Scratchpaper Inspirations

People often ask how we design new activities. It's often tough to give a straightforward answer, because for us the development process takes place on a long time scale, involves iterating on prototypes and revisiting old ideas. We collaborate with outside artists and get inspiration from unusual materials.


Last week, Nicole and I tried out a workshop we've been developing that we're dubbing "scratchpaper" for the first time as part of the Scratch conference at MIT. After the conference we were reflecting on the many paths we took to come up with the activity and spent a few minutes brainstorming a partial list of all the past experiments that influenced the development process and contributed to our thinking around the topic.

As an exercise, I took the rough notes that we scribbled on an oversize post-it and tried to sort the ideas into categories related to the areas of exploration that make up the content of the activity. I grouped things related to paper circuits, scratch explorations, seeed studio grove kit, circuit blocks, programmed peepshows and sensor experiments. As well, I added relevant links to blog posts, videos, activity guides and sources for materials to the mindmap. This represents a first attempt to try to capture the messy, non-linear, and collaborative process of activity design for us in the Tinkering Studio.

Click on the image to get to the version with links added. I'd like to try something similar for other activities and it would be interesting to think about different ways to organize the inspirations on a timeline to emphasize how these explorations often take time to develop into fully fledged activities and how ideas complexity and combine with one another. We hope that the process will continue as scratchpaper becomes one more element in our growing ecosystem of playful inventions and delightful ideas.


Creepy Beasties

Last Thursday’s Afterdark followed the theme Hair, Feather, Scale, and Nail. To fit the night’s motif, we facilitated a new activity in the Tinkering Studio called Creepy Beasties.

For quite some time, we’ve been doing Sewn Circuits, where we use conductive thread, batteries, LEDs, and various fabrics to construct wearable circuits or electronic plushes (right). Creepy Beasties was the love child of Sewn Circuits and a box of stuffed animals, or to be precise, stuffed animal skins.

Visitors were encouraged to use the materials on hand to make their own stuffed toys, the creepier the better. One approach to this task was to stitch together multiple skins in odd, often unsettling combinations. We supplied visitors with needles of various sizes, threads of various colors, fabric scraps, and sheets of felt. All of these could be used to perform surgery on your stuffed animal husk. If that wasn’t enough, we also had conductive thread, LEDs of several sizes and colors, and button batteries that could be used for the circuitry. The LEDs can make eerie glowing eyes or noses, or can be used in a variety of other ways to enhance the beasties.

Guests also had the option of stuffing their beasties. Unfortunately, we ran out of stuffing two thirds of the way through the night. Our visitors–resourceful as they are–were able to salvage stuffing that we missed when eviscerating the toys. Some even stuffed their creations with other skins and fabric scraps, to nice effect.

Also on the table was chalk for marking fabric, string for embroidery (which nobody touched), needle threaders because the conductive thread frays like crazy, googly eyes and fabric glue, scissors, seam rippers, pins, sharpies for marking the positive lead of LEDs, round nosed pliers for curling the leads of the LEDs. and a multimeter (for testsing LEDs and the continuity of your circuit). I forgot to put out thimbles, but they didn’t seem to be missed.

In the future, I’ll probably do without the embroidery string and the googly eyes. The fabric adhesive is difficult to use, and splotches of glue are hard to avoid. If googly eyes are a must, I’m inclined to suggest hot glue. I would also consider putting out ribbons and different types of fabric.

To help our builders along, we have examples of sewn circuity that we spread around the table. These examples show how to make parallel circuits, how to construct switches out of snaps or flaps of fabric, and how to attach LEDs. As per usual, we try not to limit the creativity of our guests, so we actually had a few people come and build their own version of the examples instead of creepy beasts.

The activity can be daunting to people who haven’t sewn before. We tried to dispel any fears by pointing out that messy, ugly stitches really enhance the aesthetic we’re aiming for. This was ample encouragement for most people, and the few who didn’t know how to sew coming in picked it up quickly. This left me with more time to focus on the circuitry elements of the activity.

The tricky thing about our LEDs is that they will only operate at specific voltages; this means no series circuits (unless you plan to chain multiple batteries together). Another obstacle is that not all of the LEDs play nicely with each other. If you’re planning on sticking to one color, this doesn’t matter, but if you want to mix and match, the process requires a lot of testing. (An interesting side-note is that like-color LEDs were generally okay when grouped; orange worked with yellow and white, and green could be combined with blue.) To tests whether LEDs work together, we have a couple examples that are just squares of felt with two parallel lines of conductive thread. You attach the battery to one end, and lay all the LED’s across the gap. These little helpers are a must-have, and before we do the activity again I want to make a few more.

As most of you probably know, our workshop seats eight comfortably. Over the three hours we were open, we were full the whole time and probably saw about twenty-five guests. Tending to the 8 guests were myself (an intern), two project explainers, and Mario (a former intern now fully fledged Tinkering team member). Normally we have three people facilitating; the extra manpower was a real advantage.

Outside of the space we had a table with several examples on it. Visitors were encouraged to interact with them - pick them up, turn them on or off, squeeze them. Most of the time, one of us facilitators was stationed with the examples, talking to the guests about the activity and manning the gate.

To help introduce the project to visitors, we also have a vertical monitor that we use to display information about the activity and photos of our guests’ work. Before the night started, we decided that we really wanted to use the monitor to display photos of what was going on. Doing this live is tricky, as to our knowledge, there isn’t really a [free] service built for posting and displaying photos in real time. We tried DropBox (ugly) and Google Drive (uglier), before something clicked in my mind and I remembered my days of tumblr, which can be customized heavily and has a relatively unobtrusive interface. I set up a blog for the activity, and found a free theme that fit our needs really well. I could have also edited the theme’s HTML to make it really perfect, but I was pressed for time and there wasn’t much need. With the help of an app from the Chrome Store, I was able to snap photos from my phone and post them to the periodically refreshing page with ease (below).

All in all, I think the night was a success. The visitors really seemed to enjoy themselves, and it showed in their creations. The staff had a good time too; some of them built their own beasties, but just watching people go through the process was a treat. The fact that the activity fit the After Dark’s theme was the cherry on top. Sadly though, this is a pretty intensive project, both regarding materials used and from the standpoint of facilitation; we probably won’t be doing it again for a while. If you really want to build your own creepy beastie, give it a shot yourself! There’s also a chance we’ll bring back this workshop for Halloween, so stay tuned!


Developing Scratchpaper Workshop

Nicole and I will be leading a tinkering workshop at this year's Scratch Conference at the MIT Media Lab. We've been experimenting with different ways of incorporating scratch programming and computational thinking into some of our tinkering workshops. As we've been preparing for the workshop, we've focused on paper circuitry as a interesting way to investigate some of these topics.


So last week, we tried out the activity with our colleagues in the learning studio for the first time as a way to help us continue to iterate on the ideas. The participants worked in pairs and used the arduino extension for scratchx to program small paper circuit cards with LEDs, switches, and sensors. In the workshop with the team, we didn't get to constructing our own paper circuits since the explorations were so rich with the pre-made examples. As always it was really helpful to test out our ideas with the larger group and get there feedback. I wanted to share a few of the workshop elements we been developing beforehand to encourage tinkering as well as some of the insights gleaned from the rest of the team. IMG_6394

Nicole and I mounted arduinos on wooden blocks with the pins of the boards connected to copper nails, the same as our circuit board set for electricity explorations. The copper nails connected to a few of the pins limits the problem space, but to us still feels like an authentic way to present arduino boards without relying on extra shields or unusual parts. We also thought that by using the real components in a transparent way, we could imply a progression from the initial scratch exploration to more complex programming projects.

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Often we've seen programming and arduino workshops that look complicated and not so inviting to novice participants. For this workshop, we built playful, fun, and colorful example cards with single gumdrop LEDs, premade switches and sensors, and RGB lights to communicate this attitude. We've found that this addition of artistic elements as well as a combination of high and low tech materials can give a more open invitation to join in the exploration of the same topics. IMG_6286

As we set up the environment for the workshop, we wanted to not focus primarily on the computers, but have them as just another tool alongside shared materials and inspiring examples. Our dogbone shaped table usually lends itself to more collaboration and sharing of ideas, which is even more of a challenge in screen based activities where it's not so easy to see others' work.


For the workshop with the team here we asked them to work in pairs which I think really helped propel the explorations forward. Having people contributing to a shared investigation allowed them to communicate about what they felt more comfortable with and learn from each other. The combination of objects in the physical world with the scratch programming give more space for thinking with one's hands and allows partners to share the problem space. Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.36.59 PM

We also developed is a starting point sketch preloaded on #scratchX that both gives an example script and a photo of the components in the stage. In the past we had a paper handout with some example code and photos, but I'm excited about the possibilities for giving the necessary information right where you are already looking. Much like how we've started circuit block explorations with just batteries and bulbs, starting with single LEDs and a simple code gives a low threshold that may naturally lead to personalized investigations.


We always share results and ideas at the end of a workshop, and it was really cool to see how each of the groups worked on unique investigations involving buttons, sounds, and sensors. Although we only had the simple examples to mess around with, narratives and storytelling started to emerge. As with any tinkering activity, we are looking for varied outcomes that reflect the process of each group.

Interactive Light Painting: Pu Gong Ying Tu (Dandelion Painting) from Jie Qi on Vimeo. And we also think it's important to have a connection to the high ceilings possible with programming electronic artworks. By using the same basic materials of arduino, LEDs and copper tape, we can provide a quick introduction to the ideas using the same components that artists like Jie Qi use in their beautiful interactive installations. IMG_6444

We've started some experimentation with attinys that can be programmed with the arduino IDE and soldered directly to projects, and although that's too much to cover in a quick intro workshop we want to keep thinking of how this initial tinkering experience can be scaffolded so that learner's interests and skills can continue to develop with appropriate tools and materials.

We're really excited to share these experiments with a group of dedicated educators interested in scratch next week at the conference at the Media Lab. I'm sure we'll learn a lot from the experience of others there as we continue to prototype, refine, and test these playful ways to tinker with programming, computational thinking, storytelling, and personal expression.


Creating Programming Curriculum

For the past two weeks we've been lucky to have two teachers from Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland in residence with us. Over the next week we'll be sharing posts on their reflections, experiments, and ideas they want to take back to school with them.

From Sarah:

Another area of focus during this residency has been to explore options for creative computer programming curriculum for 8th graders. With the big push in education around coding and Computer Science, there are an overwhelming amount of options for softwares/languages/kits for young people. Last year we went with using the Hummingbird Microcontrollers with Scratch, and we did an adaptation of the Robot Petting Zoo, This was an incredibly awesome and successful long term project as the physical programming was really engaging and allowed opportunities to manipulate tactile materials/tools (cardboard, wood, hot glue, paint, drills, saws etc) within the context of a programming class.

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Using the hummingbirds with scratch to design and build amazing cardboard robots provided students with a foundation of understanding of inputs: a variety of sensors, and outputs: servo and 360 motors, LED’s, sound and the concept of a “user experience”.
To build on a second year curriculum, I had been considering using the ATTiny’s with the Scratch Tiny AVR Programmer and doing some 21st C notebooking work. I love Jeannie Huffman’s work and her astute philosophy on using non-proprietary materials. However, seeing as the 7th graders had just dipped into using Scratch last year, it seemed wise to stay with Scratch to allow them to complexify their Computational thinking in that same format.
Lo and behold! The incredible folks (Nicole and Ryan) in the Tinkering Studio have been tinkering with using an Arduino Uno, Scratch X with paper circuits!


It was so exciting (almost magical) to be able to observe and engage with them during the development of this idea. And since it worked so well...I feel this is the perfect next step for the 8th grade students to explore! Some of our students are already familiar with arduinos and it would be a great next step to programming out of the “kit”. What I am now working on is developing an experimental 12 week/4 hours a week/8th grade curriculum where students will take toys apart, harvest and identify components from the toy, and then attempt to create original artworks that are visual and/or audio based using both the up-cycled and new components that will be programmed using ScratchX and the Arduino Uno. That would be the in between step before stepping into using the Spark Fun tiny programmer with Ardunio language to solder an ATTiny85 into their work to be able to be more affordable, sellable and free of the large expensive board!

Overdeck Family Foundation

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


Toy Take Apart and Programming Paper Circuits with Arduino Uno & Scratch

For the past two weeks we've been lucky to have two teachers from Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland in residence with us. Over the next week we'll be sharing posts on their reflections, experiments, and ideas they want to take back to school with them.

From Sarah:

Circuit Bending & Harvesting Components from 2nd Hand Toys As a creative computer programming and after-school teacher, I was excited to explore the toy-take apart activity to see what I could glean for ideas. The toys I had to tinker with were all battery operated and ranged from a super simple (peng jia keyboard), to extremely complex (A robot dragon named Skylee, manufactured by Bossa Nova Robotics, that talks/senses/walks/and even is capable of having a dragon baby). The toys ranged in original retail price from $5-$60 but all were thrifted by the museum for around $1-3. I carefully deconstructed the toys using scissors, screwdrivers, wire snips and pliers.

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Every now and again I would come across a very stubborn screw, or a tough plastic piece that had to be muscled off, but for the most part, with some patience and perseverance, the toys were fairly easy to take apart. Once the inner-workings were revealed, one could easily identify the components (switches, motors, LED’s, speakers and circuit boards).

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After, I extracted the components and the circuit board, with wires intact, I embarked on a circuit bending exploration. This was fun because there is no real “right way” to circuit bend. The feeling of finding a new noise or effect after poking around with alligator clips is quite satisfying! Once I found a connection that changed the pitch or amount of light, I connected various dials (potentiometers) with alligator clips to adjust the amount of change in the sound. Not all potentiometers worked to make this happen, which led me to the question about what ranges of potentiometers exist? and how do they work? This led to the contemplation of resistance in an electrical circuit and how controlling resistance can lead to some neat sound and light effects. Using the parts of the disembodied Peng Jia keyboard, I added a dial, a push switch, an LED and mounted the parts to a round piece of plywood to create a new funky instrument that was more fun and weird than the original broken toy.


I plan to use this activity with students in conversation around the systems that support the production and consumption of these types of products using the Agency by Design thinking routines of Parts/Purposes/Complexities and Parts/People/Interactions. As a 12-14 year old, I can only imagine it would be a fun learning experience to be encouraged to take apart some kids toys to see what is inside. As a learner, my curiosity led me to research/construct some understanding on how dials/potentiometers and resistance work in circuits. I also am interested in the psychological impact/effects at the middle school level of taking apart “kids toys”, something they have just “outgrown” as well as the significance of learning the art of careful deconstruction of a designed object to build understanding vs. just destroying things or throwing them away.


Overdeck Family Foundation

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