Tin foil sculptures

I loved Cale’s tinfoil sculptures so much I decided to share the post on the Exploratorium blog. It inspired one of our staff to share a photo of one of her son’s tin foil sculptures back with me. I was both touched that she felt inspired to share this piece of art and impressed with the expressiveness this 8 year old breathed into his sculpture. The artist was once an Explainer and is now working on a masters in art in Yale. You can see he’s got the touch.



Foil as an insulator?

The announcement of foil as the material of choice came at the perfect time.  We were in the process of working ideas out for a week-long celebration called “Cool Science.”  Our marketing director passed along the great idea of a melting contest each afternoon of the celebration, which we coined “Afternoon Melt-down.”

So, I knew we could melt stuff outside, but what stuff? And how interesting would it be to literally watch ice cream melt on the sidewalk?  A whole flurry of ideas followed (melting candy, freezing marshmallow creme in nitrogen and watching it slowly melt; velveeta and butter soon followed-thanks to Terri Mouton and Sam Dean for the tasty and messy ideas).

I wanted to find a way that guests could participate in the experience and not stand outside of it.  Thanks to a flash of divine insight, the idea occurred to me to challenge guests to find ways to make popsicles melt more slowly.  This is where foil played an amazing role!  We gave guests choices of materials: bubble wrap, cotton balls,biodegradable packing peanuts, newsprint or foil.

They placed their “insulated” popsicles in the sun, next to my “naked” or uninsulated popsicle and we waited in the 110 degree heat until my popsicle melted-202 seconds!  Once my popsicle melted, then they would check their popsicle and were invited to eat their popsicle as a way to test the effectiveness of their insulating material.

Quite a few guests used foil to “protect” their popsicle, one stating that that foil could deflect the heat, another mentioning that light would bounce off the foil away from their popsicle.  Another guest did not use foil b/c he reasoned that it would make the popsicle melt faster, citing that foil is used to keep things hot in the oven.    While this activity has been very popular with guests who will brave the afternoon heat, the power I found in it was the ability to use the postings  here within our group to breathe life into my work and to find new ways to think about guest experiences with a simple material.

On a side note that has nothing to do with foil: another way we involved guests in Afternoon Melt-down was to create an online poll on polleverywhere.com, asking guests to text their prediction of the fastest melting objects to the site.  We project a graph of their answers in one of our studios, along with the directions on how to post. The graph changes each time a guest texts a response.

700 Square Feet of Sculptures

Ahhh, good old aluminum foil. No tinker’s workshop is complete without a roll of at least one of the elements on the periodic table.

Here at the DHDC, we’ve been using the materials from the Guild to spark visitor interactions. This week, our explainers have been busy sharing aluminum foil pieces with museum guests and asking the open-ended question “What can you make?”

This was so popular with the explainers that it quickly became a regular occurrence in our Science Cafe, where visitors used table space to craft their little hearts out. Some visitors could be persuaded to leave their creations with us so we could put them on display, so a wall of fame was born.

And it grew and grew.

I showed some children how to “cast” items in aluminum by pressing the foil over a surface.

Some children found interesting things to cast.

And those creations turned out to be pretty robust.

Then, the aluminum foil facilitators began to wander around the museum. They discovered that visitors could be coaxed to make aluminum foil T-Rex claws, which prompted many children to play dramatically in our traveling dinosaur exhibit. These wildly slashing dinosaur children turned out to be very difficult to photograph.

Pretty soon, the claws were a meme within the Discovery Center. Now, no matter where we gave the children aluminum foil, they made dinosaur claws for their fingers. Even if we weren’t in the dinosaur exhibit, and even when we didn’t provide instructions on how to make claws, the children made what they saw other children had made.


And they remained just as difficult to photograph as before.

Well, the next day we gave no instruction and returned to saying “What can you make?” We got no dinosaur claws, and everything was a surprise again. Guess what this dude is making:

While his sister made a wallet.

The summer camp kids got in on the action. This little gal made a line of accessories to help her dress up like a witch, which included long fingernails and a magical bracelet.

The boy behind her proved you’re never too young to chuck the deuces in the back of a photo. He retrieved his aluminum foil dagger and crown, and an epic battle unfurled.

This raged on for quite some time, and I was lucky to escape without injury while capturing the action.

We learned a lot about facilitating an open-ended creative activity, and we became more aware of how the surroundings often dictate the products our visitors make. I think we’ll continue to work with aluminum foil to hone these skills in the coming weeks.

Michael Faraday Defeats Cell Phones From Beyond the Grave – and more!

The theme is aluminum foil. Aluminum is a conductor! Foil is easy to shape!

To my mind, it’s pretty obvious what to do next: Faraday cages! Faraday cages are basically conductive boxes that shield whatever is inside it from electromagnetic radiation – basically, since EM radiation is just changing electric and magnetic fields, and these fields push electrons around, the electrons in a conductor naturally settle in a configuration where the net force (and thus the fields) is zero. Then, inside the box, there is no field. My first encounter with Faraday cages was in high school robotics, when we accidentally put our electronics board inside one, making it impossible for us to communicate with the robot! We fixed that up right quick…

I made a Faraday cage to shield my phone from the carrier signal. Faraday cages are very good at blocking DC fields – ones that don’t change. But cell phone signals (and, really, signals in general, such as mind-control ones) are AC – they change. If the conductor is too thin, the signal will be able to penetrate the cage. The skin depth is the thickness at which the signal drops to about 1/3 its original strength; it goes up with the resistivity of the material and down with the frequency of the signal. Since I’m using aluminum (low resistivity) and a cell phone (~100kHz frequency), the skin depth is very low – if you do the math all the way out it’s about .06 millimeters, or about 3 mils. I figured I should get at least 3x the skin depth (so that the signal goes to 1/27 of its original strength) – so about 0.2 millimeters. This turned out to be 12 layers of the aluminum foil we have at the Learning Studio; aluminum foil is surprisingly thin!

My beat-up phone gets 5 bars of signal in the Learning Studio.

I made a little pocket for my phone, and put it in.

I didn’t close off the pocket at first; even like that I was able to see that my signal had gone down from 5 bars to 1 bar. I took my phone out of the aluminum foil and texted it from Google Voice – within seconds, my phone buzzed. “Ooh, a text!”

I then put my phone in the aluminum foil, closed it up real good, and texted it again.

Minutes passed with no activity. I gave in and took the phone out of the foil. The signal had completely gone away – the indicator said “Searching…” After a few seconds, I connected to the T-Mobile network and got another text: “faraday is a chump”.

You win, Faraday. Our advanced cell phone technology is no match for your discoveries about electromagnetism.

So does this mean that tin-foil hats would actually stop you from being mind-controlled by the government? Not really. I made a cell-phone-sized tinfoil hat with the aluminum foil, and the signal only went from 5 bars to 4 bars.

It simply does not cover enough area, even though I simulated a full-face motorcycle helmet. I guess we all have to resign ourselves to being government slaves forever…

Foiled Again! Again!

Man, museum educators much be a bunch of hungry, hungry hippos.  I’ve seen a definite theme in this week’s challenge, and it sure looks delicious!  Since I hadn’t looked at the website before embarking on my own exploration, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a lot of folks were also thinking about foil as a cooking material.

My husband Daniel and I have often talked about cooking food while driving long distances.  Evidently a large community of people online also share this curiosity: they have published their perfected means of cooking on the road.  Some strap foil packs to motorcycle exhaust pipes, while others use the car cab as a giant solar cooker.  We opted for another method: cooking on our 2002 Corrolla’s engine block.

First, we made a pouch with three layers of foil.  I rolled the sides up really well to ensure liquids couldn’t escape.

We opted for chicken filets, frozen peas, and onion as ingredients.  I’d suggest using foods with a large margin of error; our onions were a little underdone by the time we finished our project.  Frozen vegetables work very well!  Pre-cooked meats or small portions of raw meat would be best, if you’re an omnivore like us.  We lightly coated the ingredients in olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Be very sparing with your liquid content!  We had a sauce for the chicken that we wanted to use–it came in an individually sealed plastic sack.  Since we were really worried about liquid seeping out and burning off on the exhaust manifold, we kept the sauce in the plastic and stuck it into the packet wholesale to avoid seepage.

Next, you need to figure out where to place your fancy foil packet.  Since we couldn’t locate an infrared thermometer, we used the next best thing: spit and a finger.  After singing my fingers several times, I (eventually, after driving an hour only to find a cold pack of meat) found that the exhaust manifold was the optimal spot on Ol’ Faithful’s block.

The above photo is of the first, failed spot for the pack.  I originally chose the “air cleaner” for a cooking surface because it sat higher than the manifold.  I wanted to really squish the food into place so it wouldn’t slide out at 80 miles an hour.  As noted above, halfway through our drive we discovered it to not be a great conductor.  Truth be told, it made me feel better about the construction of our Toyota!

On top of the pack, we made large, loosely wadded-up balls of foil.  The idea is that once you slam the hood, the balls will squish down and hold the meat in place.  If you’re really nervous, make a foil cone to place on your surface.  Slam the hood on the cone and use its height to determine how large your foil balls need to be.  Your pack and foil balls need to be as high or higher than the profile of the squished cone.

Once in place, drive!  Our meat finished cooking after about an hour of highway driving.

Delicious, delicious results.

Engine block cooking is a great way to make lunch and benefit from the co-generative properties of a somewhat inefficient machine.  On an upcoming trip to Amarillo (hello, DHDC!), we’re going to make hot dogs and try to find a way to toast buns.  That is, if we aren’t too full from steak at the Big Texan.

Let me know if you try this project!

-Adrienne from the Oklahoma Museum Network