Paper Circuits Popup Project with 4th Grade

 

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I’ve been wanting to explore paper circuits for quite awhile, but I haven’ taken the plunge to do it. We got many supplies for paper circuitry through a Donors Choose project. We’ve tinkered with the LEDs, conductive tape, and coin cell batteries some in our makerspace, but a class has not used it for a project….until now.

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4th grade is studying light as a part of their science standards, so the art teacher and I started talking together with the 4th grade team about a possible collaboration between all of us where students could create a piece of popup art and light it up using an LED. We jumped into the planning and the project without fully knowing how to make a paper circuit, but we had faith that we could figure it out together with our students.

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We knew some basics. Students would design a piece of popup art and plan for one part of the popup to light up. This was enough for the art teacher to start working with students on their pieces in art class. There were some basic requirements from her such as the piece had to include movement and a 3D element. The content of the popup was completely student choice. Some chose animals such as sea turtles following the moon while others chose to create a popup basketball goal. Each popup brought out the unique interests of each student.

While this series of work sessions was going on in art, the art teacher and I met after school to do a bit of tinkering. I had already done just a bit of tinkering on my own before she arrived, so I was able to show her a few things I knew. For example, I knew the positive post of the LED had to connect to the positive side of the battery.  This could be done by touching the battery directly or creating a circuit with conductive tape.  The part we were uncertain about was how students would open and close their circuit so that the light didn’t stay on all the time. We wanted to have some possibilities for students but we also wanted them to create some ways to open and close the circuit. As we tinkered, she took pictures of our steps to incorporate into some slides to share with the students.

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When students were ready for their LED component, the art classes were held in the library. We introduced the lesson with a series of slides to show the basic of an open and closed circuit. We also showed them some options for how to open and close the circuit.

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Students moved to tables where they found their art folder, their popup art, an LED, a coin cell battery, and some masking tape waiting for them.

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Before any students got conductive tape, we wanted them to plan out how their led and battery would connect. Students identified the positive and negative side of the battery and the LED and drew a path where the tape would eventually go. When they had a plan, students received conductive tape. They placed the tape along their path and tested to see if the LED lit up.  Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t. Actually, more often it didn’t.

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This was frustrating for many students, but we went back to our many conversations about failure and how you have to back up, take a look at what you’ve done, make a change, and try again. Some students discovered that there were parts of the positive or negative path touching one another. Some students realized they had labeled their paths incorrectly. Some students couldn’t figure out what was happening. All of that was ok, but what we saw in the end was that students were problem solving. They were trying something they had never done before, were having some success, and were sharing the process with others.

It was a crunched amount of time to get everyone finished, so the art teacher plans to continue the work back in her classroom by having students revisit their work and see what adjustments can be made. The biggest thing we saw was that many students had a circuit created, but they had no way to open or close it. I took several students back to the board to see the slides with options of how to fold the paper so that it opened or closed the circuit and then invited them to go back and see what they could figure out.

We had a lot of hands helping with this project. There was me, the art teacher, the art student teacher, and sometimes a resource teacher or even the classroom teacher.  It was messy. We had paper all over the place by the time we were done, but there was a buzz of excitement and problem solving in the air.

Now that we have one shaky project under our belt, I hope we will take some additional risks with paper circuits and see where we can go next. I love seeing a teacher leap into a project with me without really knowing what’s really going to happen. We learn so much along the way as educators, but our students are also given an opportunity to trust themselves too.

Creating Star Charts with LittleBits

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Last week, Mr. Coleman, 4th grade teacher, asked me if I had any extension lessons to support 4th grade’s study of stars and constellations.  Specifically, their standard is:

S4E1. Students will compare and contrast the physical attributes of stars, star patterns, and
planets.

I suddenly remembered that a part of he littleBits workshop kit that I purchased this summer was a free space module.  As I flipped through the book, I saw that you could use littleBits to make a start chart.  This was the perfect opportunity for students to explore littleBits in a standards-based lesson with enough structure to give them a goal but still have an opportunity to do a bit of tinkering.

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Because some of the steps involved using a box cutter to cut holes in a cup and a cardboard circle, I did a few steps ahead of time for them.  On a large piece of cardboard, I gathered materials for each group:

  • a ziploc bag of the littleBits needed, including the battery
  • a littleBits screwdriver
  • scissors
  • tape
  • a toothpick
  • a pen
  • a cone made out of construction paper (many thanks to Gretchen Thomas for helping me figure out how to make a cone!)
  • a plastic cup with the bottom cut out
  • a cardboard circle the size of the mouth of the cup
  • a strip of cardboard
  • a set of instructions
  • a copy of a star chart

We started the lesson together on the carpet.  We watched a short intro video:

I told them that our goal was to make a device that lit up when it was in a dark room and projected stars onto the ceiling.

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We talked about failure.  I emphasized that this class was the first class in the school to use littleBits.  We talked about failing, taking a deep breath, backing up, and trying again when something didn’t work.  I also talked about teamwork and time management.  This was to emphasize that the more they worked together and didn’t give up the more likely they were to be successful in making their chart.

I also made suggestions about how teams might think about dividing up the work load.  For example,

  • 1 person might try step #7 and prepare the star chart
  • 1 or 2 people might try step #1 to assemble the bits
  • 1 or 2 people might try steps #3, 5, and 8 to create the cone
  • 1 or 2 people might try step #4 & 6 to attach the bits and test the device

This was only a suggestions.  Teams were welcome to do every step together or divide the work up in other ways.

Notice that I didn’t say anything about explaining littleBits, what each bit was called, what their function was, or how to put them together.  I knew that the kids were perfectly capable of figuring this out on their own, and they proved me right.

Mr. Coleman helped divide the students into groups and they got right to work.  I was amazed by how the groups took time in the beginning to assign roles before working.  It was a rare moment to look at a table and not see someone working on some aspect of the star chart.

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Mr. Coleman and I walked around and encouraged groups to read directions, try new things, work together, and gave a few helpful nudges as needed.  However, we did not create the star charts for any group because we wanted students to experience tinkering, failure, and the power of reading and following directions.

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There was a definite energy in the room and it was by no means quiet.  Each time something started working, the energy level increased.  Groups started taking their devices into our makerspace and equipment room so that they could turn off the light and test their invention.  As pieces worked, they screamed with excitement, but as they failed they hurried out, disassemble their work, and started over.

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Once again, I was amazed by how no students stopped working and no students reached a point of frustration where they shut down.

We even had a group who were still working when we were debriefing the whole experience because they wanted to make their star chart work.  They didn’t give up for a second.

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When the charts worked, students spent a bit of time looking at their constellations on the wall and ceiling.

During our debrief, we talked about what we learned about littleBits as well as what next steps students might take to learn about constellations.  I encouraged them to learn some of the stories of the constellations and to actually look for them in the night sky.

For the littleBits, students figured out that you could adjust the sensitivity of the light sensor to come on when it was light or dark.  This was a point of failure for some groups.  Others talked about reading the words on the bit including the power bit that says “on” or “off”.  Missing that one simple word “on” could be the difference between failure and success, and many groups forgot to turn their power on before testing their device.

Before students left, I told them that this was only a small taste of what littleBits can do, and I encouraged them to think about other inventions they might create during the year and to come and explore the other bits and their possibilities.