Tie And Jeans

Creativity & Specificity

The original MakeyMakey Kickstarter video may be the most imitated document across classroom and conference MakerEd. Five years on, I’m still impressed by what students and teachers can create with the MakeyMakey, but I will die happy if I never see another banana piano.

This speaks to a larger imitative problem among teachers and students alike. We share provocations and lessons, publish great books full of amazing projects, always hoping that people will use those concrete examples to springboard into their own creative explorations. But it’s very easy for creative actions to become codified into rote projects.

For a few years, I’ve tried to explode out a persistent idea from that MakeyMakey video and have students build interesting video game controllers. In my first efforts, far more kids built squishy d-pads than water-bucket DDR.

mm-examples

Since I moved to Korea, I’ve had to be far more deliberate in creating prompts that actually encourage creativity, loosely marked here by deviation from an observable norm. In other environments an early exemplar project could serve as a inspiration/catalyst for the class. Here the first “successful” prototype exerts a terrifying gravitational pull, and very few students’ ideas are strong enough to escape.

As a result, I’ve had to up my game when creating prompts for these “open-ended” projects. It’s not enough to avoid specifying a form for the final product, or avoid showing examples. I have to go further and craft the prompt to steer around the low-hanging/easy answers.

To compound the difficulty, you can’t drown students with “don’t do” instructions. For starters, this shifts the tone from an opened design challenge into a game of how to outsmart the teacher. It’s fine for these challenges to have some puzzle-like elements, but the teacher can’t be the law-giver at the center.

Labeling something that kids “naturally” arrive at as an invalid/bad solution is almost as destructive to the iterative tinkering mindset as a class full of cardboard NES controllers. :) Instead, dive deep on specificity of the task. When kids have a super-wide field, they often steer towards bland, generic solutions. Give them something thorny and idiosyncratic as a prompt and they’ll produce solutions in kind.

Here are three discrete avenues for video game controllers, all of which easily steer around to as ways to avoid the Play-Doh NES pad.

Literal Control – Create a game controller where to play the game, you have to perform the action depicted in the game.

This is the prompt that I don’t talk about with admin. Adults with cursory knowledge of videogames will assume this means a class full of cardboard guns. So choose a bank of sample games for them, even something as broad as “anything on this NES emulator.” Given the option, kids will produce picks and axes for minecraft, but that’s not such a bad thing. Swinging a cardboard tube repeatedly can be a revelatory experience!

Guerilla Co-Op – Make a multi-person controller for a single player game.

The archtypal version of this is multi-player Pacman, where each player has control over one of the 4 direction inputs. I’ve been making this in workshops since the makeymakey kickstarter, and saw video of Marvin Minsky describing it in 1982! Early arcade games are good targets for this – Asteroids, Frogger, Pole Position. Games that require diagonal inputs, or synced presses from multiple buttons, up the complexity considerably. I have an open bounty for kids to devise a 3+ player controller for Contra and beat the first level. Have not had to play out yet. :)

Puzzle Box controllers – Make a beautiful game controller that you can use, but looks like magic to everyone else.

I’ve only done this prompt once, so I think it needs more honing than the other two. Using a basic game, like Snake, Pacman or QUIX, a good puzzle box controller have a “trick” interface of some kind that frustrates the audience, but lets the inventor/magician play smoothly. Kid projects involved hidden ground contacts, or “buttons” that needed multiple contact points. One kid worked on a prototype in Scratch where the game controls changed with each button press, but never had a game that showed off that feature.

Read more…

MakerEd update: Looms and Bridges

I dread Halloween for a number of reasons. The most trivial among them is that starts November and the traditional* post every day challenge. Working with that daily requirement forces me to realize how easily I fall into bad “essayist” habits with the blog. I don’t post about stuff until I’ve got something to say about the stuff, which in my saner moments I recognize is the exact opposite of the correct plan.

In the spirit of November, here’s the disjointed status of Makers.

The most elaborate Scratch+MakeyMakey project my class has ever seen reached something like alpha software and moved on to laying copper tape. Hence this, the most elaborate Bridges of Königsberg puzzle I’ve ever seen. I felt so math teacher proud about this. I laid down the law! Paths must not cross!

baseball bridges

There was a full period of pencil sketching on the inside of their contraption before they even thought to reach for copper tape. They worked smart, using the raised edges, and running a long common ground through easily two dozen triggers. Then, after so much had been laid down, they discovered that they had taped themselves into a corner. “Isn’t there some way we can put stuff between the layers of tape?” Yes. now is the time when we talk about insulators and conductors.

Nate Kellogg asked about how our MS kids are using the 3D printer. Up until this week, my honest answer would have been “not as much as I had hoped.” The kids who actually built the machine display some ownership over it’s continued functioning, but they don’t seem to have any interest in using it in a significant way. I wasn’t sick with grief over this, but it was a bit surprising to me. I was happy to see that when other projects needs some thing, the printer would get called in to service, which represents both a crucial skill set and a mind shift for middle school students. But… I thought all kids were crazy for small plastic trinkets!

This week, I found the small plastic trinkets for which our students bring the craze. Makers and gentlenerds, the Rainbow Loom.

printed_loom

Are rubber band bracelets a thing with your kids? Then these designs will drive incredible traffic to your printer.

We started out using this great SCAD design for a closed ring loom. The commercial kit uses linear strips of the pegs that mount onto a base in various configurations. It’s pretty flexible, but bulky and not well suited for designs that extend off of the loom itself. The circular loom we’ve been printing is perfect for those, and turns a design that’s a tricky mess on the normal setup (the HEXAFISH**) into something that’s super easy and compact.
There have been more 5th and 6th graders in the lab this week than ever before. I know the about the “whistle trap” for 3D printing (although I can’t remember who coined the phrase), where the device becomes a tool to make a certain thing rather than something that enables student design. In my head I pretend that the loom isn’t a whistle, in part because of the changes they’re making to the base design in OpenSCAD. But really, I’m willing to risk it because of the crazy velocity, the sheer churn of kids coming into the space and asking about what they can make.

In other groups we have a RC plane under construction, a bunch of 555 timer projects (bad move: starting kids with breadboard projects more complicated than a pushbutton LED), a skeeball game, and powered paper airplanes. But the other lesson I remember from previous Novembers is that it’s better to post half the story in an 20 minutes than try to cover everything in an hour.

* aka I’ve done it twice

**strictly speaking the N-Fishtail.

Design vs. Demonstration

Great makerspace activities students are grounded in a design cycle. I know that’s a loaded phrase and there’s any number of fancy posters that use meticulously groomed verbs to describe the process. (For reference, ours has research/empathize/plan/make/test.)

In every case, the design cycle requires that students have an open-ended goal and the ability to engage in a test/revise/reflect loop. Whatever the task, students need to be able to measure/evaluate their own work against a clear standard or goal, then continually modify their work and test again.

This is different from many scientific inquiry cycles in that students are not generating, isolating, and testing specific hypothesis. I’m obsessing over a clear way to express that distinction, because our fist grade team is about to start a unit about “physical forces,” which basically translates into age-appropriate demonstrations of Newtonian principles. Those labs can be exciting, and teachers are familiar with the powerful “ah-ha!” moments they can inspire in students. While I’m happy to make use of that pedagogical tool in the Makerspace, I need to find a careful/neutral way to express that demonstration labs, in and of themselves, are not design activities.

I’ve tried and failed to make this distinction before, and have instead wound up debating wether all demonstrations need to be “hands on.” There’s plenty of valid reasons for “hands off” demonstrations in science class (Item A: FIRE), although youtube makes very few essential. I can still describe precisely several demonstration heilige JP’s chemistry class and those were as refined specimen of hands-off teacher monologue as I’ve ever witnessed.

The distinction between science labs and #makered doesn’t hinge on whether students remember the science better when they’re building their own baking soda volcanoes or watching a crazy masterpiece, but on how the learning environment constrains or empowers students. Even if students “make” and “test” the transfer of kinetic energy, the results can only be “yep, that’s physics” or “you messed up.” That’s not design.

Demonstration labs are valuable but they don’t allow for broad, self-directed engagement. When students can taking actions and making choices, based on their new/developing understanding of an idea, then you have a powerful learning opportunity. A classic example of this is water bottle rockets. Last year, our 6th grade team built a wind tunnel with a modified scale to measure drag. The wind tunnel opened up a way for students to easily test their plastic and duct-tape creations; one that didm not require adult interference, one that provided clear data, and didn’t end in a high impact collision. Few 6th grade rockets are sturdy enough for multiple launchers. None maintain a consistent aerodynamic profile.

Without the wind tunnel, debates over weight distribution and fin design would end in appeals to external (“Mr. Cook, is this right?”) or personal (“ got a better grade on the science quiz, so my fins are best”) authority. When the wind tunnel was available, those fights only happened while waiting for another group to finish testing their rocket.

Encapsulation Injection Simulation

In a rare fit of great planning, I married an exceptional history teacher before I fell into #MakerEd. Over years of conversations, we’ve brainstormed dozens of different places where MakerEd can support/augment/extend history as an academic discipline experienced by students.

We’ve also developed a loose framework to categorize and discuss about those experiences, more as a personal shorthand than a desire to compete with SAMR, RAT or other “explain the world” acronyms. I generalize from this framework, but it’s also very tied to the specifics of 6–12 single subject history.

This isn’t a hierarchical system. I’m also going to try to use phrases like “traditional classroom learning” as neutral. Wish me luck.

Encapsulation, Injection, Simulation

Encapsulation covers any instance where the making wraps around a chunk traditional classroom learning. Students are making/building something that serves as a platform for them to present curricular content they’ve acquired.
Encapsulation is incredibly useful and versatile. Many making experiences are pretty neutral, so they’re not tied to a particular subject or concept. They also fit easily into teacher’s planning model, normally slotting in to replace some other form of summative assessment project. Susan’s great Lilypad-powered “speaking quilt” has nice resonance with us history, but is just as applicable in a math or science course. At the most basic level, an encapsulated MakerEd provides a new creative platform for students to present their academic learning.

We’ve been using injection to refer to maker experiences that don’t directly replace some part of the traditional classroom learning cycle (pre-assess, research, content delivery, formative/summative assessment). When trying to develop an injection project for history, I start by asking questions about the tools and materials. What T&M that were part of everyday lived experience in that culture? Which new or developing T&M had a dramatic effect on that experience? In nerdy, non-academic terms, I’m often simplifying actual history to Civ terms. What’s step on the tech tree enabled this cultural moment or eliminated it? For colonial history, I’m a huge fan of building some fires to explore cooking techniques with open ovens. More broadly, I want students to make something from or closely analogous to a period tool.
These projects don’t provide good opportunities for assessing the content knowledge of individual students. Instead, they do provide a robust skeleton on which students can hang their developing knowledge. In terms of classroom routine, I’m not sure there’s a better anchor and timer for a history discussion than sitting around an outdoor brick fire waiting for tea water to boil in an iron kettle. In terms of classroom time and instructional minutes, injection projects cost more. I view that cost as an investment in deeper, more lasting student understanding and connection to the material, but I admit that’s primarily belief.

We call the last category simulation, and it covers all experiences where students spend extended time trying to “live” inside the content in some way. History has a well established tradition of simulation exercises, and making/technology offers easy ways to extend those. Classroom simulations of the Constitutional convention become far more involving if all students are RP-ing particular delegates on a social media platform (our 7th grade teachers called it WhigBook last year) for the multi-week duration. For history simulations, the thing students are “making” is a compelling portrayal of an individual in a particular historical moment. There’s similar opportunities for other content areas, from predator/prey systems or fanfic extensions of literature. I think there’s an argument to be made that many challenge/experiment projects (hair-dryer cars, water bottle rockets) are essentially simulations. The made project is nice, but we’re really asking kids to inhabit the role of engineer/designer for a few weeks. History can add in CS by moving the simulation into a MOO/MUSH, where students are both creating the environment and RP-ing the personalities. I guess you could even use SecondLife, but I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that even a text only MUSH looks less dated than SecondLife.

Again, these are informal, conversational, non-hierarchical categories.

When specifically talking about history, Jodi posits another category of intellectual experience that I haven’t been able to directly pull back to the physical world. She refers to this as abstraction, where students can evaluate principles/values/beliefs from one cultural period through the lens of another. In general, I want a making experience to set a goal that unavoidably routes students through the thick mud of research, cognition, and reflection. I haven’t found a generalizable idea for physical things that “force” kids to engage in that abstraction. My closest thought experiment is modifying Heather’s monument project and have students create two monuments for different “sides” of a historical event, or create a monument and the accompanying protest. Ugh. I’m not even happy with those basic examples.

While this year I’ve been planning through transdisciplinary themes, Encapsulation, Injection, Simulation was my framework when planning MakerEd (and tech!) integration in years past. If a teacher wanted MakerEd to fit into a specific academic unit, I almost always went with encapsulation. That way I could bring a different experience to students, provide the teacher with the opportunity to watch students learning through the design cycle, and hopefully generate some nice artifacts. Without that specific curricular tie, I could look for an injection project, knowing that I could work with the teacher to trim some content requirements and devise observation/assessment protocols.

Thematic MakerEd Planning

MakerEd through a Transdisciplinary Lens

So, heya! I’ve landed in Korea and started a new school year. I’m learning as I go, picking up great lessons on #makered process and structure from Gary Donague. I’m also learning about the Primary Years Program, which is the heart of Chadwick’s elememtary practice.

I’m in an online PYP course at the moment. That provides some great resources and opportunities for reflection, but it also resents a “top-level” view that’s similar to any other curricular program. Namely, it’s a bunch of PDFs with overly specific and dense verbiage.

Applying those PYP concepts to my #makered framework has already proven very useful. I’m going to try and capture some of that here. I use lots of the PYP terms in here, after several long talks with our PYP coordinator to help ground the vocab in examples of teaching practice. Those conversations were absolutely necessary for me. I carry my own interpretation of both classroom & PYP language, and those required time and effort to unpack. If this sounds like nothing but semantic distinctions, then it’s likely because I’m glossing over or mis-explaining some term. Please let me know how I can make this explanation more clear.

The most visible aspect of student’s #makered experience is what they build & create. Viewing #makered through this lens ties the experience to a project level. “Students create windmills and solar harvesters in the Makerspace during our Unit on Energy.” With this mindset, the making & design cycle is tied to a product, which is in turn tied to a particular bundle of school-knowledge. There are obvious benefits from this approach, starting with how current curriculum practices can adapt to new projects. Teacher’s are accustomed to sentences of the form “students will learn X by Y,” and changing Y doesn’t upset the apple cart too much. Over time, this can create deep (often unstated) linkages between X and Y, to the point where the #makered experiences becomes a curricular fixed point instead of a force for change. As any tech integrator knows all too well, elementary classrooms can easily forget that project Y was an chosen to embody larger curricular/cultural values, and only remember that “3rd grade do PowerPoint for Greek myths in March.”

Our PYP coordinator suggested instead that #makered experiences should arise directly out of the transdisciplinary themes (for reference: Who we are, Where we are in place and time, how we express ourselves, how the world works, how we organize ourselves, sharing the planet).

I had become accustomed to thinking of my role in #makered planning conversations as the person with wide vision. Teachers would describe their units and learning targets, I’d brainstorm incredible possibilities for student making, and then need to convince teachers that the (messy, complicated, risky) experience would meet their curricular goals. I’d developed a view that making experiences “contained multitudes” which meant I could find almost any marker of school-iness inside.

Thinking about #makered through the lens of the TD themes asks something very different from me and from teachers. Instead of designing a project where the topic/UOI (PYP translation: Units of Inquiry) questions are a fundamental to the domain, we need to create powerful, reusable question that chart a direction for students using the Design cycle.

I’ve tried to draw this a bit. My art skills aren’t great, but hopefully this captures my mental image of this abstract concept.

TD_hexagon

 

The TD themes form a hexagon of doors/windows around any #makered activity. Even if every first naive draft of that activity looks pretty similar, wedding the Design cycle to the TD themes ensures that each iteration will move students further away from the “just stuff” version of the project and deeper into meaningful, reflective PYP work.

The project example we used to think this through was “fashion design,” an activity with an intentionally vague and flat description. When iterating on this from a project-focused model, the primary change is students climbing ladders of material/tool/skill sophistication. It provides great differentiation and reflection on the design process, and is neutral enough to “fit” anywhere.

Considering the same activity through the TD lens, it’s clear that while it keeps those positive traits, it adds specificity and thematic consistency to the design cycle. Instead of one project that can fit anywhere, we actually have 6 very different projects that happen to share one material/skill base.

Who we are: Build a model/outfit that depicts your friend. Each iteration will need to focus on how we identify ourselves. Since the poseable models lack body characteristics and the project spans weeks, students can’t rely on a single outfit or “blond hair” as signifying characteristics. Students’ models will develop to include signifiers of activities, hobbies, and history.

Where we are in place and time: Make a model of yourself and a grandparent at the same age (ie, when grandparent was in Xth grade). What were the major historical changes in the intervening 60 years, and how can we express those through the materials? Each iteration should explore those issue. Is it possible to show a pre-plastic world through the 3D printer and scrap nylon? What other techniques can we use/develop?

How we express ourselves: Create a model/outfit for a character from literature. Best choices are books with first person narrators, where students will focus on capturing the POV character’s world view through the materials. Iterations can include increasing specificity for the time/moment in the narrative. How would this character’s outfit/presentation change after SIGNIFICANT_PLOT_X?

How we organize ourselves: How do you make a uniform? What information do uniforms from large entities (cities, countries) need to convey through similarities and differences? Maybe small groups are developing model city-states and need to create three different uniforms for important functions within that society. Maybe different groups are exploring the symbolic expressions of hierarchy and rank, and need to create models to convey those ideas? What would uniforms look like for an organization trying to avoid those traits?

How the world works: What can clothing do? Focus on creating a single clothing item that performs an assistive function. This could be a jacket that insulates (measured by temp sensors over time) or rain gear or cycling pants or… Perhaps this is the most classically maker/design style of iteration, with lots of solid numeric data to inform each new model.

Sharing the planet: Where does our clothing come from? What resources does it consume, and how are those reflected in cost? Perhaps this theme involves creating a “raw materials” schema for makerspace materials, and each iteration attempts to lower the “resource footprint” of an outfit. Or maybe each outfit has a given materials list and the iterative challenge is to improve resiliency?

It’s still true that #makered experiences are rich, and that any given kind of making can fit within any of the TD themes. But what’s powerful about TD integration is that after a few iterations, students doing the “same project” through two different lenses will wind up with very divergent work and be able to articulate why those differences exist. Even if the dolls & outfits might look similar to a parent observed when displayed without context, as educators we can be certain that the learning experiences were specific, powerful and distinct.

Project level integration suggests that by selecting right project/task/challenge, students will produce enough observable thinking, reflection, iteration to meet any assessment criteria. TD integration, by contrast, doesn’t demand that teachers find a perfect #makered activity. Any making, fueled by questions that derive directly from the TD theme, will create substantive, unique, visible learning.

This isn’t a frosting layer, where the same learning/making experience is recontextualized by the observer. TD integration operates on the reflective/iterative axis, which fundamentally changes the course/direction of student learning.

Final Makers Inventory

I’m about to turn in my computer and walk out the door. Here’s what’s actually left in the Makers room.

 

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Under the Kit Frosting

Kits promise a grimoire for electronics. Make these symbols, perform these rites, and transform yourself into someone with the understanding you desire. Fundamentally, this is a pattern I believe in, for electronics and all other craft learning. Grimoire learning demands that novices become careful observers, that they seek out and identify useful patterns & sub-patterns. I’m frustrated when features of the kits obscure the subject itself.

To be commercially viable, kits need to present an attractive picture for parents/teachers/schools. These are a distinct market that I think of “aspirational purchasers,” and they’ve always been a central target for edu-tainment material. To convince Aunt Ermeline to buy an electronics kit, it needs to present as both approachable and transformative. Since the purchaser will likely never even open the kit, functionality and component quality become very minor factors.

Successful kits promise to solve two problems for electronics novices; acquiring materials and connecting parts. Honestly, these are real bugbears. Have you spent time on digikey? Soldering irons connote dangerous and breadboards are confusing. Even a bag of through-hole LEDs can trigger Aunt Ermeline’s “chocking hazard” instincts. Aspirational purchasers, who are already imagining how this kit will transform a surly adolescent into a world-changing savant, are also primed for catastrophic “what if?” scenarios. To signify as “novice friendly,” electronics kits entomb components in custom plastic housings that snap, click, stack, in familiar toy-like ways.

This process adds costs and creates a perception of incompatibility between kits. These component wrappers can also hide the real information about a component or circuit. As the complexity of each component goes up, so does the possibility of errors and component failures that occur below the kit’s “user interface” level.

 

IMG_5102

I found a stack of these electronics kits outside my classroom one morning. I assume they were unearthed from a science closet and delivered to the Makers Space instead of the recycling bin. All the Makers students who played with them remarked that they had kits “just like this, but different” in a closet at home. They’d flip to a page in the back half of the pictorial instruction book, and start to build. Ten minutes later, the comments shifted to talking about how the kits they had “were just like this, but better.” Ten minutes after that, it was “kits just like this, but those worked!”

“It doesn’t work” is a trigger phrase for me in the Makers Space, right up there with “Am I done?” So we dug in, and built a single loop from battery to switch to light bulb. Nothing.

What do you do when the rituals don’t work? In the Makers Space we could pull out a multimeter and confirm that the batteries were good. Then we could identify the one battery holder that didn’t actually connect the two AAs. We could trace through the stacks of plastic and find the parts that were touching but not connected. In short, we needed electronics knowledge from outside the kit’s domain to troubleshoot both students’ circuits and the kit’s components.

Here’s what we found. This incandescent bulb block was designed so that the wires connected to the small metal Edison thread housing, so that end users could easily replace the individual bulbs. With the bulb in place, everything about the light block looks fine. On closer inspection, you can see the loose wires and the bare solder spots on the socket.

Snap_lights

 

It’s easy to see this as just a broken component, but i think that’s missing the larger problem. I draw on a mess of experience to assemble a few bits of data into the story of a broken component. But for novices, simple isn’t obvious.

After this, kids filtered out all circuits that involved the incandescent bulbs.  Then they hit this “door bell” design.

two_snap_circuits

Yes, despite my best efforts to double check student work, the top circuit (which looks correct!) does not produce sound. In frustration, a student started to slap extra wires across his setup, and got sound by bridging two other pins on the music IC. In the bottom picture, this bridge is yellow pushbotton block. Now instead of prompting careful observation, the grimore was rewarding Sorcerer’s Apprentice behavior.

Frustrated, another student popped the plastic casing to investigate how those pins were connected. This is what she found.

IMG_5106

Vanishing electronics. Hidden in the middle of an electronics kit is a tiny microcontroller, sealed under a glob of epoxy.

Better engineering can mitigate these problems., but the trade-off is fundamental to the component packaging approach adopted by electronics kits. It’s not easy to dislodge a SMD resistor from a LittleBits block, but when it happens it will create mountains of frustration with no obvious cause.

Every packed kit presents a simulacra of “real” electronics, elegant and convincing so long as you stand in the right place. Poking at the seams in several kit systems, I have a much deeper appreciation for the Minecraft’s redstone microworld. At some level, the kits will always suffer because they have to build a simplified model of electronics out of actual electricity.

Electronics Kits and Bits

Kits make electronics accessible by simplifying along two distinct axis.

The first is component selection. Kits offer a cultivated garden of parts that all work properly with each other, avoiding the bewildering Digikey page or the haphazard component drawers at RadioShack. Different systems stake out different positions along this axis. Squishy Circuits (to the extent that it’s a kit at all) simply offers generic components with fat dough-friendly leads. Hummingbird Robotics boards have easy, labeled terminal blocks and come bundled with commodity parts. At the low end of the spectrum, kits include parts to indicate a stable starting place, but they don’t build fences. Systems that aim for openness create a substrate that still works with plain/“bare wire” components. This covers everything from a simple breadboard to conductive dough and the unpattentable springs of 101 Experiment kids. Forest Mims’ excellent Electronic Learning Lab offers all of these, along with integrated LEDs and potentiometers. The Electronics Learning Lab was a longtime Radioshack stalwart, but is currently, lamentably, out of print.

What restricts learners from selecting or making use of other parts is the way a kit/system decides to simplify connectivity. I suspect that this is also the major area where designers can apply trademark and patent restrictions to their systems in an attempt to prohibit “knock-off” competitors.

Closed systems encapsulate individual components, which improves users’ first circuit experience and ensures that all parts are reusable. However, anyone looking ot replace a missing ingredient or add new ones are locked in to the kit vendor’s store.

Circuit Stickers from Chibitronics occupy an interesting position in this quadrant.
Individual components come on sturdy but flexible pcbs, backed by z-tape reusable adhesive. The basic kit has a wonderfully designed workbook and includes a roll of copper tape on paper, but nothing about the component design restricts how they can be used. Each tiny sticker even has wide solder pads! Chibitronics even includes a spare sheet of conductive backing for components that lose stickiness over time. Jie and Bunny’s design is a marvel of simplicity and economy. Currently, the Chibitronics website offers 24 packs of LED sticks for fifteen bucks. That’s a price lower than the horrific RadioShack markup on standard through hole 5mm LEDs, which no one should ever ever pay, but we often do. The same pricing extends across the Chibitronics line, from the programable Attiny stickers to sensors. Chibitronics offer custom components that are simple to connect without locking the user in an exorbitantly expensive walled garden.

Which brings me to LittleBits.

I’ve been deeply intrigued by and frustrated with LittleBits for about two years. At this point, I think the Reggie Watts commercial for the SynthKit does the best job of capturing the excitement “snap together amazing things!”


Stoked? Great, now look at this.

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 10.53.52 PM

I’ve heard LittleBits described as a “learning electronics” kit, and never felt it was accurate. Their proprietary magnet-snap connections pushed both simplification factors so far that they seemed to rocket out of the electronics kit quadrant. Components were so simplified that few productive mistakes remained for the user. There’s nothing to observe in a LittleBits creation about how circuits are designed. Then there’s the price. A “class set” of LittleBits rings in at several thousand dollars. I’d seen students enjoy the momentary experience of playing with LittleBits, but since the high price-tag meant that all of the parts went back in the bin at the end of every class, I never saw work pass beyond the “kinda neat” stage.

With the release of the Arduino Bit, I feel like LittleBits has fully abandoned the “learn electronics!” category,or maybe they’ve just hit escape velocity. Instead of a over-engineered electronics kit, they’re offering a portal into psychical computing in a radically divergent form factor. LittleBits offers the same kit benefits (connectivity, part selection) and provides and access ramp to the Arduino “prototyping platform.” LittleBits allows users to focus on the hard fun of designing physical computing systems to make use sensor data, wether through simple logic gates or a full Arduino. Like all other micro-controllers, there’s electricity at work, but the user is hidden away from almost all of the electrical engineering.

Under the Hood

Laura is a smart cookie.  The voltage frustration that emerged from the intersection of batteries and LED series is entirely a matter of exposure.

The problems she details in this thread exist at a level of electrical detail that she’s never needed across years of learning to code, teaching CS, diving into and teaching physical computing, coaching a whole variety of robotics teams, and renovating a house! Big tools or appliances might draw to much current and blow a fuse. Robotics are designed for and often ship with specific batteries and polarized plugs. All designed, commercial systems are careful abstractions that do their best to constrain the users exposure to the confounding detail and complexity. Smart engineers have gone to incredible efforts to make the user experience feel closer to redstone than 6.002.

A major contributor to this layer of abstraction is the cheap, accessible ubiquity of micro-controllers and other discrete logic systems. This creates unified circuits that use electricity as bounded signals. In these circuits, failure occurs when signals are blocked or interrupted, but rarely every as a result of signals that fall outside a component’s expected/acceptable range.

The heart of Laura’s LED problem was a circuit that could be closed and complete, but still not function. It’s not that this is complicated, but that behavior is orthogonal to the “blink sketch” mindset.

So that’s it, right? Here’s the great example of why #makered novices need some “real” electronics knowledge.

I’m still skeptical. Clearly, there’s a good lesson lurking in here that could be packaged up neatly into a bag with LEDs of various Forward Voltages and a small pile of batteries. Blow a single LED with a 9v (actually a step in the great Make: Electronics book), have a 3v coin cell power two small red LEDs but fail with two blue ones, compare series vs parallel circuits with copper tape. I think that’s probably enough hands on experience to convince a novice to check Adafruit’s Circuit Playground app when a LED circuit doesn’t behave as expected.

My skepticism about the value of “real” electronics knowledge for novices in 2014 comes from how complex the picture becomes when we look under the hood of digital logic assumptions.

Vanishing Electronics

In this course, students discover the basics of electronics design and assembly. They use this knowledge to build their own simple flashing LED using solder-free breadboards. By diving into the assembly of these projects, students learn about impedance, resistance, conductivity, and circuit design through personal, hands-on engagement, opening up incredible possibilities for creative projects.

That was the first description I wrote for what became our Makers program. This was a perfunctory bit of text written a year before our first class, tossed onto a Google form and into oblivion. The audience was exclusively parents, crassly intended to trigger connotations of learning and complexity for an unproved course.

In that first year we did some of what that blurb promised, but it wasn’t the focus of the course at any point beyond the second week. We built Squishy circuits and made 555-based projects, but I guarantee I never used the word impedance in class.

That same year I took the first MOOC version of MIT’s 6.002. Well before we hit the midterm, I was struggling to keep up with increasingly complex circuits, dusting off my integral calc skills, and churning through paper at a fantastic rate. Coming home from teaching Makers to a new lecture or problem set triggered new waves of teacher-panic. Had I really promised to teach this material to 7th graders?

As part of the FabLearn cohort, I’m exploring broad plain of electronics with an eye on how it fits into the modern/developing #makered landscape. It’s got to be central, right? Even though we advocate for the value of cardboard prototyping and physical construction, the big name tools are all complex electronic systems.

Well, maybe not.

From the 70s into the 90s, there was a rich field of interesting projects and creative experimentation that was only open to people with a functional literacy in electronics and electrical engineering. My sense is that in the last decade, the growth of cheap, flexible, accessible micro-controllers has taken control of the sophisticated projects that used to drive students deeper into electronics. While that trend leaves the electronics domain with fewer “exclusive” projects, the hurdles facing a novice haven’t changed much. While the internet makes it easier to share schematics and video tutorials, electronics still requires parts and precision. I can download the schematics for a transistor radio or a preconfigured disk image that transforms the RaspberryPi into an FM Transmitter.

Deep electronics knowledge opens up incredible possibilities. I’ll submit as evidence any of ch00ftech’s posts or Jeri Ellsworth’s Short Circuits. But in an Arduino-rich world, there’s far fewer low-end projects that require those skills. Instead, those electronics skills become mandatory when a project needs to exceed the constraints of what’s possible with a micro-controller. When a project needs to use less power, take up less space, respond with less lag, scale out at with less cost, then you’ll need the skills to design and build complex, task-optimized circuits.

Here’s the chicken-egg of learning electronics in 2013. Every basic circuit in a Forrest Mims notebookcan be duplicated with an Arduino and a tiny selection of components, using copy-pasta code and breadboard illustrations. In that world, how much discrete electronics knowledge does a novice need?

In the months I’ve spent looking at this problem, I’ve slammed repeatedly against a cognitive wall. I examine my practice, the projects my students pursue, the projects shared throughout the wider #makered community, and I see a role for electronics that’s smaller, more constrained and highly task specific. When I interrogate those findings, I keep coming back to a enduring conflict. Are my observations accurate, or does my weak understanding of electronics obscure a larger and more complicated story?

I can’t be sure. I’ll be sharing my look into the current market of “learn electronics!” kits in a later post, along with exploring the uneasy border between circuit simulators and Minecraft. But throughout those, know that this question – am I missing the real story? – lies under every observation.

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