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Tinker Teams: Updated with Prototype Feedback

Tinker Teams is a debate club crossed with a maker class. Kids join a local team. Teammates help and critique each other with tinkering projects, and show their work at Tinker Meets. Kids learn hands-on building skills and team work while having fun.

Photo of Andy La Fond

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Thanks to everyone who has contributed comments and suggestions to Tinker Teams. An extra special thanks goes out to Mandy and Dina for their extraordinary support. 

Here's an update for the end of the Refinement phase, summarizing the feedback received from young people, teachers, and other OpenIdeators.

Tinker Teams is intended to be an activity kids can participate in for months or years, beyond a short session, camp, or class. Tinker Teams can provide enough structure and excitement to get kids started, and enough freedom and support to allow their interest and skills to grow. The goal is to develop the creative "muscle memory" and mastery that comes with lots of practice, just like with debate, music, the arts, and sports. 

Please take a look at the video introduction to Tinker Teams and the experience map diagram for an overview. There are some additions and changes outlined below.

Kids, parents, and teachers organize Tinker Teams
  • Kids and their parents or teachers would organize teams in their neighborhood or community.
  • Kids and parents would likely learn about Tinker Teams via word of mouth and/or searching for maker or tinkering activities online.
  • Teams can be based in a school -- as an after-school activity -- or at a library, YMCA, or similar facility.
  • Guidelines and tips would be available to teams via a web site, email list, or printed handbook.
  • An online directory would keep track of Tinker Teams and facilitate Tinker Meets.
  • The directory and guidebook could probably be maintained by a small group of volunteers with little or no funding required.

Tinker Teams tinker together 1-2 times a week
  • Based on feedback from kids and parents, Tinker Teams would start with more defined and exciting challenges -- like building a go kart, model rockets, a giant kite, a working water cannon, etc.
  • Although the challenge may be defined, the solution open-ended. Tinkerers will be free to imagine, build, test, and improve on their own solutions.
  • Tinkerers are expected to make something, but it doesn't have to work perfectly (or at all!) or look pretty. 
  • Mentors will provide guidance on process and skills, and help if tinkerers get stuck. But they won't provide any "correct" answers.
  • As tinkerers get more experience, the challenges could become more self-directed and defined, with guidance from the adult mentor.
  • Providing constructive design critiques and feedback would be part of each session -- what do you like about someone else's project, what questions do you have, and how would you build on the idea?

TInker Meets bring teams together
  • Tinker Teams from different locations would meet up occasionally -- perhaps twice a year -- to share projects and progress
  • A directory or email list would be helpful to organize the Tinker Meets
  • Since there are like-minded maker groups forming everywhere, Tinker Teams can get together with any group, whether they call themselves a "Tinker Team" or not

For young people, Tinker Teams will
  • Build technical and aesthetic skills: using simple to more-advanced tools, from screwdrivers to sewing machines to soldering irons to Arduino boards
  • Compliment the school curriculum with hands-on experience of math and science concepts
  • Fill in potential curriculum gaps, especially in arts and aesthetics

Tinker teams will also foster leadership and introduce professional skills for creative careers
  • Teaching and learning skills with other tinkerers
  • Giving and receiving critique and feedback
  • Organizing and leading work on a shared project
  • Defining a problem or project and setting goals to complete it

Parents and teachers will
  • Receive guidance and support from other Tinker Team mentors (so they don't have to figure everything out on their own)
  • Learn new skills alongside kids
  • Learn how to teach maker or innovation classes that could become part of the formal curriculum

The video introduction to Tinker Teams served as a sort of paper prototype for gathering feedback from young people. 

Five young people provided feedback -- ranging from grade school students to a high school senior:


Here's what we heard and learned -- with some verbatim quotes and some summaries:

What they liked

  • Thought the tinker team and space sounded cool
  • "I would like to get together with a bunch of kids (but mostly people that I know) and do something we all like to do together. Like improv, electronics, science or performance and art stuff."
  • "Like that we could put on shows with people who are experts, like Jenny."
  • "I like the tinkering name. I like building and making things."
  • Contests and fairs might stoke competitive spirits and get kids motivated.
  • "I like that it can prepare students for activities they might want to pursue in high school (like robotics or debate) to see what their interests are." 
  • "I also think it is cool that you thought to combine two very different activities like robotics/science olympiad and debate because those disciplines normally are not seen together."

What they would change

  • Making things can sound kind of boring, compared to more action-packed alternatives. Probably a specific and real design project will get kids motivated. It sounds more exciting to make a working water cannon than to "make things after school." 
    • "I don't like after school, maybe Saturdays are good."
    • "I don't think that a Tinker Team should consist of a junior high age student and an elementary school student. A nice mix might be to stick with the K-5th grade age range because by junior high, many schools already have Science Olympiad and other activities in place for students, whereas in elementary school, I think students would love to have something like this instead of just playing sports after school."

    Questions they had
    • "Who are the teachers? Can my mom be a teacher?"
    • "If my mom teaches, can I help with the project?"
    • "Where is it?" 
    • "How would schools handle the salaries of the mentor teachers who stay after with the students to work on these projects?"
    • "Is there a budget for the supplies the students would be able to afford? Who would pay for this or would the kids have to pay a fee to be a part of this? That might discourage some students from joining."

    Other suggestions

    • Access to some kind of building system, like lego, that would make it easy to construct things. 
    • "I want people my own age or older, no little kids who break my things. Like 1st grade and beyond."

    Some Key Takeaways
    • Experiment with a mix of exciting, pre-defined challenges and more self-guided tinkering to see what appeals best to kids
    • Keep the age range narrow for starters and/or have different activities for different levels
    • Keep an element of presenting, pitching, and providing feedback on projects
    • Validate the costs and funding for materials and tools 

    We spoke with 4 teachers and parents, and invited others to provide feedback via a questionnaire.

    Here are some key thoughts they shared:

    • The challenges for a maker space or group are having a clear approach, some capable mentors/ teachers, enough free time for creative play/work of this kind, and a culture of trying things out.
    • Different school districts handle after-school activities differently. Some contract activities to for-profit companies. It's probably best to have a flexible approach that can work either within or outside of schools.
    • In pitching Tinker Teams to schools, it would be important to differentiate it from any existing programs that a school might have. A more open-ended tinkering approach instead of a strictly defined challenge is one possible way to differentiate.
    • Tinker Teams would work well regardless of whether the school is public, private, or charter. 
    • Depending on the school, a potential issue could be funding for supplies. If schools are competing with one another, it would be important to have equity in terms of resources.” 
    • It would be important to provide Tinker Team advisers with specific ideas on how to lead after-school workshops. If teachers/advisers are well-prepared to guide students, the program would have a good chance of being successful.
    • Tinker Teams can work for all age groups, as long as each age group is appropriately challenged. It might even be a cool for high school age Tinkerers to mentor middle and elementary school teams.”
    • Students love being competitive, and they would be excited for the prospect of competing with other schools. While kids are motivated by the pure glory of winning, they'd also be excited if there were tangible prizes.”
    • There are many similar groups and resources for makers that can guide and inspire Tinker Teams (it helps to stand on someone's shoulders):

    Odyssey of the Mind -
    Fuse Studios -
    Destination Imagination -  (very similar but with more structured challenges than Tinker Teams would have to start)
    The Planet in Mill Valley, CA -
    Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff by Curt Gabrielson -


    • Tinker Teams can be fully funded by the teams, or through grants and private donations. Teams will be available to all public, private, and charter schools nationwide without any costs to schools or other institutions.
    • Tinker Teams do not require computers or internet access. Guidelines, tips, challenges, and other information can be distributed in print format and by mail, if needed. All children should be able to participate regardless of geographic location and socio-economic background. 
    • Tinker Teams is not a traditional fine arts program with an emphasis on creating high-quality painting, drawing, dancing, music, etc. Young people do not need to see themselves as especially creative to make things with basic materials, and Tinker Teams will not expect projects to look pretty. 
    • Tinker Teams is team-oriented, enabling disabled young people to fully participate through suggestions and ideas. This combines with the fact that projects / assignments will not require the Internet to make Tinker Teams a truly all-inclusive program.
    • With projects involving teams of different sizes, young people who are introverted should feel comfortable in the smaller groups. They will also be nudged to try working in larger groups, helping them to learn to be at ease in different settings. 

    Original Submission - For Reference
    The Tinker Team competition would work much like debate teams or mock trials. Students, teacher, and parents could organize one or more teams -- probably at a school. The teams would train together, solving sample problems, to develop their collaboration, problem-solving, and tinkering skills. Competitions would pit teams from different schools against each other, with everyone working on solving the same problem. Depending on the challenge, there could be objective or subjective ways to judge each team.

    Tinker Teams could take advantage of the space available at schools, without requiring a curriculum change. By representing their schools, students on the team could get some recognition and recognition from teachers and peers, which would help reinforce their creative confidence. Plus, it could be a school activity students could use for college applications.

    *New* Refinement question: What will the future look like with your idea in it?

    Debate clubs, Model UN, science clubs, and similar activities have thrived because they help kids develop vital skills for adulthood and many professional careers -- such as research, teamwork, preparing and delivering arguments, and problem solving. Tinker Teams can do the same by nurturing skills in creativity, problem-framing, and problem-solving. Teams will encourage curiosity and ideation in tackling a problem. Tinkerers will gain hands-on skills in making prototypes, testing, and improving them. As much as possible, the Teams can be lead by students, with guidance and mentoring from faculty. That way, more experienced kids will share skills and learn to lead their teams. Tinker Teams are meant to provide an experience similar to innovation and invention classes, but with a lower level of commitment required of schools. The goal is to make it easy for students, parents, teachers, and administrators to organize and support Tinker Teams. That will enable teams to spread to many schools, wherever there is interest and energy. In a few years, Tinker Teams could involve thousands of kids from around the US and the world. In time, tens or hundreds of thousands of kids could participate. There are currently 200,000 young people participating in the Destination Imagination program and 400,000 participating in Model UN programs, according to After 100 years, Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts have 2.3 million and 2.6 million members, respectively. If, in 10 years, Tinker Teams can foster the creative confidence of another quarter million kids, we could really change the world.

    In this challenge, we want to create ideas with young people, not for them. Outline how you’re planning to involve young people or other end-users (parents, teachers, etc) in designing, iterating or testing your idea during the Ideas phase.

    As we move forward with Tinker Teams, there is plenty more to learn. The most important step would be to set up a "beta" Tinker Team, probably in the Chicago area, with interested kids and start to experiment with different challenges and activities: What specific challenges will get kids excited and interested in joining? What types of challenges work best for weekly Team sessions? What's the right balance of structure vs. open-ended tinkering on an ongoing basis? What information and guidelines are going to be most helpful to set up more Teams? Building on learnings from the first "beta" team, we can prototype and test ways to get the word out, start additional teams, and organize Tinker Meets. It will be much like a startup company, with lots of testing and learning along the path to success.

    How might you envision your idea spreading across geographies or cultures so that it inspires young people around the world to cultivate their creative confidence?

    As noted above, Tinker Teams are designed so they require minimal funding beyond basic materials -- which can be provided by grants and/or sponsors. The low cost model would allow Tinker Teams to start in a diverse range of schools, communities, and countries. Guidelines and tips that are honed in the US can be translated and adapted for other languages and cultures. Materials can be distributed via the web, email, and even printed copies. Tools like Skype might enable international Tinker Meets and the exchange of best practices between mentors. The most important factor to spreading Tinker Teams will be finding the right mentors in new communities -- whether in the US or internationally. The personal and professional networks of teachers and mentors will play a key role.

    What skills, input or guidance would you like to receive from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

    The OpenIDEO community can move Tinker Teams beyond the refinement phase by helping establish beta teams, sharing learnings, and starting to build a network of teams and mentors.

    Evaluation results

    9 evaluations so far

    1. How well do you feel this idea could inspire young people to cultivate their creative confidence?

    Really well – feels like this idea would kickstart creative confidence in young people everywhere - 55.6%

    It's getting there – but it seems to need further work to really inspire creative confidence - 44.4%

    I don't think this idea would significantly inspire young people's creative confidence - 0%

    2. Does this idea have enough momentum behind it to successfully spread and scale to diverse groups of young people globally?

    Absolutely – it's inspiring, engaging and I'm sure young people everywhere would be excited to participate - 11.1%

    Maybe, but we'd need to figure out more details to really help this idea get adopted more widely - 88.9%

    Nope, I don't see this idea having global appeal for diverse audiences of young people - 0%

    3. Does this idea show potential for lasting impact on generations of young people and their creative confidence?

    This idea seems to have staying power and could impact young people for years to come - 33.3%

    I think there's potential for lasting impact but it's not totally clear what that would look like - 44.4%

    It feels like this idea is more of a short-term solution that may not last into the future - 22.2%

    4. Would this idea appeal to young people who are already creatively confident as well as those who are not?

    Absolutely – it would be appealling and accessible to young people of all creative levels and abilities - 11.1%

    Probably – but young people who don't consider themselves very creative might need a little extra support or coaching - 77.8%

    Not really – this idea is really best suited for young people who already see themselves as creatively confident - 11.1%

    5. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

    It rocked my world - 33.3%

    I liked it but preferred others - 66.7%

    It didn't get me overly excited - 0%

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    Attachments (4)


    PPT version of the Tinker Teams prototype flyer


    Tinker Teams prototyping guide - please use and abuse it!


    Sketch of the Tinker Teams experience - open for anyone to use to gather feedback on the idea


    Questionnaire for educators to provide feedback


    Join the conversation:

    Photo of Hao Dinh

    Hi Andy, I referenced your idea in my Impact story!

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