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.


Mini Shadow Boxes!

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 Joette:
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After completing my first set of residency goals I wanted to become more familiar with paper circuits. It's and activity that I have tried before and ran into some road blocks. After creating a few basic paper circuits, I began experimenting with different ways to craft with LED lights and stumbled onto this idea. The frame is made from a cut foam piece and a piece of cardstock glued to the back.

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I made a third box and wanted to go larger than the first set. I needed to add more LEDs because the size of the box. I ran into a couple of challenges with this box. I had trouble getting the lights bright enough. I also learned you cannot solder to aluminum conductive tape after 3 attempts :)

Overdeck Family Foundation

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


Setting Up My New Space!

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 Joette:
I recently acquired additional storage space in the classroom where I teach my after school program enrichments. In the past, my supplies were stored in a mobile cart that would collapse under the weight and volume of my art supplies, a cabinet where I would store larger items and bringing up any additional supplies when needed from storage.

“What am I going to with all this new space?” was the first question that came to mind because I did not want to have a repeat of my last set-up . I wanted to have a space where my students could easily access materials, have more visibility of all their material options, and have a space that would be trouble free to organize and reorganize as the year progressed. During my residency at the Exploratorium I picked up many strategies and tips. Here are some:

  • Stackable storage containers that are uniform in size and make are easy to access, look neater and it makes removing them from a cabinet much easier
  • Open containers makes it hassle free for students to return materials to their correct place rather than opening multiple containers. Open containers also aids the teacher in monitoring the material supply level.
  • Pictures on the labels helps younger students comprehend what material goes in which container. If you have doors on your storage cabinet, placing pictures on the doors will also help students quickly identify what is inside.
  • Paper towel racks are great for keeping items on spindles organized and out of the way.


Overdeck Family Foundation

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


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.