Full disclosure: I’m embarrassed of the way I taught circuits in my classroom many years ago. I was bored with the topic. I mainly lectured to my 10 year old students and asked them to draw a circuit. Then we moved on faster than I could grade the tests and check their regurgitation. I’m sharing this because I know I’m not alone in feeling that way. We weren’t taught how much fun circuitry can really be, nor were we encouraged in our teacher training to veer off the path of the textbook and engage kids with Playdoh. But everything has changed in my mind.
Squishy Circuits are featured in this amazing TED Talk by AnnMarie Thomas. It takes the intimidation of wires out of learning about circuitry, conduction, and electricity, and puts the focus on clay, colorful lights, and your imagination. While this activity primarily makes it way through younger maker crowds, it’s great for makers of all ages.
What do you need to get started?
You can get the entire Squishy Circuits Kit based on University of St. Thomas’s work. The kit is honestly well worth the initial cost. It’s reusable and you won’t have to hunt around for the parts to get started. But if you are looking to start smaller, you can purchase the materials yourself. Here’s what you need:
The minimum? A 4 AA battery pack. LED lights. Playdoh, or make your own homemade dough that contains salt. The salt is key for conducting.
TIP: LED lights come in a variety of sizes. I love the 10mm size, especially for tiny hands, but the 3mm and 5mm size are more widely available and less expensive. Their lights are equally impressive.
Taking it to the next level? The minimum, plus modeling clay, an electric buzzer. The modeling clay, a non-conductor, allows kids to build clay figures using the clay as a barrier in the Playdoh.
After the art of positive and negative creations are mastered, add in Copper tape to lengthen the leads and raise the bar. Toss in a motor to add spin to designs. Cardboard to build bigger and better. Cardboard, just like the modeling clay, is a great barrier between the positive and negative dough. Kids can experiment with what conducts or doesn’t conduct. Paper? Cardboard? Model Magic? Plastic? Small wood scraps?
What do Squishy Circuits Offer Students Across the Curriculum?
Reading: What book character can I build? How might I light up words I’ve built with dough? Where can I read about circuits in the library?
Writing: How do circuits work? What kind of story can I create about the creature I built with light up hair? What will happen if I try…?
Math: How many volts are the batteries? How many lights will this set of batteries power? How long does my wire need to be to reach the playdough?
Science: What is a conductor? What materials conduct electricity? How do I build a circuit? How do LED’s work? How can I use copper tape instead of Playdoh in a similar way? Do humans conduct electricity?
Social Studies: How might I use LED’s to light up a topographical map? How was electricity developed and by who? What careers are available in the field of electricity?
But these questions will be even more powerful if you start with one thing….
Play. Explore. Let them try things. Try things yourself. See what happens.
And Playdoh becomes the foundation for playing, learning, and reimagining science in the classroom. Design, dreaming, and doing. The way it was meant to be.
Why is robotics awesome? Because it can fit ANYWHERE in the curriculum. It’s problem solving, critical thinking, cooperative learning, collaboration, play, exploration, creativity, and grit… all in one. It’s often thought of as an afterschool program or an enrichment. But robotics should be part of the everyday classroom. Why? Because it has so much to offer.
Please don’t think of it as “one more thing to add in.” It’s not another “subject.”
Some of my favorite robots for the youngest learners are definitely the BeeBot and Dot & Dash. They provide entry-level fun, but can be made more challenging instantly, with a few tweaks to your course, objective, or mat.
Incorporate Literacy: Kids are enjoying great books all the time, right? Then use those stories to incorporate robotics. Dash can be driven via the app Go, and once students have the hang of driving him, they can use additional apps to code his route. Print pictures from the book, spread them out by attaching them to plastic cups and ask students to retell the story by driving Dash through the book. I’ve also used Rosie’s Walk with BeeBots, and the Hungry Caterpillar. We won’t stop there – books make the perfect subject for robotics and young children.
Make it Mathematical: Measure how far Dash can travel in 10 seconds. Measure how far he can go in 20. Estimate how long it will take him to travel from your classroom door to the water fountain. Have kids design a course for Dash – and they’ll have to use some measurement if they plan to use coding. BeeBots are based on 15 cm squares, like the Hungry Caterpillar mat above that I created. Older kids could do multiplication and advanced math by creating a mat like this. How many trips around the board is a mile? That would be fun to figure out.
Other possibilities, toss play money around on the floor. Drive Dash to the coins or bills. If he circles the money, students get to add the total to their “bank.” They could see how much money they can collect in five minutes. For added practice, create a graph of money collected by Dash each day.
Diary of a Robot: Students will love writing stories about Dash. Dress him up in costumes and make him a center. Take some fun photos of him around town. Students can select a photo and write or tell a story about Dash.
Social Studies: Whether kids are learning about community workers or careers, ask them to create a course for Dash as a “doctor” or a “police man.” They could draw pictures to place around the floor that show Dash working as that career. Then, they can share their course with each other and drive Dash on his journey “working” through a day in the life of that career.
Additionally, North, South, East, and West are easily taught using code. Place the compass rose on your mat and students can get more specific. Have kids write directions for Dash to drive to the playground. That’s a challenge!
Don’t have robots in your classroom yet? Make some arrow cards for students to line up to tell another person how to move. The cards could also be drawn on wooden blocks. Students line up the code, then have a partner follow it. Boards similar to the BeeBot mat above would be perfect for kids to practice on. You can even download this book from Code.org and find arrow cards and cut and paste sheets inside. Have students act out each other’s code will help them practice reading the code and writing it. Plus, it’s fun to pretend to be a robot, right? Of course it is, whether you’re five or thirty five. Or maybe that’s just me.
Just about every day I get an email from someone asking, “How do I start making in my classroom?” And you know what the next statement often is? “Since I don’t have a maker space in my school.” The good news? You don’t need a makerspace to make. Classroom desks. The floor. The hallway. A table by the windows. Your big ol’ teacher desk. A rug and beanbags on the floor. Provide the space in the curriculum and the time, and it doesn’t matter where the physical location is.
What if you look at one simple assignment in next week’s lessons? A reading activity? A math assignment? And what if you just open it up… make it more creative. Give the kids more freedom. Start small with one exploration. One pile of cardboard. One block of time for kids to create, collaborate, and design a solution to a problem.
You just don’t need the space to get started. You just need a little courage to let go and try it.
Download practically anything you want from Thingiverse and spit it out. Instantly. That has a certain cool factor, that will make you want to print a few things. (Insert photo of a giant bolt I just had to try to print, and of course, the nut to go with it.) I know that 3d printing is like being at “level VCR,” and a few years from now, we’ll be at “Level Netflix,” wondering how in the world we dealt with rewinding video tapes and messing with tracking. It will be exciting to see how filament changes, how printing changes lives, and how being able to literally design and print anything will continue to change the world.
But HOW can this technology impact learning today? You could by 100 3d printers, and unless you change HOW you teach, it won’t. But what COULD the 3d printer enhance in the elementary classroom? Plenty.
1.) Collaboration. Sure, having every kid print something they found on Thingiverse would be fun for the class. But having the kids design something together using Tinkercad, or MorphiApp, and you’ve drawn them into a shared purpose. First, they’ll rely on each other to learn the program. And if the task is authentic? They’ll be brainstorming together, sketching ideas, and creating a shared product. Teamwork makes the dream work, right?
2.) Get Characters In The Story. Find a real problem in the school that students could improve. Design and print a game for younger learners in the school, then teach them to play it. Develop a character, print it, write a story about it, then give it to a younger child… even better? What if the character WAS the younger child, as a super hero, in the story, and printed as an action figure?
3.) Models. After I printed the giant bolt, I thought, printing this five times, in different sizes, would be an excellent way to talk about scale with kids – because they can see it. It could lead to excellent investigations on measurement, volume, and even elapsed time by seeing how long it took to print.
4.) Mystery Object. Put the object in a box, let students peak. Then ask them to write an imaginative story about where the object came from. Did the giant bolt come from the Space Shuttle? Or is it the bolt from the handle of Paul Bunyan’s Ax?
5.) Strength Test: The inside of 3d printed objects is totally interesting engineering. The squares, the honeycomb patterns. How do they relate to animal structures in nature? How strong are they? Will the hold the weight of a brick? How might you replicate the pattern with cardboard to strengthen or design furniture?
6.) Design and print a shipping container for a Pringles chip or other object to protect it. Exchange with another class and see if the design works.
7.) Historically Speaking: Develop, create, and print a new monument celebrating your state (or country’s) history. Or, design an object that would change a historical moment. Print it and rewrite history.
3d printing probably going to be amazing to me even when I’m 80 and I say things like, back in my thirties my prints took 4 hours. Either way, it can bring a whole new level of learning to the classroom, if you set up some situations where kids are in creation mode, or if you allow the creations to bring in new learning opportunities. But a 3d printer also has potential to be an uninspiring “worksheet” that kids repeat, regurgitate, and reprint with. The best part of that? You can make sure that doesn’t happen. Set up the possibilities, be prepared to unclog the extruder, and let them build their learning, one drop of filament at a time. And when you’re 80, you’ll have some cool stories to tell about how you were there when it all began.
Yesterday I came across a screenshot from Willy Wonka, the original, and I thought of how the movie both inspired me and creeps me out at the same time. So many bizarre moments, yet so much imagination. From zooming through that creepy tunnel to the scary orange makeup on the Oompa Loompas, I still want to run through that edible room and eat whipped cream from a mushroom cap. And as a kid who did not enjoy reading (sorry folks, it’s true, I despised reading) I loved Roald Dahl books. So what does all of this have to do with making in the classroom? It gave me an epiphany.
Source: Stanford D School
Design thinking! Yes, the process: Empathy. Define. Ideate. Prototype. Test. It lends itself to real-world problem solving, but little kids love imagination. Why not combine the two? What if kids were asked to meld together their favorite books with big problems, and solve them… Design a new candy machine for Wonka. Invent a contraption that keeps Charlie from bumping his head on the fan in the Fizzy Lifting Drinks room. Ask students to find a problem in the story and solve it with their own invention.
While I think the beauty of design thinking is in the real-world application of it, I also think there is beauty in getting kids to interact authentically with fiction. You’re opening the door to creativity, imagination, a new level of comprehension. And I have to admit, the non-reading kid stuck inside me would have loved the chance to do this.
I love thinking about how we can inject more chances for kids to practice empathy in the classroom and what better way than to use these larger than life characters to help them understand someone else’s point of view.
These character cards I created for my own school, you are welcome to print and use with your own students, could help kids (and you!) get started with the process. But in the long run, have them develop the character profiles, think about the problems the character has, and you’ve just created a more authentic way for kids to build character trait profiles about favorite books. It’s not just about listing a few things about the character, but really understanding WHO they are. Because, when you are designing for someone else, you really have to dig into WHO they are.
And even IF they are an imaginary character, it can lead to a really powerful learning experience for students. Filled with problem solving, building, collaboration, sharing, presenting, and most of all? Fun.
And a little fun now and then… well, Wonka himself said it best…
I’ve gotten several emails after my last post and they all ended with the same line, “Where do I start?” It can be overwhelming to start by Googling “makerspace.” What do you most often see? That stark modern space with expensive 3d printers. But that? It’s not the reality of what making in the classroom can be. I know the constraints faced by many of us in education, and I’ve lived them before. You make do with what you have, get creative, and repurpose existing materials to MAKE making happen in your classroom. You gotta start somewhere, right?
1.) Make Space: Dedicate an area. Do you have a corner you can spare? A table that’s available? A carpeted spot that you can put an old coffee table on with a colorful coat of paint? That’s all you need.
2.) Organize The Area: Create some bins, boxes, or storage containers with materials. Yard sales and thrift stores are perfect for finding old puzzles, Legos, blocks, fabric scraps, and more. Cardboard is free! Those bins? They could be shoeboxes covered in colorful paper with a label on the end. The idea is to inspire kids to dream, invent, and explore. The materials available are important, and starting with simple materials will allow you to get your feet wet, while students dive in. Labels can be simple printouts on white paper, taped to the boxes with packaging tape.
3.) Go Digital: Start a digital maker space. A blog on your classroom website, an Edmodo group, or even a simple Smore page that you update each month. Post a monthly maker challenge and ask kids to bring their creations in and share them. Making is far more powerful when sharing with others and inspiring your kids to make outside the classroom is a great way to get them excited about learning around the clock. It’s not for a grade, or for a test. It’s just pure fun with creating and problem solving along the way. One idea for the Monthly Maker Challenge might be: Design an item of clothing that solves a problem that you have. Build a prototype. Students could even share on your digital maker space – providing them a chance to share their voice with the world.
4.) Ask for Help: Invite students to share their ideas and materials for making. Kids can bring in recycleable materials, boxes, scraps, and newspaper. Let parents in your classroom know you are dedicating a space to creativity and would love some extra materials that they no longer need.
5.) Reverse Engineering: Add some old tech that can be tinkered with and taken apart. Art created with an old keyboard? Circuit boards turned into a robot? Kids will love exploring the insides of tech.
6.) Integrate the Space: As students get into the space, you’ll find standards are being delved into left and right. When a student builds a light up contraption, she can create a how to tutorial for others to follow. Measurement, collboration, and presentation skills are just the tip of the ice berg to the real learning that can occur. That book you are reading this week? Ask students to design a house for the character and then use LED lights, batteries, and copper tape to make the house light up. Better yet, leave it open ended and ask students to create something that represents the book. You provide the space and materials, students can provide the imagination.
That’s a tiny start that’s manageable and can allow you to provide students the space to freely explore. What might happen over time? New materials can be introduced. Kids will be motivated to create more. The area will flow into the larger classroom throughout the day. And that? It’s the very best thing that could happen. Because the learning that occurs when students are making, designing, exploring, problem solving, and creating? It’s authentic and it’s the stuff great learning is made of.