Circuit Boards and Circuit Boards

I've really enjoyed reading the Coursera forum activity sharing write ups and reflection question discussions over the past five weeks. I saw one person post a question about the circuit board that controlled the toy she took apart, and although I don't have a direct answer as to how the board works, I wanted to share a way we've explored a similar problem in the past.

Here's a screen capture of the post describing her exploration with a board and a switch. I love the last line - "I need to know!"
Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 2.40.16 PM

I've often felt bewildered by the boards inside taken apart toys too. How do they control what they do, and what can you do with them once they're detached from their original device? They're incredibly powerful, but a total black box because you can't see what's moving where or controlling the various elements. Nicole had the idea of turning them into circuit board blocks by observing where the wires went to outputs in the toys, then attaching new wires and nails on a block to see if they could control other things.


They were tricky to construct because the wires were fragile and would sometimes pop off the board before you were ready to detach them. If you couldn't find the exact point where it was soldered on, it was unsalvageable (for us). For the ones where we were able to attach new wires to the original points, we tested them by hooking them up to lights and other motor driven toy parts. It was so fun to see toys moving back and forth or turning on and off on their own!

Circuit Board with Controller from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo.

After a few tests in the Learning Studio with explainers, we decided to try them out on the floor and at Maker Faire. They were pretty fragile and required an extra level of facilitation to introduce them to visitors. For example, the controllers could be "fried" if you hook them up with too much power, so we provided battery packs that were the same voltage as the original toy and cautioned people against adding extra batteries.

Maker Faire 2014

After Maker Faire, most of the boards were in need of repairs. We're putting these prototypes on hold for now, but it was a great way to explore using parts of take apart toys that we usually discard, and gave me a whole lot more insight into their potential for future tinkering.


Familiar Materials for Unusual Circuits

Over the past couple weeks, it has been great to check out the rebelmouse page for inspirations and innovations from participants in our coursera course as they build scribbling machines, sewn circuits and other electricity-minded projects.

I was intrigued by Marlene's coin cell battery holder using a key cover and a metal brad. It's super simple and and looks like it works great. I especially like how these materials are much cheaper than the sew on battery packs and show evience of tinkering in the design.

It reminded me of another novel approach to attaching motors and batteries for a electric vehicle activity from the Ecsite conference earlier this summer. Xander from the TrashLab used pushpins and paperclips soldered to the components to make homemade switches.

These connections could easily be adjusted and reconfigured to turn the propeller on and off. I like how both of these examples use extremely common materials to create electrical connections. These types of solutions can inform what kind of materials to use with different activities and can really make circuits more approachable.



rain-sensing umbrella

We are always looking for new ways to experiement with circuits in the Tinkering Studio, and when you're looking for inspiration, it's hard to beat Forrest M. Mims III's books. He uses simple, familiar materials to build sensors and circuits, with really clear illustrations and explanations to boot. I love his hand-drawn illustrations, too. They are inviting and accessible, which is not something I usually think when I see circuit diagrams. 

I was particularly inspired by this rain-sensor, and I had to try it out.

rain sensor

I started by building a simple version of the sensor with copper tape and LEDs. It's tricky prototyping in the rain, so I tested the circuit out in our workshop first, where I used a pipette to simulate the raindrops.

When the drops bridged the gaps between the strips of copper tape, they completed the circuit and the LEDs lit up. I was really surprised how responsive the LEDs were. The amount of water bridging the gaps between the strips of copper tape really affected the brightness of the LEDS. The more water was on the sensor, the more electricity flowed through the LEDs, and the brighter they glowed. As the water evaporated, the LEDs slowly faded. The result was really lovely.

The next step was putting the sensor to some practical use, and trying it out in the real world. I thought it would be neat to have a rain-activated umbrella that would light up when it rained. The greyer and gloomier the day, the brighter the umbrella would glow. 

Luckily, the copper tape has a sticky side, so it was easy to attach the circuit to an umbrella. I made the sensor larger on the umbrella, to increase the chances of detecting raindrops. I soldered on a lot of little blue LEDs, and I added some rhinestones for flair. Then I waited for it to rain, and I took it outside . . .  

Rain Umbrella

And waited . . . 

Rain Umbrella

And it worked! I love that it's possible to make an environment-responsive circuit with something as simple as copper tape, raindrops, and LEDs. It makes you wonder what else is possible . . . 


toy taxidermy

One way to construct knowledge is by deconstructing something to see how it works, and one of our favorite things to take apart in the Tinkering Studio is mechanical toys. There are some really interesting mechanisms inside, and it's a great way to play around with and learn about circuits. One thing that has always bugged me, though, is what to do with the toy after you've taken it apart. After all, that's where it really starts to get interesting. It might be because I'm from Texas, where taxidermy is pretty common, but I thought that might be a good (if slightly twisted) way to display the inner workings of a mechanical toy. 


Toy taxidermy



Stop Motion Deconstruction

Dan Riles, a participant in our Coursera class - Fundamentals of Tinkering, created this nice little stop motion animation that shows how he deconstructed his prehistoric Goodwill find.

He remixed the innards into something new:

We think of taking something apart as a tinkering rite of passage and Toy Take Apart in particular is a Tinkering Studio favorite.  If you haven't tried it yourself - What are you waiting for?  Grab a battery operated toy and get going!