Tuesday, March 15, 2016

TENacious Engineering at the MIT Museum: Collaboration, Learning, and Innovation in Chain Reactions

by Marybeth Martello, Ph.D.
This post is one in a series of posts about the Cambridge Science Festival’s TENacious Engineering Project (see blog entry from February 17, 2016).  To celebrate the Festival’s TENth Anniversary, TEN teams across the state are building TEN chain reaction machines.  These machines are reminiscent of the contraption that kicked off the very first Festival.  On the evening of April 15, at the Big Ideas for Busy People Event, Governor Charlie Baker will open the Festival with a short film that links all of these machines together.  

Why chain reactions, you might ask?  With so many worldly problems begging for our attention, why spend precious time and brain power figuring out ways to make objects (often discarded and unwieldy items) perform tasks for which they were not designed?  The talented team of artists, scientists, and students, who recently constructed a TENacious Engineering chain reaction in the MIT Museum’s lobby, offered some compelling answers to these questions. 
Chain reactions, for example, offer meaningful opportunities for collaboration, learning, and innovation.  Chain reactions also serve as intriguing metaphors for human connectedness and experience. 

       Vibrant, imaginative, and fun are words that describe both the MIT Museum’s TENacious Engineering team and the chain reaction they created.  The team included kinetic sculpture artists - Arthur Ganson and Jeff Lieberman, MIT Museum Idea Hub Coordinator - Hugh Phear, photographer - Chehalis Hegner, steampunk artist - Bruce Rosenbaum, MIT Museum Director of Education and Public Programs - Brinda Muniappan, MIT Museum Public Programs Coordinator - Jennifer Novotney, MIT Museum Education Programs Coordinator – Faith Dukes, and two students from the Community Charter School of Cambridge - Shantasia Jones and Tashnie Tucker.  Many of the objects they incorporated into their contraption hold important significance for the MIT Museum – lots of yellow wooden chairs, a Polaroid camera, and an EV3 robot, to name a few.  Getting these objects to act on and react to things like a billiard ball, an MIT emblazoned “sailboat,” a row of dominoes, and a bizarre fan hanging from the ceiling, was not easy.  But the process was enriching and inspiring for the participants, and for those who gathered to witness the filming of the chain reaction on February 5. 


The MIT Museum team had just four days to assemble their machine.  Some of the team members had never met. So the project gave rise to new friendships and synergies. Hugh Phear describes how “everyone involved in a build brings different experiences, skill sets, and expectations to the team.”  While one team member might have a flair for the aesthetic features of a chain reaction, another member might contribute technical expertise.  The magic happens in the union of complementary talents.  Chehalis Hegner notes how a team of collaborators can build community, in part, through discovering

"what each person’s gifts are, and how those gifts can be best utilized by the group.  People tend to gravitate toward the things they have a natural affinity for…Most interesting is how the very act of creating something together brings a sense of community spirit that few other endeavors can accomplish in such a short time. The very definition of creativity is to make something that hasn't been seen before -- when we take a pile of old discarded items and turn them into a series of totally new actions, that is creative."
Different people also bring different perspectives to a chain reaction process.  In a chain reaction everything is up for grabs and open to question. So, the same jar of honey may look completely different to different team members.  One person might see the jar of honey as a rolling object. To another it’s a counterweight or supporting structure.  Encountering different viewpoints can be a powerful way to expand one’s imagination.  For Arthur Ganson,

"This process helps me to witness how my own creativity is limited by my own mind-usually by making a false assumption.  Working together I often see solutions to things that I never would have thought of.   It pulls me out of my stupor in a way and is refreshing and invigorating for my mind."

So the builders set off chain reactions of ideas and revelations in one another, just as one link in the physical chain reaction, triggers the next.

Different perspectives can also require negotiation.  Part of the group creative process,” says Phear, “may be exploring how decisions will be made or challenges resolved.”  As team members engage in building, the team develops a group dynamic, and a common language and understanding. The physical contraption that emerges embodies the team’s spirit and way of working together.  The act of solving problems and creating something as a team, brings people together, and enables teams to surpass what any, one team member could accomplish as an individual.  The final product is an amalgamation and embodiment of teamwork.  As Ganson notes,

"the final 'chain reaction' of stuff is an echo of every decision, impulse, idea and manipulation of everyone involved.  That's the beautiful thing about it!"

And this coming together, finding common language, and cultivating one another’s gifts are critical to community building and collaboration in any context.  Perhaps our government officials, community leaders, neighbors, …just about everyone could benefit from being part of a chain reaction process. 

Learning, and Innovation

Chain reactions can also foster learning and innovation on, as Ganson describes, “an infinity of levels.”  Learning involves discovery and analysis.  When we learn, we develop “a new way to respond to, interact with, or understand something.”  Chain reactions facilitate learning through play.  Young children learn through play when they throw food on the floor, build with blocks, or roll a ball.  Learning through play tends to be less common after childhood, but chain reactions enable playful learning at all ages.  Phear notes that, with chain reactions,

"we have the possibility to return to that playful, explorative, and discovering mind. We can reexamine our assumptions about, for example, what a chair is…We can engage in imaginative queries such as, can the chair be a lever, a spinning top, or a cascading domino?"   

But while an open-ended exploration of the world invites new discoveries and innovation, it can also lead to indecision and anxiety among learners.  Phear describes how humans have an affinity for the certainty and safety that accompany clear boundaries and established understandings.  Unfamiliar things or situations -- whether a bear in the backyard or a roomful of strangers -- can trigger fear, a helpful response in dangerous situations.  But anxiety in the face of uncertainty can also hinder creativity and “impair our ability to redefine our boundaries” (Phear).  Chain reactions challenge people to release the familiar meanings we attach to things.  In building a chain reaction, team members let go of established definitions as they reinterpret the purpose of everyday objects, and exercise their creativity.  According to Phear,

"Because there are no ‘right’ answers we can develop an improvisational approach to our edges of understanding. It can be tremendously satisfying to realize that wading through that uncertainty can yield expanded possibilities and new discoveries."

When starting a chain reaction project, the paths and solutions can seem so obscure.  But, at the same time, that ambiguity and discomfort can be instructive and motivating. There is a “shared
vulnerability” (Hegner) at the start of a building process, when the group is “lost and struggling to find order.”  The desire to alleviate that discomfort incentivizes teams to generate ideas, experiment, and ultimately make some sense out of the pile of discarded items in front of them.  So, “through natural evolution, order emerges, and then something 'physical' comes out of it” (Ganson).  Chain reactions require the courage and, in fact, tenacity, to give structure, and maybe even meaning, to chaos.  

"The role of teacher and student in a chain reaction process can also be up for grabs.  For Arthur Ganson, the rules of physics that constrain a chain reaction are…colorblind and incapable of applying themselves differently to anyone at any age. It is the common ground that unites all the effort, dreams, impulses, inventions, aha moments, frustrations and bouts of spontaneous laughter…in a chain reaction, everyone is an equal student!"  

Acknowledging anxiety and welcoming failure can be key to allowing experimentation and learning to take place.  High school student, Shantasia Jones, was, at first, daunted by the prospect of working alongside accomplished artists on the MIT Museum’s chain reaction.  Yet, with Ganson and Phear’s encouragement, Shantasia and her classmate, Tashnie Tucker, overcame their initial trepidation.  Hugh and Arthur explained to the students that everyone on the team was learning, exploring, and experimenting.  They invited the students to try and fail, and helped Tashnie and Shantasia to see failure and iteration as part of the building process, and as important learning opportunities.  In building a chain reaction one can learn how to work through uncertainty, and release what Hegner describes as “the need for perfection (or anything like it).”  The “celebration of failure,” as Hegner puts it, “is one of the most valued learning outcomes in the making of a community chain reaction.”  Participants learn to release their “daily work patterns from the prison of expectations, judgment, and failure.”  In doing so, team members gain the desire and confidence to experiment. The willingness to fail and try again is such an essential part of innovation.  Novel answers to hard questions rarely come together easily – they are more likely hard-won triumphs on top of many defeats.  

Chain reactions hold value, not only for their builders, but for their audiences as well.  Phear notes that when chain reactions occupy a public space, they invite observation and investigation.  As people gather around a chain reaction in a museum or building lobby, they often engage in informal group learning.  Spectators react to the chain reaction by commenting and noting observations to one another.  These observations can spark further investigation.  Audience members might, for example recognize a chair, but then suddenly realize that the chair’s utility in the chain reaction has nothing to do with its traditional use as a place to sit.  As observers discern that the chair is actually functioning as a domino or a trigger, they feel a sense of surprise and playful discovery.  Thus, the audience goes through an exploration and learning process, much like the team experiences when they build.

Chain Reaction as Metaphor

The MIT Museum’s TENacious Engineering Team also helps us to see how chain reactions are metaphors for the human condition and potential springboards for changing the status quo.  Ganson likened chain reactions to life, in general, because “if one part gets triggered…everything else is affected in some way.  Its precarious nature captures so beautifully our human nature and predicament!”  The chain reaction is, according to Ganson, perpetually in a “rarefied, unstable state.”  Similarly, people are in a constant state of change, experiencing actions and reactions.  Whatever we do, whatever choices we make, have consequences.  Chain reactions are wonderful reminders of how we are all connected, and how art and engineering can be important vehicles for community building.  In turn, chain reactions and the community building they engender can be a first step toward social change.  As Hegner remarks,

"my hope is that the metaphor of the Chain Reaction will teach groups of people to take what they learn in that scenario and apply those lessons to the broader issues in our culture and society. I can imagine that a team working to solve a larger issue might start their project by having fun together in building a Chain Reaction -- thereby revealing the personalities, skills and drives of each person, which can be put to best use in the group endeavor. Imagine taking all that information in order to lean headfirst into a community project that needs attention." 

Chain reaction teams produce outcomes that no single team member could have imagined alone.  These teams learn through uncertainty, iterate toward solutions, and celebrate the varied perspectives and talents of individuals.  The holistic outcome that results is more inspiring and powerful than its singular parts. 

Have you been part of a chain reaction or observed one?

What did the experience reveal to you about collaboration, learning, and innovation?

Did your experience with chain reactions change you?  How?

What do you think about using chain reactions to lay a foundation for community-building and social change?

Marybeth works for the Cambridge Science Festival. She has a background in the fields of Science, Technology, and Society and Civil and Environmental Engineering. 


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