Syntheses of "Beyond Black Boxes"

From Hackteria Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

Beyond Black Boxes: Bringing Transparency and Aesthetics Back to Scientific Investigation


We present a set of case studies in which students create, customize, and personalize their own scientific instruments – and thus become engaged in scientific inquiry not only through observing and measuring but also through designing and building. While computational technologies have, in general, contributed to making today’s scientific instruments more “opaque ” (that is, less understandable) and less aesthetically-pleasing than their predecessors, we argue that these same technologies can be used to bring back a sense of transparency and aesthetics to the design of scientific instruments. We analyze how students, by building their own scientific instruments, can: pursue a broader range of scientific investigations of their own choosing, feel a stronger sense of personal investment in their scientific investigations, and develop deeper critical capacities in evaluating scientific measurements and knowledge.

Constructionist approach. In most MBL activities, students use pre-built instruments; similarly, many “home science” books focus on pre-designed demonstrations and experiments. BBB activities take a different approach: students are encouraged to construct and program the instruments that they use – and to design their own experiments.


Use of microcontroller (which remains a black box in a way...)

  • "Paradoxically, the same electronics technologies that have contributed to the black-boxing of science can also be used to reintroduce a vigorously creative, aesthetic, and personal dimension into the design of scientific instrumentation – particularly in the context of science education"

Elegance and beauty

  • The merits of the instrument-building tradition go beyond the immediate needs of research. Indeed, one element of that tradition is a design philosophy that emphasizes elegance and beauty in the material objects of scientific work.
  • As we have observed students creating their own scientific instruments, we have been struck by how students seem to form a much stronger connection with their instruments when they pay attention not just to functionality but also to aesthetics.

LEGO <-> Kit-without-defined-parts Zum LEGO thema....LEGO ist immer noch besser als ein Laser-Cut kit, das man nur auf eine einzige art zusammenbauen kann. auch hier hatten wir schon gedanken gemacht am bespiel des mikroskop-kits.


  • Many BBB projects make use of LEGO materials for building structures and mechanisms. Just as important as these “high-tech” devices are artistic materials. When organizing BBB activities, we make sure to supply a wide range of arts-and-crafts materials, including everyday objects such as pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and cotton balls. This blend of high-tech devices and art supplies makes possible precise explorations and investigations while simultaneously fostering a spirit of creativity, exuberance, humor, stylishness, and personal expression.

Und wieder selbstkritische reflektion:

  • Of course, not everything in Jenny’s bird feeder is transparent. The Cricket itself can be seen as a black box. Jenny certainly did not understand the inner workings of the Cricket electronics. But that was not the goal. As we designed the “construction kits” out of which students would create their BBB projects, we made explicit decisions to hide certain processes and mechanisms within black boxes, while making other processes and mechanisms visible and manipulable. The choices of which features to hide – and which to highlight – were guided by our desire to make certain concepts particularly salient and accessible for students.

Overview of Reflections:

  • Just a statement: Increasingly, science educators are recognizing the value of learners designing their own scientific investigations (rather than replicating well-known experiments).
  • Motivation. We have found that students often feel a strong sense of personal investment in a scientific investigation when they design the scientific instruments themselves – particularly, if they add their own aesthetic touches to the instruments... The “fun part” of the project, she explained, “is knowing that you made it; my machine can take pictures of birds” [emphasis hers].
  • Integration of art and technology. Clearly, one must tread carefully here: we are not advocating a watered-down treatment of science in which subjective artistic values take precedence. Rather, we see instrument creation as a means by which interdisciplinary work between the arts and sciences can be explored.
  • Developing critical capacity. Too often, students accept the readings of scientific instruments without question. When students design their own instruments and investigations, we have found that they develop a healthy skepticism about the readings – and a better understanding of what readings are reasonable and why.

What Didn’t Work:

  • Real-time reading: Some of the problems have been technical in nature, and have been reasonably easy to fix. For example, the Crickets do not have built-in displays, so it was initially difficult for students to get real-time feedback.
  • Self-Referentiality: One challenge for teachers is to help students find investigations that they care about as deeply as they care about their kinetic sculptures. Many students, in their BBB activities, did not follow through on data analysis unless they truly cared about the data they were analyzing.
  • Time and space: As with other design-based and project-based educational initiatives, BBB activities raise significant logistical challenges, making special demands on time and space. At one BBB research site, students were able to work on their projects just one afternoon a week, and they needed to spend large chunks of their time setting up and putting away their projects. The same site hosted a summer workshop at which students spent full days working on projects each day for three weeks. Students at the summer workshop made substantially more progress on their projects and clearly enjoyed the experience much more.
  • Integration into current Curriculums: Even more challenging is the task of integrating BBB activities into traditional school curricula and aligning with current standards and testing practices. BBB projects often cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries greater systemic change is needed in both the logistical and conceptual organization of schooling.