the talk about mistakes!” And the polaroid was getting used, but I wasn’t sure how we could get them to create an artifact and articulate the value of the iterative process.

My attempt to get a student excited about documenting her process work.

FRIDAY. On Friday, there was plenty of excitement to go around. One young girl, S, had been iterating on a bench that she designed, and one of the TechShop employees had used a CNC machine to make a life-sized version (6x bigger) out of wood! I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to help the student articulate her iterative process as an accompaniment to the large bench. I asked S if she wanted to “make a poster” to help show the process. No dice. I made this neat little collage of her process, using an Instagram app called Layout. I showed it to her but she didn’t seem too excited about it. I really wanted to get her excited about documenting her process work, but she seemed intensely focused on making her Mickey Mouse t-shirt and I didn’t want to pull her away to document (the fundamental obstacle to documentation… why document when you could be making something?). I imagined a digital version of this photo where hovering over each iteration brought up a little information bubble with notes the student had added, and that maybe this could show her the true potential of documenting. I considered quickly coding this interactive artifact, but threw that idea onto my mental back-burner and went to Panera to regroup and put some food in my stomach.

The concept chair that J designed and built (holding a dope sticker he designed and made).

FINALLY, RESOLUTION. Throughout the week I had been becoming friends with a high school freshman named J. We had shared conversations about Tame Impala and The Strokes and on how we had learned to play guitar and piano. He was making a chair which had gone through three iterations, including a cardboard prototype that had lit on fire inside the laser cutter (a perfect failure!). He really understood the value of iteration and process, and how he had improved on each of the iterations. Since he seemed to have already bought into the value of iteration and could articulate how his design had evolved and improved, I thought I could get J to document his process! It was around 2pm, and the parents would come at 3pm for show and tell. I asked what he was doing next, and J told me “I have an hour left and I want to make something.” What a perfect opportunity to document! We had the following conversation, after I asked him how he would go about documenting this work if he were to share it on a personal website:
K: “What if we made a video of you talking about each of your iterations?”
J: “No… we’d have to edit it and all that.”
K: “What if we made a comic book?”
J: “Hmm a comic book… what about a pop-up book?”
K: “YES!!! Let’s make a pop-up book!”

J taping process photos into his pop-up book.

We had to work quickly. We searched YouTube for “how to make a pop-up book” and we each tried our hand at getting a paper cut-out to pop out of a cardboard cover (which I had scavenged from the recycling bin). J wondered aloud “hmm, how will I draw all these sketches for each page?” but I suggested that we instead snap Polaroid photos of each iteration. Yes! We divided and conquered, with J snapping polaroids of each of his prototypes, and me assembling the pages of the pop-up book. Lo and behold, it worked!

J flipping through his popup book of iteration photos.
The series of four iterations. Note the process notes!

I didn’t even have to tell J to write about each iteration. He had the idea all on his own! He used a pen to scribble notes about each of the iterations, including its number (Draft 1 or 2, etc), some things that were wrong with it (e.g. “the legs couldn’t stand up on their own” or “the hinges were too far apart and it wouldn’t bend”), and how he would improve it for the next step. I was so proud of him and what he had put together. It was such a perfect artifact for him to express the value of an iterative process! And it felt so good to help him scramble to put together something so awesome at the last minute, especially after thinking I would have nothing about documentation to show for the whole week.

The flip book was haphazardly assembled of cardboard and tape, but we shared this conversation after everything was put together:
K: “after everything you learned this week, you know that this can just be a prototype, right?”
J: “yeah it’s kinda meta”
H (other student): “no, it’s super meta!”

J’s grandfather flipping through the process pop-up book

And when it was time for show and tell, I heard J articulating to his mother and grandfather about how he had gone through the iterative process. They were quite impressed and left with smiles on their faces.

In conclusion, the act of actually making a physical artifact was a great way to get J to document his work. The kids had been making physical objects all week, and I sense that they wanted to continue making physical objects instead of making something merely digital like a video or a PowerPoint slide. Producing a Process Polaroid Popup Portfolio could prove a pleasant pursuit for pupils to perform in progressive programs.

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