Finding Depth in Paper Circuits

by Brooke Toczylowski, Arts/Maker Specialist and Coach, AbD Oakland Leadership Team

When Wendy Donner and I first started tinkering with paper circuits we knew it had amazing potential beyond the inevitable “That’s so cool!” experience. We wondered, How could paper circuits connect to an interdisciplinary generative topic? How could it make visible unseen aspects in our art, or demonstrate understanding of the world around us?

For our second day-long workshop with a group of art teachers at Santa Barbara’s Incredible Children’s Art Network (iCAN), we decided to use paper circuits to dive into “Illumination,” and “Systems.”

Inspired by NexMap’s 21st Century Notebooking we formed one of our guiding questions for participants: “How can paper circuits illuminate our thinking?” Using an accordion book as the thinking receptacle participants wrote thoughts on the Agency by Design capacities, concept mapped “illumination,” responded to a See, Think, Wonder thinking routine looking at the artwork of Jie Qi, and reflected on photo documentation printed on the modern version of a polaroid camera.

Here observers looked for evidence of the three capacities that support the development of Maker Empowerment: Looking Closely, Exploring Complexity, and Finding Opportunity

Here observers looked for evidence of the three capacities that support the development of Maker Empowerment: Looking Closely, Exploring Complexity, and Finding Opportunity

Next, instead of using a template or a demonstration to show how-to make a circuit we wondered: How can close looking at the circuit develop participants own capacity to create a paper circuit? So before tinkering with their own circuits participants used the Parts, Purposes, Complexities (PPC), thinking routine to closely examine simple paper circuits. After doing this a few times with teachers and students we’ve found PPC to be a generative and intimate way to first explore circuits. It also flips the classroom and allows students to develop their own expertise. This produces a list of questions about circuits, which can be explored as a whole group. Through these experiences we’ve learned to encourage participants to look at the “parts of the parts.” For example, it’s important to closely examine the two leads on the LED and the two terminals on the battery to better understand how those parts work together. 

After illuminating our accordion books in the morning we moved onto developing a sensitivity to systems in the afternoon. Our second guiding question was situated within the AbD framework: How does systems thinking develop a sensitivity to design? Always looking for inspiration in contemporary art we looked at artists who explore systems, including Nina Katchadourian and Julie Mehretu. We then generated language for systems and went on a systems hunt. Small groups chose a system from their hunt to examine closely through the Agency by Design thinking routine Parts, People, Interactions (PPI), which they mapped onto chart paper. One group mapped out the system of security in the building, another the electrical systems, and still another the iCAN organization as a whole. When they were ready groups used the Imagine If.. protocol to re-design or hack their system. They were then asked to demonstrate their understanding, thinking, or hacking of this system using a paper circuit!

This last step was deep uncharted territory and we weren’t sure if they could make the connections between systems thinking and paper circuits, but all groups did. For example, the group examining electricity in the building used the copper tape on the back side of the paper to demonstrate how all the wiring in the building is invisible. 

And in another example, the group that mapped out the iCAN organization reflected, “We first learned in the morning that when you’re using multiple LED lights with paper circuits sometimes one will turn on but then another will fail—and then they switch. This is like the political system where one thing will fall into place but then another part of the system stops working. It’s not balanced.”

photos by Brooke Toczylowski