My friend, Peter Skillen (, coined a term I really like – “Tinkering-Based Learning” (TBL.)  While this kind of learning can take place within the broader context of Project-Based Learning, it differs in that the student learns by tinkering with ideas in the quest to build something.  In terms of Seymour Papert’s ideas, this would be called Constructionist (as opposed to Constructivist) learning.  It also accurately represents what a lot of engineering design is about – tinkering with ideas, trying things out, and repeating the process until you get the resulting design you are looking for.  I once heard an engineer from Rolls Royce jet engine division say that it takes about 20 tries to get a design right.  Very clearly this is not what most classroom practice looks like.

ImageMy interest in this topic was rewarded last week when we attended part of a week-long summer camp on 3D printing designed by Kim Brand and his colleagues at 3D Parts Manufacturing (  This camp, in Indianapolis, Indiana, had about a dozen boys and girls ranging from grade 6 to 11 who were enticed by the idea that they could build objects of their own design.

On the software side of things, most students used cloud-based tools like Tinkercad and 123D Design, although there are many rich software titles from which to choose.  In fact, our list of favorite titles is shown in an earlier blog.  Students were encouraged to design and build something that was practical, and to also design something that was playful.  It was great to see the intensity with which the kids worked, and how willing they were to help each other out if someone got stuck.  There was no formal instruction on the use of the software beyond letting them know that when their project was finished it needed to be exported as an STL file so it could be printed.

ImageTwo printers were provided by Kim Brand – his “STEAM engines” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics.)  These printers operate at a sufficiently rapid speed that many students were able to get their projects printed right away.  Projects submitted on the last day were printed and sent to the students later.

From our standpoint, the enthusiasm of the kids was amazing to see.  They were working on their projects non-stop, driven by nothing more than the desire to design and build their own creations.

The summer camp model makes a lot of sense because you can have kids work together all day long for five days – plenty of time to do some amazing work.  But this doesn’t mean that TBL doesn’t have a home in ordinary classrooms.  The challenge is for teachers to create opportunities for kids to solve real problems.  A single problem may take several class periods to finish (although a few of the students worked on their designs from home in the evening.)  The point is that TBL does not have to be devoid of structure.  In fact, the more meaningful the problem, the more powerful the activity.

An example we have used with students is potentially quite important in the future.  Imagine a trip to Mars – the likelihood is that the ship will not have every conceivable spare part, but will have a 3D printer of the kind made by Made in Space scheduled to go to the ISS this year (   Imagine that the outer wall of the craft is hit by space debris, creating an ugly hole through which air is leaking out of the ship.  The challenge is to design and build a plug that stops the leak.  This design can be done with free software (like Sketchup Make) and, once each team compares designs with others, a final design can be made, printed, and installed, this saving the mission.

ImageOf course, this is just one of myriad challenges you can imagine, each of which can be correlated with your school’s math and science standards.

But the coolest thing of all to imagine is how we can bring the real power of TBL into classrooms throughout the world!