Homemade Switches in Afterschool

In our partnership with Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland we spent the last semester focusing on circuits. After a brief exploration of Circuit Boards we decided to try diving into ideas of conductivity and insulation more deeply by making our own homemade switches. The day's exploration began by students investigating simple battery packs and lights to see what questions they could ask with a limited set of materials, then deepened their explorations as we added materials like traditional switches, buzzers, motors, toy parts, and more. After gaining some experience with that set of materials, we provided a collection of conductive and insulating materials to explore making their own switches to control the circuits they built. 


As an activity, we like making homemade switches because:

  • They allow learners to deepen their understanding of how electricity flows through a circuit.
  • The activity uses familiar materials in unfamiliar ways; learners can explore everyday objects and test their conductivity.
  • Making switches provides real experience with creating open and closed (and sometimes short!) circuits.

This student explored mixing two boards together to so a fan could control a wind-powered switch.


After exploring a tilt switch at the beginning of her process, Katrina decided to make a ball run switch where a ball bearing turns on the light at the end. She also chose to document her switch on video to capture how it works in action!

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Ahmed wanted to find out if the circuit board switches work similarly to a Makey Makey so he took an orange from snack time to test its conductivity (it didn't work, but led to an interesting conversation on resistance and current).


Marla wanted to try using conductive thread in her switch and created a potentiometer that dims and brightens a light depending on the length of the thread the circuit passes through.


For making switches, it's helpful to have a collection of conductive and non-conductive (insulating) everyday materials. Some examples of things to try are:

Aluminum foil, thick and thin craft foam, clothespins, thumbtacks, copper tape, aluminum tape, steel ball bearings, bottle caps, corks, popsicle sticks, tongue depressors, assorted metallic objects, springs, slinkys, recyclables, hook up wire, copper wire, feathers, balloons, paper & cardboard, coins, tin cans, metal pots & pans, spoons, forks, knives, cups, funnels, play-doh, graphite (pencil lead)

You'll also want to use 3-6V AA battery packs to power your circuits and have outputs to control like lights, buzzers, and motors. You can find more information on building these pieces in our Circuit Boards Activity Guide

To get started making your homemade switches, it's helpful to test out your materials to discover what conducts electricity and what acts as an insulator. Some materials may surprise you; for example, some bottle caps have a plastic coating that makes them non-conductive even though they're made out of metal. Once you have a sense of your materials' conductivity, experiment with joining and separating different conductive materials to make your circuit turn on and off. You can make a quick, simple switch with two pieces of aluminum foil separated with a donut of craft foam. The foam holds the pieces separate until you push on the center of the top piece of foil to bring the two sheets together to complete the circuit. Clothespins can make switches that are always on or always off, depending on where you place your conductive materials.

It can also be fun to think of a "task" for your switch to do, then build out ideas to help complete that task. You can make an alarm if someone opens your cookie jar, a light that turns on when you sit on your reading chair, or a fan attached to your phone that blows your hair for taking awesome selfies.

To see some examples in action, you can check out this video Nicole made showcasing all sorts of different techniques for making switches out of everyday objects.

Building homemade switches is a great extension to circuit boards, and provides opportunities for complexifying your ideas related to circuit building. Give it a try and tell us what you think!


Overdeck Family Foundation

This collaboration is funded by the Overdeck Foundation and the National Science Foundation.


Scratch Paper Sound Experiments

Over the past couple of weeks, Nicole and I have been preparing for a workshop for the upcoming Scratch Conference at MIT Media Lab around programming paper circuits. We started to experiment with these ideas a few months ago when we hosted a BAME meetup for a half-baked smorgasbord of programming provocations.

As we've continued refining the materials, tools, and prompts for tinkering with scratch, we've focused on paper circuit explorations as a way to introduce both the scratch programming language and arduino connections. And as we investigate the ideas around computational tinkering, we are trying to think about compelling outcomes that require programming to function. To this end, I got interested in investigating sound sensing and music visualizers and made a series of prototypes as my understanding developed.


The first thing that I made was a traditional paper circuit with a shared negative connection copied from a design that I saw on Becca Rose's blog. IMG_5825

This pattern got me thinking about those little sound visualizers on stereos and I put together another version of the circuit with different colored lights.


I used scratchx arduino extension, an experimental version of the block based programming language built by the scratch team, to program the paper circuit. Nicole mounted the arduino boards on wooden blocks and connected the pins to copper nails to facilitate easy connections to the paper circuit projects. Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 9.54.30 AM

I wrote a code that used the microphone on my computer to sense volume and connected the series of lights so that the bar increased with the volume. After a little tweaking to change the brightness and delay on the lights, I was happy with how this worked.


Nicole suggested that we try to make some less linear designs so I constructed a more complicated and organic circuit. It was nice to switch back and forth from the programming to the paper circuit construction with the idea that I could test out a new design with the same code.

IMG_5877 from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo. I cut our a sunburst design from beetleblocks and added a vellum backdrop to allow for color blending and mixing. I was amazed with how fast it was possible to create a really compelling art piece using these simple materials for tinkering. IMG_6190

As we continued exploring the ideas around programmed paper circuits, Nicole and I tried making other examples incorporating elements of collage, narrative, and storytelling. I made a card with three robots and returned to the idea of sounds visualization. I tried something that was more complicated from the programming side, with each robot only lighting up with it's own sound.

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It required creating three sprites each with separate variables and broadcast messages (although maybe there are easier ways to accomplish the same outcome). It took about forty-five minutes for me to figure out the program, but I was really happy when it finally worked. IMG_6199

The robot coding project represented a lot of iterations and ideas around the same theme. To me this both emphasizes the possibilities for going deep with the ideas and materials but also the necessity with starting simple with low threshold points of entry. As we continue to develop the activity, it will be important for us to remember our process as learners in these activities, starting small and not expecting complex designs as we get started. In the next post I'll share some of the other insights we've gathered as we've started collecting materials and trying the activity with our colleagues in the learning studio.


A New Makerspace at Fabrica Ciencia Viva

Last month, after the Ecsite conference in Graz, I had the chance to visit Fabrica Centro de Ciencia Viva, a science museum in northern Portugal where they are just getting going with a dedicated space for making and tinkering.


The science center has an inspiring setting in a building in a former cereal factory in a central location in the city of Aveiro. IMG_4889

I loved that the old grain milling equipment remains in the museum as part of the visitor experience. There are lots of nooks and crannies for kids to play with and explore as they move around galleries with exhibits and art installations.


I spent two days with the team to try some activities together and reflect on our process as learners while keeping in mind the ways these ideas might influence the design of the space and strategies for training facilitators. The group already had some experiences with making and tinkering so it was great to see their ideas take shape as we built scribbling machines and paper circuits IMG_5016


Each time we try these activities, especially when in a new location, we see new thinking and goals emerge. This was especially the case for the paper circuits workshop session where people immeadiately skipped to 3D designs like paper airplanes and origami structures. One group combined projects and taking inspiration from the iconic nearby lighthouse and beach houses, they created a light-up diorama of the local landmarks. IMG_5087

At the same time we were messing around with tinkering activities, construction crews were putting the finishing touches on the future makerspace. I got to witness the team painting the walls, delivering sturdy work tables, and experimenting with environmental elements like light and sound. It will be great to see next steps for this group as they continue to draw on their experiences with making and tinkering to develop a space where they can share projects and activities with museum visitors.


Ecsite 2016 Dissect, Hack and Reimagine Toys Workshop

As Sebastian and I were dreaming up the pop-up makerspace at Ecsite 2016, we talked about running a series of activities that built on each other over time but also provided low-threshold opportunities for participants to join in the workshop along the way. As we brainstormed possible ideas, we were inspired by the twisted toy experiments with Michael Brown back at the PFA and the animatoys workshop at MUST in Milan. We thought about focusing three 1.5 hour long hands-on tinkering sessions in the makerspace on dissecting and reanimating electro-mechanical toys.

Not only would this give us the chance to try out a new extended series of activities, but it would allows us to reuse and re-purpose all of the parts from the dissected toys. In the past, our staff have scrounged some of the moving parts to create custom circuit boards, but this would be the first time where we involved workshop participants in the process of recycling all of the detritus of the toy dissection.


Before the conference, we collected about twenty singing and dancing toys and packed them in our luggage (and surprisingly got no questions from TSA). Jochen and I wrote a call for toys in the ecsite spokes magazine and were pleasantly surprised that about 10-15 conference participants brought along something to dissect. Some people even posted photos on twitter of the toys making their way to Graz. Many of these donated toys had metal parts and lacked circuit boards which made the dissection more interesting for us as well. IMG_4162

These workshops were in the program as a normal conference session that people could decide to attend based on their own interest. We let in about forty participants and paired people up before prompting them to carefully observe and then dissect the toys.


Once again, we utilized the project zero 'agency by design' thinking routine called "parts, purposes and complexities". In this framework, each group starts with a black marker and lists all the parts of the toy that they can see, hear, and feel under the skin. We encouraged them to draw a diagram of how they imagined the parts to work together inside the toy. After about ten or fifteen minutes, we passed out the dissecting tools and switched out the markers. As they cut into the toys, they kept track of what they found with a colored marker which resulted in some beautiful artworks that we hung on the wall after the session to decorate our makerspace with evidence of past projects. IMG_4195

It was great to see people sharing ideas, collaborating and learning from each other. We think that these types of hands-on activities in a conference setting can provide unique opportunities for participants to meet each other and have conversations as their hands are engaged in the dissection. We spent a few minutes at the end of the session sharing discoveries form inside the toys and encouraging people to return to the makerspace over the next couple of days to remake and hack the toy parts.


After the first session ended, did our usual work of sorting skins, stuffing, and guts into three big cardboard boxes. IMG_4287

Additionally on the second day, to make the next two sessions of "hacking" the toys easier, we did a deeper sorting of the "guts" or the plastic and metal parts. We divided the pile of plastic and electronics into a few categories to make building art machines easier. We thought that the most useful parts would include functioning moving mechanisms, disconnected motors, large plastic pieces that we could attach vibrating motors with glue sticks, and interesting connector pieces like arms, springs, and hinges.


Samar also volunteered to prep some of the electronic pieces by soldering on longer wire leads to make it easier to attach batteries to the motors and mechanisms. LG8A3708

I introduced to the activity by showing an undissected toy and explaining events of the session the day before. As we started the workshop, I noticed that there were about half returners from the first day's session and half new participants. We introduced the idea of the workshop as creating art machines from the moving parts of the toys. We built four or five examples with different types of movements.


Our initial idea for the workshop was that participants would add markers to already moving toy parts and the investigations would be mainly focused around the movements and patterns of the art machines. DSC00808

We also provided the basic materials like motors, glue sticks, and batteries so those unfamiliar with scribbling machines could experiment with vibrating creations before moving to more complicated mechanisms.


As a way to make scribbling machine 'bodies' we added in recyclable materials and it was interesting to see how the unusual toy parts worked together with common plastic and cardboard containers. IMG_4381

Soon after everyone started working, we noticed groups digging through the boxes with the decorative elements of the toys and kludging them together to make funny and whimsical creations. Once this group made the dancing and drawing toy, others saw the idea and started getting more creative and daring with their own contraptions. Although the initial plan called for saving the fabric and fur from the toys for the third day, we didn't stop people from adding these materials to their toy hacks.


The experimental nature of the activity extended to one group modifying the markers to create a "vampire bear" that made bloody marks from the ink cartridges of the red crayola markers. DSC00831

The end results of the tinkering felt somewhere in between scribbling machines and LEGO art bots with some unpredictability based on the found objects but with the ability to create really complex and intentional designs.


The wide variety of unique parts from the toys encouraged some really interesting problem posing and problem solving around different ways to create kinetic art makers. All around the room, we saw new ideas, surprising uses of materials, and lots of iteration on designs. One machine that flipped a hinge from a re-purposed mouth piece provided a really nice example of an unexpected creation. IMG_4440

At the end of the session, participants naturally gravitated to a large section of paper that we put on the floor, Jon turned on some dance music and it was a real celebratory atmosphere in the makerspace.


It was a great culminating experience to have all the designs working together to contribute to a large collaborative artwork and this showcase gave people the chance to admire to wide variety of outcomes. We ended the second day on a high note, energized by the experience, but unsure how we could top it for the last day of the workshop. IMG_4655

For the final session of the series, we planned to add in some new materials like LEDs, battery packs and conductive thread to extend the possibilities and create sewn circuits out of the discarded clothes and fur from the toys.


For this workshop we got an unexpected facilitation assist from Walter Lunzer, a fashion designer who created a beautiful geometric dress for Kathrin to wear at the gala ball. Earlier in the day he wandered in and started messing around with the conductive thread to make a small circuit and he returned to help out participants later in the afternoon. It was a great reminder of the high ceilings possible around wearable technology. IMG_4620

Some participants experimented with the unique texture of the recycled "skins" creating some really beautiful patterns to pin on to their clothes or nametags.


Sarah Alexander of Cabaret Mechanical Theater, got inspired by a different electronic part and embedded a "moo" sound maker in her fashionably designed facsinator. IMG_4650

Others took their idea a step further in the franken-toy direction and added LEDs to reanimated stuffed animals.


And we were really impressed to see some of the projects that people worked on over the course of all three days of the workshop. One group used the motion of the legs to create a switch that alternated blinking LEDs before sewing a new costume on the mechanical elements. This was one of the first times that we had ran a workshop where people worked on the same project over consecutive days and I imagine that the extended time frame with breaks in between helped people to bring some amazing ideas to life. IMG_4703

Although with the sewn circuit activity, we didn't have a big final experience, Sebastian set up a photo booth where people could document their creations and get inspired by what others had made. There were fifteen to twenty people who came to all three sessions and their creations reflected a great deal of personal expression, humor, and deep thinking.


All in all, I think this experimental workshop series really helped to create a special experience for us and participants. Although this pop-up makerspace was built and disassembled over just three days, the toy dissection and reanimation workshop supported people working together in a shared problem space, offered ways for dedicated makers to go really deep into the exploration, but still offered low threshold starting points for newcomers to the environment. I can't wait to experiment more with this workshop format here at the tinkering studio and in professional development workshops. And of course we're already thinking about ways to make the makerspace at Ecsite 2017 even better!


Tiny Theaters at Lighthouse ASP

Many of the activities we host in the Tinkering Studio are inspired by artist residencies and collaborations. This year's visit by tinkerer-in-residence Tim Hunkin was not only a great time to work together, but also prompted a new activity for us to try with students in the after school program at Lighthouse Community Charter School. Continuing on the idea of Tim Hunkin's "peep shows," we spent several weeks making Tiny Theaters. Tiny theaters take place in an enclosed cardboard shoe box and use lights and mechanical elements to tell a brief story when looking through a viewing window.


Before we dove into making our tiny theaters, we began the day by thinking about narrative and storytelling. The group worked together to tell an "exquisite corpse" style story, where each person added an element to the plot and said "and then..." to pass the story on to the next person. We ended up telling a silly story about a panda that likes peanut butter but makes a huge mess and a dog that helps clean it up. To me, this process was valuable for conveying that storytelling isn't something that's serious and unapproachable - we were able to work together to come up with ideas quickly and could shape the narrative as we went. This scaffolding helped to set the tone for the day and prepared us to dive into making our tiny theaters.

Some students weren't sure where they wanted to start and began by drilling holes into boxes as eye holes. We found that a 1" forstner bit was the perfect size to make a hole for viewing. The biggest challenge was getting through several layers of cardboard. In the photo below, Marla is showing Ahmed some helpful techniques for using the drill that she had learned earlier.


Other students came in with ideas right away; for example, Katrina wanted to tell the story of an activist she learned about on a school-day field trip the previous week who she found inspiring. She began with the elements inside the box first, building out the pieces of the story that she wanted to move, then added the circuitry for the lights and switches in the later weeks of the project.


Marla was inspired by the sea, and made a stormy scene with two sets of lights. The calm blue seas are replaced by a darker second scene that drops in, while the LEDs flash and flicker to replicate lightning.
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Antero decided to forgo the idea of a story completely, and instead built a complicated circuit with multiple lights that acts as a game. The goal is to move a dot of light that comes through a hole in the top of the box between the blue and white lights inside the box without them touching. It's a little hard to see in the photos, but it's really amazing in person. Along the way we also discovered that the hole in the top of the box acts as a pinhole camera too!
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Thalia incorporated elements of her paper circuit card into her tiny theater. The devil emoji pops up by pulling a string in the back to scare the children in the scene so they run away. Although it's unfinished in the photos, the plan is for the pop up to also activate a switch that turns on the light inside the box.

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In terms of curriculum development, I like how this activity followed our explorations of both paper circuits and sound, and was the perfect segue to continue into more complex experiments within those themes. Adding elements of movement and narrative made the projects more personal for each student than the original paper circuit cards. There was also a greater focus on designing circuits with more complexity - either by adding multiple lights, having more than one circuit on the box, or adding switches to animate the scenes. In the weeks before building the tiny theaters, the students at Lighthouse used piezo mics to explore harvesting sounds and recorded them onto greeting card sound modules. They were available as a material to incorporate into the theaters, but most in the group ended up choosing not to use them. I think if we had had more time to work on the theaters, incorporating recorded sounds would definitely have been in the next steps.

Interested in making your own tiny theater? In addition to the materials for Paper Circuits, it's helpful to have:

  • A shoe box or small box 
  • 1" forstner bit and drill for making eye holes (an x-acto knife works well too)
  • Coin cell battery holders (like these)
  • Popsicle sticks, tongue depressors, skewer sticks, etc.
  • Small weights like metal washers
  • String, yarn, fishing line, etc.
  • Hot glue gun and glue
  • Awl (to poke holes in the box for the LEDs)
  • Greeting card sound modules (for recording in the story)

Here's an example of a tiny theater that tells the story of Bruce Wayne turning into Batman to save Gotham City from the Joker. Each step uses either movement and mechanisms or switches that control LEDs to continue the narrative.


For building your theater, the beauty of this activity is that the possibilities are almost endless! There are many points you can start from, then build out new elements as you go. You can experiment with creating mechanisms that pop up, slide, drop in from outside the box, swing, or fold to help convey the narrative. You can explore circuitry by deciding where to place LEDs. You can use homemade switches to choose when you trigger lights to turn on and off. The sound modules can record songs, voices, or sound effects to add to your story. By using some or all of these techniques, you can create a small world in a box to tell your story!

This collaboration is funded by the Overdeck Foundation and the National Science Foundation.