Document Type


Publication Date

June 2015

Publication Title

American Society of Engineering Education




Operations Research, Systems Engineering and Industrial Engineering


Tensions in the Productivity in Design Task TinkeringTinkering is an ad-hoc approach to a problem and involves the practice of manipulating objectsto characterize and build knowledge about a particular system in an exploratory way, often withthe goal of getting some product/idea to produce desired behavior (e.g. Turkle & Papert, 1991;Berland, 2013; Roth, 1996). Tinkering thus contrasts with more deliberate activity towardsunderstanding how some phenomenon works or towards achieving conceptual understanding.Some researchers have argued that tinkering is an unproductive process because it does notalways lead to progress and/or conceptual learning (Law, 1998; Yeshno & Ben-Ari, 2001).Others view it as productive for students’ learning and for generation of novel solutions (Turkle& Papert, 1991; Berland, 2013; Roth, 1996). In this paper, we unpack the process of tinkering tospeak to this tension on the productivity of tinkering for novice designers and programmers. Weclaim that tinkering, or ad-hoc sense-making, can play a productive role in making progresstowards design-activity goals.Our data is of classroom videotapes and interviews of high school students in a 2-week summeroutreach program on physics. As part of the program, students learned to program Arduino(microcontroller) controlled robot-tanks. Students spent the first week of the program working1-2 hours per day on self-paced design tasks in pairs. Design tasks required students to programthe Arduino-bot to perform some task such as detecting an obstacle, visually depicting distancefrom a wall, etc. Students were provided with a variety of resources, including sample code.Over two iterations of camp, we collected classroom and interview data for five focal groups.We draw on tools from interaction analysis (Jordan and Henderson, 1995) to characterize studentspeech, gesture, and actions. The classroom data corpus was roughly chunked, and marked forepisodes where tinkering took place. We created more detailed content logs of focal episodeswhich described the kinds of approaches employed or proposed during tinkering. Our analysisattends to how tinkering played a role in students’ design process, in attempt to understand howtinkering may or may not be a productive process for students. We describe how the process oftinkering can support students in engaging in more in-depth sense-making.Though tinkering may not lead to generalizable content learning, we argue that it can have valueas an engineering disciplinary practice. Instructionally, this implies that students’ tinkeringbehaviors might have a productive role in the design classroom and more research is needed onunderstanding various ways in which students take up tinkering during design.Berland, M., Martin, T., Benton, T., Petrick Smith, C., & Davis, D. (2013). Using learning analytics to understand the learning pathways of novice programmers. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 22(4), 564-599.Jordan, B., & Henderson, A. (1995). Interaction analysis: Foundations and practice. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 4(1), 39-103.Law, L. C. (1998). A situated cognition view about the effects of planning and authorship on computer program debugging. Behaviour & Information Technology, 17(6), 325-337.Roth, W. M. (1996). Art and artifact of children's designing: A situated cognition perspective. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 5(2), 129-166.Turkle, S., & Papert, S. (1990). Epistemological pluralism: Styles and voices within the computer culture. Signs, 128-157.Yeshno, T., & Ben-Ari, M. (2001). Salvation for bricoleurs. In Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Workshop of the Psychology of Programming Interest Group, Bournemouth, UK (pp. 225-235).


This article was originally presented at the 122th ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, 2015, and can also be found at this link. © 2015 American Society for Engineering Education