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In Conversation with Sebastian Martin

This month we sat down with passionate Tinkerer Sebastian Martin, part of the team that will facilitate the Tinkering and Making space at the Ecsite Conference 2023 in Malta. We discuss what tinkering is, why it’s such a valuable activity and how you can get involved at both the upcoming Ecsite Conference and beyond.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today Sebastian! For those that don't already know you, please can you introduce yourself?

It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you today! My name is Sebastian Martin, I’m originally from a small town in southern Germany and now live in San Francisco. I first came here for the earthquakes - I used to be a researcher in seismology and was attending an American Geophysical Union Conference. Although I came for the earthquakes, I ended up staying for the Exploratorium! When I first visited the Exploratorium I loved discovering the hands-on part, or rather rediscovering it – my grandparents were in the business of toymaking so I have childhood memories of playing in my grandad’s toy workshop making things. So then when I saw the workshop at the Exploratorium it reminded me of that and I was hooked! Working at the Exploratorium, I find myself experiencing that same joy, curiosity and enthusiasm.

Could you tell us about the Exploratorium and your role there?

We call the Exploratorium a museum dedicated to creating experiences for learners to explore the world through science, art and human perceptions. I see it as a living learning laboratory which brings with it the idea that we can test our educational philosophy with learners, the public and educators. My position is the Tinkering Studio Research & Development Lead, or the title I like to use is Tinkering Specialist because it excites me! I work with a really stellar team at the Exploratorium and with a network of tinkerers and makers all around the world.

The idea of tinkering is clearly central to your entire philosophy of learning and critical thinking for the 21st Century skills development, could you please tell us a little more about tinkering and why you believe it's so important?

We call tinkering ‘thinking with your hands’. It’s a hands-on learning process to develop understanding about yourself and the world. Learning by tinkering relies on direct experiences with real materials, things that learners can see and touch. It’s very different from the learning we experience in school – in the sense that you’re not dependent on an instructor. Tinkering is important because it empowers both learners and educators. As a learner you develop an understanding of the scientific practices and see yourself as a confident and capable artist, scientist or maker who can take agency over their own learning. Thinking independently, problem solving, self-confidence and determination are all vital lifelong skills that tinkering helps develop.

Can you describe some examples of making and tinkering projects at the Exploratorium to give us an idea of what it involves?

One example of a tinkering session at the Exploratorium is exploring the nature of light and shadows. People experiment, make discoveries and create art by combining different light sources like the sun, the light on a phone or a flashlight with materials that are, for example, colourful or reflective, or ones that cast interesting shadows upon a surface such as a canvas or a suspended sheet. Participants can then make art based on the reflections or shadows cast by the objects to interpret and understand the way light interacts with the materials.

Another good example is the Toy Take Apart where we deconstruct toys in order to understand the mechanisms, circuit boards, computer chips, lights and wires that lie within. Participants can play with their toys in a completely new way, figuring out how they work and even try to make new toys with the parts of the original toy by thinking scientifically in order to create something new. You can find more details about these projects and many, many more examples on the Tinkering Studio’s web page.

You have been a really active contributor to Ecsite over the years, can you tell us about your experiences at Ecsite Conferences?

I remember my first Ecsite Conference in Munich in 2003 – I went shortly after I had visited the Exploratorium and honestly, I went to make connections with employees at the Exploratorium. But of course, I’ve been many more times since then. A big highlight for me are the moments outside sessions – when a participant comes to the Tinkering & Making space to fix something like their glasses, or I once remember Brad Irwin, [Chair of Ecsite's Annual Conference Programme Committee] coming to the Making space to create a paper hat for an Ecsite session. Those informal, light moments and the sense of community are things that I cherish. But it’s also a community that’s brave enough to make changes – for example the equity and inclusion focus that’s happening now at Ecsite. I’ve made dear friends and met great partners for collaborating in tinkering and making who elevate and further my own practice which is a massive benefit. Plus it’s a place where you see what changes are happening in the field of science engagement and that’s an important place for professionals to be.

We're delighted that you're going to be joining us again at the Ecsite Conference 2023 in Malta, could you tell us a little bit about what you've got in store for us?

At Malta 2023 Stephanie Muscat from the Exploratorium, Inka de Pijper from NEMO Science Museum, Samar Kirresh from Al Elieh and I will be coordinating the Tinkering and Making space – our role is to create the best opportunities for the community to share their ideas through sessions and informally.

We will have three types of activity in 2023. The sessions which are chosen by the Conference Programme Committee, activities from the #MakeEcsite community and Show and Tell sessions. Conference participants can submit session topics and activities to apply for a place in our Tinkering and Making Show-and-Tell session (write to Wiktor at wgajewski@ecsite.eu) and in addition have their activity or artefacts displayed in the space over the course of the Conference and during the community networking hour.

We’re also keen to invite anyone to be part of the community, participants should just come along with their curiosity and we will engage in ‘thinking with our hands’ together. We welcome all makers and tinkerers – be it for art, recycling, technology, cooking or making in different areas of science.

Are there any restrictions to who or how many people can take part in a workshop session?

Anyone and everyone is welcome to join in at the Conference, regardless of their experience level or role but some sessions are so hands-on, we’re limited to 35 people at a time. Luckily, we have our own space for the whole Conference which means we’ll be able to run multiple sessions so as many people as possible can get the chance to have a go.

As an expert, what do you look for in a good tinkering session?

In tinkering, a good session is often something that is not quite finished, shared by someone who is not a professional and is still learning. They can bring the best proposals because they authentically collaborate and exchange with the crew that are there. I love to see a willingness to connect with the community: a good tinkering session leads to the next tinkering session and perhaps even a project. Another sign of a good tinkering session is where the outcomes are diverse – I often say that the big idea is your idea in tinkering - if you choose your own path then you’re on the right path as there’s no one better than yourself to choose what route you take.

Outside the Ecsite Conference, is there an Ecsite tinkering community our readers can get involved with?

The tinkering community is growing organically at the Ecsite Conference but we also connect a couple of times a year digitally. Anyone who does ‘thinking with their hands’ and identifies as a tinkerer, maker or works as a facilitator of making can join our mailing list (let me know via email sebastianm@exploratorium.edu) and from there perhaps be inspired to extend the approach of tinkering to their own practice or to share their own knowledge with the ever-growing tinkering community.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Sebastian - we can't wait to see you in Malta!