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Open MAKE Tools: circuits three-ways

Open MAKE Tools: circuits three-ways

During the last Open MAKE: Tools event we tried to offer three different and progressively new (to us) approaches to making a circuit. We called this experiment "Circuits three-ways", and it consisted of:

  • Our activity set Circuit Boards, which allows visitors to freely connect power sources to a variety of outputs, switches, potentiometers, and sensors
  • The much more facilitation-heavy Sew a circuit activity. The twist here was that the facilitators were a group of museum educators from Arkansas who were participating in a workshop with us at the same time as we were having the Open MAKE event, and had just been introduced to the activity two days before
  • And finally, an activity in its very infancy, in which we were trying to figure out how to engage the public with using conductive paint to make circuits by drawing them on paper and connecting batteries and LEDs on a flat surface.

Open MAKE: Tools setup
The setup for the activities was really helpful, in that it encouraged the flow of traffic from the most accessible activity to the more experimental one naturally, so that you would move further in the "inner sanctum" as your investigation became trickier and more demanding. The amount of space and seats was also perfectly suited to the amount of people we could actually effectively facilitate, so that when the space felt full, we were still able to manage that amount of public.

Open MAKE: Tools
Circuit boards have now matured to a point where very minimal facilitation is needed for the activity to flow and visitors to stay engaged and keep exploring possibilities. This allows us to offer a more approachable first experience with a subject that can be intimidating, like electrical circuits, and hopefully entice some visitors to take it a step further and try their hand at making circuits with conductive thread.

Arkansas workshop
Sewing circuits. This is where our workshop participants proved their worth! We introduced the activity to them only two days before, and had them make their first LED-powered cuffs.

Open MAKE: Tools
Despite initial reservations about how challenging the activity would prove to visitors, they really threw themselves into facilitating it, and I saw scores of visitors walk away with a proudly worn cuff.

Open MAKE: Tools
My focus was a completely new activity tentatively called Drawn Circuits: the idea is to use conductive ink to draw functional circuits on paper. I think what was most important about it was considering it an opportunity to prototype and explore an idea together with the public, rather than trying to offer a fully worked out activity. With that perspective in mind, I am happy with how the experiment went.

Open MAKE: Tools - Instagrams
We ended up using paint from Bare Conductive because it is much easier to use with a simple paintbrush. We had previously tried copper paint, which is a much better conductor, but is very tricky to apply, basically needing to be squeezed out in a thin bead with a henna applicator. While cool to do, it was really messy and hard to avoid clumps and accidental blobs, and we quickly decided that painting was a much more approachable way to realize your vision.

Open MAKE: Tools - Instagrams
Some visitors completely surprised us by using pencils as paintbrushes to get an even thinner line. One major disadvantage of all conductive paints is that they only become conductive when dry, so there is often a long wait time before the design can even be tested.

Open MAKE: Tools - Instagrams
This didn't stop visitors most of the time, and many people left their designs at the activity table to dry while they explored the rest of the event, then came back to collect them and find out whether their circuit worked. This is not ideal, as it's best to test out your concept before you put a lot of effort into a design only to see it fail, but because we were right next to other tables that were offering ways of creating an understanding of circuits, it worked out. Another aspect that helped was that we really limited the age of participants to only 10 years and older.

Open MAKE: Tools
Adam and I, while prototyping the activity, kept repeating this mantra: "Keep the main thing the main thing", and so in an effort to avoid descent into decoration for decoration's sake we limited drawing implements to black ink pens and regular pencils. I was surprised at how effective that was: the focus of the activity really stayed with creating something that would work as a circuit, with the decoration working in service of that.

Open MAKE: Tools - Instagrams
Other interesting aspects were the fact that toe tags proved to be very attractive, and that it is possible to make switches by bending the paper, but it's not easy to figure out on your first try, so the slow nature of the activity really hinders that.

Most of all, I was struck by how fascinated people were by the mere existence of conductive paint. Even people who did not end up making anything were interested in talking about how the paint worked, and immediately had ideas of how it could be used. I could almost see their mind being blown and their horizons expanded, and that was cool.