Elements of a Big Brain Storm: part 1 (the lightning)


On Mondays and Wednesdays from 5 to 7pm in The Big-Brained Superheroes Club, Big-Brained Superheroes drop in and engage in Big Brain Storm activities, which we loosely group into three interrelated categories: Recycled Robotics, Math and Spatial Relationship Skill-building, and Storytelling. Though relatively confident in our collective ability to nerd up nearly any activity (’what’ is generally much less important than ‘how’ for us), there is at least a tiny bit of method to our madness in all things. Here are the ‘what’ we do in Big Brain Storm meetings and our understood rationale for doing it:


What: Recycled Robotics, involving:

  • Micro:bit/Scratch/CODE.org,
  • Circuits and electronics,
  • Binary math, switches, and digital logic,
  • 3D and 2D art with recycled materials

Some Examples:

Why: Where to start? There are a myriad of ways in which to understand the ‘why’ behind our gravitation toward recycled robotics, but let’s stick with a few of the moderately prosaic reasons for now. Big Brains use recycled robotics as a platform to explore several useful concepts related to technological, human, and social development:

  • Ar-ti-cu-la-tion: In many ways, understanding how to build a robot can be analogous to understanding how we build ourselves. When we’re developing robots, we are thinking about their inputs (their observations and influences from the physical world), their desired outputs (the specific ways in which we want them to affect or influence the world), and their processes—both intentional (code) and unintentional (bugs)—that connect, or fail to connect, their inputs and their outputs. In our ideal world, Big-Brained Superheroes have infinite power over each of these elements of their own lives, and gaining that power can, if we do it right, start through analyzing and manipulating them externally—in this case, through building robots.
  • Connection: Sure, it’s perfectly fine to build fully independent robots, but we’d rather build robots that respond to and initiate communication (behavioral or otherwise) with each other or some other part of The Big-Brained Superhero Universe. In our ideal world, not only do Big-Brained Superheroes have ultimate power over how they observe, understand, and interact with the world as individuals, they think about the systemic affects of their individual actions and how systems in turn affect them. Placing our robots in an interactive world in which communication drives communication gives us a useful opportunity to discuss how our own communications influence each other.
  • Creativity: Creativity, generally, and metaphorical thinking, in particular, are ways in which human and social development have thus far diverged from technological development. We’ve learned how to create robots to analyze and interact with the world, but we haven’t yet learned to create a robot that can look at a pile of used cardboard and plastic packaging material and envision a robot. So, using recyclables to create our robots gives us an opportunity to exercise those more complex functions of our brains that make Big-Brained Superheroes creators of worlds rather than just products of them.

What: Math and Spatial Reasoning Skill-building, including:

  • Building with LEGO, Magformer, and wooden blocks,
  • Symmetrical art with recycled materials,
  • Prodigy and Osmo

Some Examples:

Why: Though this activity class started out as a way to fulfill the immediate wants and needs of Big-Brained Super Shorties (Big Brains roughly 7 and under), it has evolved as a fundamental platform for engaging and nerding up Big Brains of all ages and interests. We’ve used the materials in all kinds of randomly fun ways, including in completing what we call The LEGO Challenge (finding an image in a book and challenging Brains to build it out of LEGO in a timed situation and then having the rest of the club evaluate their work), using the dots on the LEGO pieces to discuss how addition, multiplication, and fractions work, and making things float with Magformers. To name a few. These stations are always available to Big Brains during Big Brain Storms and thus can also serve as social play areas during project breaks.

Aside from all the immediate value that we see ourselves, we are persuaded as to the longer term value of these activities by the social science on them:

Spatial skills are positively correlated with standardized test scores, motivation for learning, STEM major declaration, and number of science courses taken. Our analysis also indicates that the cumulative, informal training of childhood play has the ability to increase spatial reasoning. Spatial skill scores were significantly higher among students who played action, construction, or sports video games in childhood. Male and female students display significant differences in spatial skills, especially for mental rotation, with males outperforming females. However, gender disparities are fully mediated after adjusting for a variety of academic factors and whether students frequently played with construction-based toys.

For whatever directions Big-Brained Superheroes choose to go in life, their brains require preparation. Meaningful access to these toys can help make that possible.


What: Storytelling, involving:

  • Videography, photography, and stop-motion,
  • Writing and editing,
  • Drawing,
  • Material art and science

Some Examples:

Why: Again, we have so many reasons underlying our interest in storytelling, it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, if we want to get people to our People, Planets, and PJs Party, it helps to consider what tools we can use to persuade them. And if we’re going to present our Jellyfish Robot at the Black in Tech hackathon at Facebook, we’re going to want to construct our presentation in a way that holds everyone’s interest. And we can go on and on about how good stories engage our brains in helpful ways (empathy, kindness, teamwork—all those superpowers). But all these practical considerations aside, we have a more basic rationale for integrating this category of activities into our Big Brain Storms. The tools and techniques used in storytelling can, when thoughtfully explored and applied, help our Big Brains become better observers, thinkers, and communicators.

If this sounds a lot like our rationale for leveraging Recycled Robotics as a platform in The BBSC, then it should. Input (observation)—process (thinking)—output (communication) can pretty much sum up how we understand what we do in Big Brain Storms as skill in those areas is fairly fundamental to the act of creation. Which is a perfect example of why ‘how’ is much more important to us than ‘what’. As long as we’re conscientiously and skillfully developing these three elements of how Big Brains understand and interact with the world, then our activities can be pretty arbitrary and just as much based in practical constraints and happenstance as anything else. But since we can’t directly see input—process—output, we find it more palatable to discuss the physical platforms through which we explore these elements. In other words, our activities are the lightning in our Big Brain Storms. Part two of this series will consider the thunder.

And now, your reward for getting elemental with us:

You’re welcome.