Making, Tinkering & Engineering: What's the Difference?

Making, tinkering, and engineering activities are all excellent ways to engage children and youth in afterschool and summer programs. A search of all three terms provides a myriad of activities that range from simple to complex, and that use materials from the standard kitchen or desktop items to computers and 3D printers. The kind of activities you choose will depend on your goals.

Making is the broadest and most expansive of the three kinds of activities. While it is essentially building something by hand with the use of various tools and materials, the idea of “making” has developed into a movement with many participants. Make Magazine is clear that there is no single definition of a “Maker.” That would exclude too many people.

Humans are, by their very nature, Makers and the movement is one of celebration. We celebrate our humanity by rejoicing in the creative making that our planetary cohabitants partake in. Adam Savage worded this in a very eloquent way: “Humans do two things that make us unique from all other animals; we use tools and we tell stories. And when you make something, you’re doing both at once.”

Tinkering involves making, but it is more specific. It has been studied by teams of researchers and practitioners, who have identified the various ways that tinkering differs from other maker activities, and described what students learn from it.

Tinkering is a branch of making that emphasizes creative, improvisational problem-solving. It centers on the open-ended design and construction of objects or installations, generally using both high- and low-tech.

Making and tinkering model

The relationship between tinkering and making is shown by the diagram above. It is intended to show that all tinkering activities involve making something. However many making activities, especially those that are less creative, do not fit a definition of tinkering.

The Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio shares activities and information about tinkering. The tinkering approach recognizes that when faced with a collection of materials, it’s difficult to start creating something from scratch. Therefore, tinkering usually begins with a simple “make” activity, in which participants follow instructions to create something quickly and simply. They are then given time and materials to modify the object to reflect their own creative ideas. To function well, the initial object needs to be easily modified so that as individuals or teams continue to work, their ideas may develop, making them more complex and unique.

Engineering is similar to tinkering in that it engages students deeply in a creative activity. Its distinguishing feature is that it is driven by a need, problem, or desire. Engineering involves a design process that often (though not always) involves researching and defining the problem in terms of criteria for success and constraints, or limits, such as available time, money, or materials. Later stages involve developing a number of different possible solutions, deciding which is the most likely to solve the problem, then making a model or prototype of the solution and testing to see if it solves the problem. Engineering may also involve a further step, called optimization, in which the solution is further improved.

Although engineering usually involves making something, that’s not always the case. For example, consider an afterschool program in which the facilitator wants to increase youth voice by involving them in planning a family night. A good starting point would be to ask the youth what they’d like the family night to achieve (defining the problem), and what they might like to do during the event (brainstorming solutions.) They could discuss how the evening might play out (modeling), then engaging them in conducting the evening (testing), and afterward engaging them in a discussion about how the next family night could be improved (optimization.)

Making, tinkering, and engineering can also work together. A making activity can be used to familiarize youth with methods and materials, followed by a tinkering component that can help them become more engaged and creative, and then by an engineering challenge where they put their learning to work in solving a meaningful problem. Here’s an example.

Whirligigs (adapted from the Exploratorium’s website) can start with a maker activity in which youth cut and fold the shape shown at right to make an object that spins as it falls like a maple seed. This can be modified to be a tinkering activity by giving students different kinds of paper and thin cardboard and inviting them to make different shapes to see how they fall. The activity can be further modified to become an engineering activity by challenging them to create a shape that will fall as slowly as possible for use as a parachute. To deepen the engineering context, the facilitator can play the short NASA video Seven Minutes of Terror, which describes the engineering involved in designing a spacecraft that will land on Mars, then challenge the youth to design a whirligig that would land as slowly as possible on a planet with a thick atmosphere, such as Titan, a moon of Saturn.

whirligigs plan

This diagram illustrates how engineering activities relate to making and tinkering activities. Notice the large overlap between the Making and Engineering circles. This illustrates that engineering often involves students in making a physical object, but in some cases, engineering uses other means of solving problems. Activities in the Engineering circle also overlap with the Tinkering circle, because youth doing a tinkering project might be trying to solve some project of their own choosing. However, in some cases, youth could be elaborating on a making project using their own ideas without any particular goal in mind.

making, tinkering, and engineering model

A matter of goals. Why is the distinction important for your afterschool or summer program? As you improve your ability to choose the best activities for the children or youth in your program, you will become better at choosing just the right activity for their needs at any given time. Since maker activities are hands-on, kids nearly always enjoy them. If you feel they need opportunities to be more creative, these maker activities can be the launching points for tinkering. And as they become more familiar with the materials and technologies that they’ve experienced, it may be time to help them develop engineering skills that can serve them well in life, either by encouraging them to pursue engineering in school or to find more effective ways to approach problems in their daily lives.


About the author

Cary was not always interested in engineering—or at least he didn’t know that he was. For as long as he can remember he was interested in astronomy. He read all he could find about it, and when he was in middle school his father bought him a small telescope. In high school Cary built his own telescopes, grinding mirrors and designing and building mountings. All this time he thought he was doing science. Today, he recognizes that like many scientists, he especially enjoyed the engineering part of the work.