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How a Marble Machine Reinvigorated My Teaching (and Learning)

I found myself on the floor of The Exploratorium at 9:30am on a Tuesday morning in September, paired with a high school engineering teacher and armed with the task of making a marble go as slowly as possible. It’s not often that I find myself on the floor engaged in a learning activity for work. I have two small children so I am often on my knees or laying on the floor playing with them or frantically searching for a missing Lego piece or a morsel of food that my daughter threw to the ground.

The Exploratorium resources

The Exploratorium resources for creating a marble machine. Copyright The Exploratorium.

On this Tuesday morning though I was on the ground for my own learning and I was invigorated: I had a partner, I had a goal, and I had the resources of The Exploratorium to create a marble machine that would require us to grapple with gravity, slope, velocity, angle, material precision, and create a system designed to slow down a marble. I, of course, didn’t realize these curricular connections at the time. I was just simply excited to tinker, build, and test materials that could assist in challenging a marble’s natural inclination to roll down an incline.

For two hours, my partner and I played and tested materials such as a peg board, pegs, ramps, cardboard, paper, pipe cleaners, funnels, tape, string, and metal lids. During this time, I found myself laughing, high-fiving my partner when things went well, and clenching my fists when we were not successful. Yet I viewed our minute “failures” as learning opportunities to rethink and retool our marble machine. At no point was I defeated or uninterested or annoyed or wondering why I was engaged in the activity. I also found myself to be open to the possibilities of the materials—rethinking my perception of the materials from what they were designed to do and more oriented towards what I needed it to do at a specific moment: I didn’t need the pipe cleaner to clean a pipe, I needed it to gently force our marble onto two parallel straws that would widen and allow the marble to drop down to the next ramp.

Working on the marble machine.

At work on the marble machine. Copyright The Exploratorium.

During these moments of nuanced success and failure, I started to remember skills that I was good at: I was always the one to fix the wobbly table with any available materials; I had played competitive softball for years and my steady hands that helped me grab line drives and put down the bunt now helped me strategically place a small copper pipe on a ramp to slow our marble; and I could collaborate with a partner that I knew had more expertise on the topic and know that I would still be able to contribute to the task at hand.

The “low floor (easy to get started), high ceiling (opportunities for complexity)” marble machine activity was a wonderful entry point for me to engage in tinkering—to experience the minute variability of a project defined by a simple goal. By design, my partner and I were given two hours to work on our marble machine AND walk around the room and check in with the other 16 educators engaged in the same process; The Exploratorium staff offered “just-in-time” mentorship with a sensitivity that always allowed my partner and I to work through our frustrations and overall thinking without them (or at least me feeling like they were) co-opting our project or our ownership over the activity. They were hands-off so we could be hands-on. And one of the best aspects of the overall activity was the reflective discussion as a whole group. After each pair had shared their marble machines, earned a round-of-applause and insights from the other educators, the group reflected on the diversity of materials used to create our “slowing” systems, analyzed the K-12 curricular connections, and cleaned up!

Reinvigorated Reminders for Myself

  • Design experiences in which learners are hands-on while teacher-facilitator is hands-off and provides just-in-time mentorship; tinkering and making is a wonderful jumping off point for this
  • Embrace the idea that play + fun = learning; and contrast with, “What does learning look like when it is not fun?”
  • Ongoing reflection! Analyze both the process and product of tinkering and making activities

Amazing Resources:


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