Xylophones, Hamsters, and Fireworks:
The Role of Diversity in Constructionist Activities

Mitchel Resnick
Epistemology and Learning Group
The Media Laboratory
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
20 Ames Street Room E15-312
Cambridge, MA 02139

This paper was published in the book Constructionism (Harel and Papert, 1991)


The Constructionist approach to education goes beyond traditional hands-on activities in that it aims to give children more control over finding and defining the problems they work on. But the goal of "making projects personal" is not necessarily easy to achieve. This paper examines a collection of LEGO/Logo projects from a teachers' workshop, exploring the factors that led to a flourishing of personally-meaningful projects. In particular, it discusses the importance of diversity in Constructionist activities.


There is growing enthusiasm for "hands-on" approaches to education. Increasingly, educators agree that learning should be an active process, with students participating in hands-on experiments and explorations, not just sitting back and listening to the teacher.

Unfortunately, "hands-on" alone is not enough. Too many hands-on activities involve little more than following a recipe. In many hands-on activities, students are asked to recreate someone else's experiment. Such activities might be hands-on, but they are heads-out. Students are unlikely to become engaged in or inspired by activities where the goals and results are defined by someone else.

The Constructionist approach to education [Papert 1986] goes beyond typical hands-on activities in that it aims to give children more control over finding and defining the problems they work on. Constructionism places a high priority on making projects personal. It asserts that students (and teachers) who make personal connections with their projects invariably do the most creative work--and learn the most from their experiences.

But the goal of "making projects personal" is not necessarily easy to achieve. It raises difficult questions: In what types of environments are students and teachers most likely to make personal connections with their projects? How can classroom activities be organized to insure that students and teachers care about their projects in a deep and personal way?

This paper examines these questions in one particular context: a workshop introducing teachers to LEGO/Logo. Using sample projects from the workshop, it explores the factors that led to a flourishing of personally-meaningful projects.

Samples from a Workshop

The Science and Whole Learning (SWL) workshop was organized in the summer of 1989 by Seymour Papert's Epistemology and Learning Group at the MIT Media Lab. The goal of the three-week workshop was to help teachers explore new ways of thinking about and learning about science. Roughly 60 teachers, mostly from Boston-area schools, attended the workshop.

The first three days of the workshop served as an introductory period. During this time, the teachers were introduced to LogoWriter and LEGO/Logo--two "basic tools" that they would be using throughout the workshop (and throughout the following school year). Each teacher spent two days working with LogoWriter and one day with LEGO/Logo.

For the remaining 12 days of the workshop, teachers attended special-interest sessions and worked on "personal projects" of their own choosing. An entire room was set aside for teachers working on LEGO/Logo projects. Three of us from MIT (Steve Ocko, Natalie Rusk, and myself) supported the teachers as they worked on their projects. In addition, Eadie Adamson (a New York City teacher) and Cathy Helgoe (of LEGO Systems Inc.) offered a mini-workshop on "Kinetic Art" using LEGO/Logo. The main goal of this activity was to make teachers consider the creative and aesthetic aspects of machines and structures. Eadie and Cathy brought a variety of art materials (colored papers, pipe cleaners, etc.) to the workshop, and they showed how these materials could be combined with LEGO mechanisms to create moving sculptures.

Roughly a dozen teachers decided to make LEGO/Logo the focus of their personal projects. Following are examples of the teachers' projects.

* Xyloman. Carole Carter works as a music teacher at the Brimmer and May School, so it is not that surprising that she adopted a musical theme for her LEGO/Logo project. On the first day of the workshop, she decided that she would like to build a LEGO robot that plays the xylophone. The next day, she brought in a toy xylophone from home, and she began to build her robot. Eventually, Carole built a robot with two motors: one motor controlled the robot's arm, making it hit the keys on the xylophone; the other motor made the robot rotate so that it could hit different keys. She named the robot "Xyloman."

Next, Carole began writing computer programs to make Xyloman play sequences of notes. The programs used input from an optosensor to control the rotation of the robot. The sensing mechanism wasn't very accurate, so the robot had difficulties when successive notes were far apart. So Carole carefully chose songs in which the notes were close together. By the end of the workshop, the machine could play several different songs. Carole was clearly pleased by her machine's performance, but she added: "I haven't taught it how to bow yet."

* Carousel. Before the workshop, Natalie Isbitsky had never built anything out of LEGO bricks. But early in the workshop, she became obsessed with an idea: She wanted to build a LEGO carousel like the one she had ridden as a little girl at Revere Beach near Boston. Building a simple carousel proved relatively easy. But Natalie, a teacher at the Donald McKay School, wasn't satisfied. She wanted the horses to go up and down as the carousel rotated--just as they had on the carousel at Revere Beach. Natalie struggled with this idea, but she finally developed a mechanism that worked. She found a way to put a gear on the vertical axle so that the gear would remain stationary as the carousel turned. Then, she connected the horses to a set of gears positioned around (and at right angles to) the stationary central gear. As the carousel turned, these gears rotated around the stationary central gear--and made the horses go up and down.

Once the mechanism was working, Natalie wrote a computer program that played the song And the Band Played On while the carousel rotated. She also decorated the carousel with some non-LEGO art materials--an idea she got from attending the Kinetic Art mini-workshop. At the end, Natalie reflected on her experiences: "Learning has always been a struggle for me. I'm amazed at how much I've learned during the past three weeks. At the start of the workshop, I didn't know how I would fill the time from 9 to 4. Now, there is never enough time in the day." She added: "My students are really reluctant to try new things. I can relate to that. I didn't know anything about Logo or music, and I felt uncomfortable about science. Now when I go back to school, I'll work differently with the students and give them more opportunities to try things. Letting the students do things hands-on will make them feel more engaged and make learning more personal."

* Pole-balancing machine. In the orientation session for the workshop, Seymour Papert led the teachers in an experiment. He asked the teachers to try to balance a yardstick vertically on their hands. Then he asked them to try to balance a pencil the same way. This experiment led to a discussion: why is a yardstick easier to balance than a pencil? At one point, Seymour wondered aloud whether it would be possible to build a LEGO machine that could balance a pole on its "hand."

Kip Perkins of the Atrium School took up the challenge. He built a LEGO cart that moved along racks, and he placed a 1.5-meter wooden pole on top of the cart. He used just a single sensor for feedback: the sensor indicated which direction the pole was leaning. Kip "cheated" a bit to make the problem easier--he constrained the pole so that it could move in only one dimension, and he put a wing at the top of the pole to slow its motion. Still, many of us felt that Kip would not be able to make the machine work. We were wrong. By the end of the workshop, Kip's machine was reliably balancing the pole. His program was remarkably simple: it simply made the cart move (with a slight time delay) in the direction that the pole was leaning.

* Fireworks machine. The Sunday before the workshop began, Irene Hall went to watch the annual July 4 fireworks along the Charles River in Boston. So, when she sat down to work on a LogoWriter program on the first day of the workshop, she decided to draw fireworks on the screen. The next day, at the introductory LEGO/Logo workshop, Irene (who teaches at the Leonard School) decided to continue with the same theme and build a fireworks machine.

Irene wasn't sure how to build a mechanism for throwing the fireworks, so she consulted the book The Way Things Work by David Macauley. She tried several different mechanisms: a spring, a cam, and finally a catapult. Irene used the catapult mechanism to throw glitter into the air--and ultimately onto a paper that had been covered with glue. The result was an interesting pattern of glitter glued to the paper. By the end of the workshop, Irene had developed a complete multimedia presentation. While the Logo turtle drew fireworks on the screen, the computer played the William Tell Overture and the LEGO machine threw glitter into the air. Said Irene: "I followed a path that just developed. That's why I learned so much. This exploration feels like everything learning should be about."

* International drawbridge. Ida Fallows, one of three Costa Rican teachers attending the workshop, had never seen a drawbridge before coming to Boston for the workshop. So Ida had no doubt what she wanted to do for her LEGO/Logo project. She looked through various LEGO building instructions until she found a mechanism that reminded her of the drawbridge. She built the mechanism according to the LEGO plans, then added some extra features to make it look more like the drawbridge she had seen.

When Ida was about to start programming her drawbridge, she discovered that another teacher, Steve Wachman of the Brimmer and May School, had been building a LEGO boat with motorized paddle wheels. So Ida and Steve decided to work together. Steve found a rolling cart in another lab and filled it with water. (As he put it: "I borrowed an ocean.") They put the boat and bridge into the water, added a light and optosensor, then wrote a program to coordinate the whole system. Whenever the boat passed in front of the optosensor, the drawbridge opened and gave the boat a chance to pass through. Finally, Ida added a song to the computer program: as the drawbridge opened, the computer played a Costa Rican children's song about a boat that couldn't navigate.

* Mardi Gras. The Kinetic Art workshop captured the imaginations of several teachers, including Sharon Beck of the Ellis School. Sharon wanted to build something that would evoke the carnival-like atmosphere of the annual Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. She combined LEGO motors and gears with a variety of non-LEGO materials, including pipe cleaners and flashy colored paper with optical patterns. One LEGO motor catapulted confetti into the air, while also controlling the dance of a pipe-cleaner turtle. A second motor spun a dazzling array of optical patterns. With both motors on, the LEGO machine turned into a lively and colorful work of art. Another teacher told Sharon: "We'll be thinking of you at Mardi Gras time."

* LEGO/Logo zoo. For a long time, Steve Ocko and I have talked about building a LEGO/Logo zoo, using LEGO sensors to monitor animal activity. During the workshop, we decided to give it a try. We bought a hamster and brought it into the lab. By coincidence, one of the teachers, Julie Fine of the Agassiz School, had also brought her hamster to the workshop. Julie planned to do a video analysis of her hamster running. After talking with us, she decided to work on the LEGO/Logo zoo as well. We attached optosensors to the exercise wheels in each of the hamster cages, and we wrote a program to keep track of how far (how many revolutions) each hamster ran every ten minutes.

The first day, the hamsters slept all day. The program reported a long list of zeros. We were pretty frustrated. But when we came back to the lab the next morning, the computer showed that there had been lots of activity overnight. One hamster ran several hundred revolutions between 8:00 and 10:00 pm. The other hamster ran more than 1000 revolutions between 9:00 pm and midnight. We did a quick calculation and found that the hamster had run nearly a quarter mile! After midnight, both hamsters apparently went back to sleep. We continued to monitor the hamsters' activity for the next week. The hamsters ran exclusively at night, usually in two-hour bursts of activity. But our results weren't entirely reliable: several nights, one of the hamsters gnawed through the LEGO wires.

* Cybernetic house. At one of the tutorials during the workshop, I showed how analog sensors could be used in connection with LEGO/Logo. We borrowed some analog light and temperature sensors from the Technical Education Research Centers (TERC) in Cambridge. These sensors, which plug into the game port of the computer, can be read with the paddle command in the LEGO/Logo software. I suggested that someone might be interested in building a "cybernetic house"--that is, a house that regulates its own internal conditions.

Dave Mellen, who teaches at the Kingwood Oxford School, decided to work on the cybernetic house as his project. He and his son built a house out of LEGO bricks, and then Dave started adding sensors. He installed the TERC temperature sensor in the wall of the house, and built a fan to cool the house when necessary. The TERC light sensor wasn't responsive over the relevant range, so Dave bought a different light sensor at Radio Shack and added it to the house. Dave's program continually checked the two sensors and then took the necessary actions. If the light intensity dropped below a certain threshold, it would turn on LEGO lights inside the house. If the temperature rose, it would turn on the LEGO fan. Dave saw this as just the beginning: with more sensors and a more complex program, the house could behave almost like a living organism.

Reflections: The Role of Diversity

It is clear that these projects were rich in personal meaning for the teachers. For Costa Rican teacher Ida Fallows, who had recently seen her first drawbridge, the LEGO drawbridge symbolized her visit to the United States. For Natalie Isbitsky, the LEGO carousel symbolized her childhood. The carousel at Revere Beach, which Natalie had ridden as a child, is no longer there. Building a LEGO/Logo carousel was, in Natalie's words, "a way of regaining my youth."

What led to such a flourishing of personally-meaningful projects? The answer, I believe, revolves around the idea of diversity. The environment in our LEGO/Logo workshop encouraged and promoted diversity in several ways. The environment encouraged a diversity of project themes, a diversity of working styles, and a diversity of entry paths.

* Diversity of project themes. Question: What do a xylophone-playing robot, a sensor-monitored hamster cage, a multimedia fireworks display, and a self-regulating house have in common? Answer: Not much. But that is exactly the point. None of the projects in the workshop was "typical." Each was special in its own way.

To a certain extent, this diversity of project themes was a result of the tools we used. Both LEGO and Logo are open-ended construction sets: each can be used in many different ways. But tools alone do not lead to diversity. In organizing the workshop, we made diversity of projects an explicit goal. We didn't want the teachers to have preconceived notions of what LEGO/Logo projects should look like. We encouraged them to explore the boundaries of LEGO and Logo, to try to use the materials in new ways. Of course, we provided models and examples to give teachers a sense of what might be possible. We even suggested that, in the beginning, they might want to try some of the LEGO building instructions to get a "feel" for the LEGO materials. But we encouraged the teachers not to feel constrained in choosing themes for their longer-term projects. We wanted the teachers to be free to develop projects that were personally meaningful to them.

* Diversity of working styles. Different people work in different ways. Some people like to develop a plan then execute it; others like to tinker with the materials, letting a plan emerge as they work. Some people like to work in groups; others like to work alone. If a workshop (or a classroom) encourages and supports only some of these styles, some people will be left out. Only if a workshop respects and supports a diversity of working styles will participants feel comfortable enough to work on personally-meaningful projects.

Consider, for example, the question of collaborative vs. individual work. LEGO/Logo can serve as an ideal environment for people to work together as a team. Consider a group of people collaborating on a LEGO/Logo factory. One approach is for each person to build an individual machine, then to link all of the machines together. Another approach is for one person to work on building the machines while another works on the programming. The value of collaboration was clear in the drawbridge project that Ida Fallows and Steve Wachman worked on together. The LEGO/Logo zoo can also be viewed as a collaboration--between the "teachers" (Steve and me) and the "student" (Julie Fine). Such teacher-student collaborations (regrettably rare in most school classrooms) can be rich learning experiences for both sides.

But for all of the benefits of collaboration, people sometimes need to work alone. Consider the case of Natalie Isbitsky. For the first several days of the SWL workshop, Natalie collaborated with another teacher in building a conveyor belt. That was a good learning experience, but Natalie didn't really get involved in the LEGO/Logo activity until she began working on the carousel. She felt much more of a personal stake in the carousel. She had a clear and compelling vision of what she wanted to do. It was her project.

Carole Carter went through a similar progression. From the very start of the workshop, she knew that she wanted to build a robot to play the xylophone. For the first few days, two other teachers worked with Carole on the project. The other teachers suggested that they put a rack on the xylophone, so that the xylophone could move back and forth. Carole preferred to make the robot, not the xylophone, move. (After all, that's the way it is in the real world.) Being a good team member, Carole agreed to put the xylophone on a rack, but inside she was feeling frustrated. After a few days, the other teachers lost interest in the project. Carole was relieved. She took the rack off of the xylophone, and continued with the project as she had originally envisioned it.

* Diversity of entry paths. The books accompanying the LEGO/Logo kit present a sequence of introductory activities involving LEGO cars and traffic lights. For some students and some teachers, these activities provide a good introduction to LEGO building and Logo programming. But these activities represent only one of many possible entry paths for LEGO/Logo. Cars and traffic lights do not appeal to all teachers or all students. Alternate entry paths are needed to capture the imaginations of other teachers and students.

Kinetic Art represents one alternative. During the SWL workshop, about a dozen teachers worked on some sort of Kinetic Art project. For several of these teachers, Kinetic Art fundamentally changed the way they viewed LEGO/Logo. These teachers had started out by building LEGO cars or other "standard" LEGO machines. But it wasn't until they worked on Kinetic Art projects that they became excited about LEGO/Logo. Kinetic Art resonated with these teachers. Finally, they had something that they really wanted to make.

The Kinetic Art activity could help address what some people see as a gender bias in the introductory LEGO/Logo activities involving cars and traffic lights. Although both boys and girls have participated enthusiastically in these activities, some people worry that the boys feel a stronger personal involvement in the car-related activities. They worry that the girls, while participating, aren't as emotionally involved in the projects, and thus do not have as rich a learning experience.

Alternative entry paths for LEGO/Logo can help ease this problem. The teachers who built Kinetic Art sculptures at the SWL workshop were just as sophisticated in their use of LEGO materials as anyone else. In short, Kinetic Art seems like a excellent alternative approach for introducing LEGO/Logo. That is not to say that Kinetic Art is the right approach for everyone. There is no one "right approach." For the future, we need to develop more alternative paths, so that more teachers (and children) can make deep personal connections with LEGO/Logo.


Most of all, I would like to thank all of the teachers who participated in the Science and Learning Workshop. I would also like to thank the Epistemology and Learning Group members (particularly Steve Ocko and Natalie Rusk) who supported LEGO/Logo activities during the workshop. Funding for our work with LEGO/Logo has been provided by the LEGO Group and the National Science Foundation (Grants 851031-0195, MDR-8751190, and TPE-8850449).

An earlier version of this article appeared (under the title "Making Projects Personal: Reflections on a LEGO/Logo Workshop") in Logo Exchange (vol. 8, no. 5), Jan. 1990.


Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. (1991). Constructionism. Ablex Publishing. Norwood, NJ.

Papert, S. (1986). "Constructionism: A New Opportunity for Elementary Science Education," a proposal to the National Science Foundation.

Resnick, M., S. Ocko, and S. Papert (1988). "LEGO, Logo, and Design," Children's Environments Quarterly (vol. 5, no. 4).