By: Bridget Rigby, Programming & Digital Design Teacher for Middle & High School, Lighthouse Community School, 2018 -2019 Agency by Design Oakland Teacher Fellow
Bridget works with middle school students at Lighthouse Community School, a charter school in East Oakland serving a student population that is 97% students of color and where 83% of students qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch.
I wanted my students to look more closely at the circuit systems inside animatronic toys as a build-up to designing, building, and coding their own cardboard robots. We started by taking apart toys like Tickle Me Elmo to discover, document, and display all the Parts, Purposes, and Complexities that go into the circuit system inside, which make Elmo soooo darn ticklish!
Using the PPC thinking routine allowed me to look more closely at all of the different components of the circuit systems that we worked with along our learning path – from paper circuits to Makey Makey circuits to Squishy Circuits – and I started making connections between the systems. As we worked with Makey Makey switches made of Play-Doh to trigger digital effects, I found myself making parallels to the switches we made for our paper circuits out of copper tape and coin cell batteries, but this time the switch was made with our hands touching Play-Doh.
Before we took toys apart or learned about any new circuit systems, I always had them do a pre-dissection reflection, a drawing of what they thought they would find inside. For paper circuits, they completed a “circuit surprise” where they guessed all the parts that made up the circuit system and drew how they might fit together. I encouraged them to get creative if they didn’t know much about the actual parts. My favorite best guess from a student involved a unicorn pushing electrons through the circuit with his horn!
Then, after dissecting, designing, and building working circuits, they drew how the circuit system actually worked. After paper circuits, they drew Parts, Purposes, and Complexities for paper circuits and Makey Makey circuits, side by side. This led them to a discovery that there were the same underlying parts that served similar purposes for all circuit systems, the materials just changed.
All circuit systems need:
1) a power source to provide power and start the electrons flowing
2) something for the electrons to flow through on the way to the output
3) an output to light up, make noise, twirl around, or something fun like that
4) an input switch to turn the circuit on and off. More complex circuits like the ones that made up Tickle-me-Elmo, or the ones I do with my upper grades that involve coding of paper circuits, Makey Makey systems, and cardboard robots, also have ...
5) a circuit board for the code that tells the system what input leads to what output, along with instructions for exactly when and how the output should go off and on.
The big revelation for me was how looking at the Parts, Purposes, and Complexities of these different circuit systems can give students the perspective and terminology they need to better understand themselves, and the circuit systems that make up who they are. What’s their power source? What do they do to recharge their batteries? How does their energy run through them to keep them in their most positive, productive, and creative flow? What are the switches that turn their circuits on and off, making them “light up” or not? What outputs does the world see when they “light up?” or when their circuit wires get crossed to create a short circuit and shut them down? What code runs through them to determine what inputs lead to what outputs?
To go deeper into this discovery, I created a Parts, Purposes, and Complexities grid so students could compare the different parts and purposes common to all the circuit systems we studied, and then start looking at their own personal circuitry. After they brainstormed what their different circuit parts might be, I had them draw their personal circuit systems to capture their thoughts visually. Then they added LEDs, copper tape, and batteries to light up their drawings!
It turns out, we all have circuits with code running through that makes us potentially just as ticklish as Elmo, but in our own unique ways. We, too, are coded to respond to the world. Based on our many experiences, things people or society has told us, and things we choose to believe to be true, we end up coding if → then statements into our brain that become part of our circuits. Press one button and we laugh like Elmo, but another and we put up all of our defenses and send signals to make sure no one ever tickles us again! If students learn how their circuitry works, and how to build and code circuits through these creative projects, then they can design, build, hack, and code their own circuits to become their best versions of themselves and make their most positive impact on the world.
I want to keep following this circuit design path and prototyping new things with my students. Next, I’d love to go more deeply with my upper grade students into making code connections based on the coding we’ve been doing with micro:bit, ChibiChip, Makey Makey, Scratch, and Hummingbird. Then they can go beyond making simple paper circuits that represent their personal circuit systems, and make more complex 3D versions of themselves that respond to the world in different ways – like cardboard robots with sensors that capture even more of their personality as they move around, make noise, and light up with just a wave of the hand.
Look out, Elmo!
is the Programming & Digital Design Teacher for Middle & High School at Lighthouse Community School in East Oakland, and was a 2018 - 2019 Agency by Design Oakland Teacher Fellow