Lately in the Tinkering Studio we’ve been thinking about how to translate the work that we do in the museum to settings like after school programs and community centers. Circuit boards provide a great introduction to electricity by giving learners a chance to experience the phenomenon through direct experimentation with familiar materials. Batteries, bulbs, and switches can be used as tools to explore different ways of building circuits. In this activity, each component is mounted on a block of wood and most are connected to two nails which serve as easy leads to connect alligator clip wires. Participants follow their own path in connecting the wires from the batteries to the other components and spend as much time as they want working out an understanding of how electricity works. Both the emphasis on approachable materials and the straightforward presentation of the parts lowers the barriers to trying things out and increases the number of surprising moments of insight.
First you need to collect 2x4 pieces of pine, nails, battery packs, light bulbs, buzzers and an assortment of interesting store bought and collected outputs and switches. Some that we have found particularly interesting include the plastic innards from animated stuffed animal toys, real light switches, and old-school doorbells with chimes. These components, mounted on the wood, provide the basic elements needed to create simple and complex electrical circuits. You’ll need to have plenty of all the various components and as well as enough wires with alligator clip leads available for the participants to feel comfortable testing out lots of different hypotheses.
When thinking about the environment of circuit boards, we like to try and create a communal space with many people working around one large round or curved table. This highlights the social aspects of learning and it's not uncommon to see ideas spread around the table, people complete half-finished circuits, and participants move fluidly between roles of learner and facilitator. Part of creating a comfortable and inviting space is finding a way to make the materials accessible for all participants, giving them the choice about which components to use.
Assumptions about Electricity
Electricity is a complex and confusing subject which can lead to people developing all sorts of misunderstandings about the way that electricity works. Most of the time in formal and informal education settings, these concepts are abstracted through vocabulary lists and complicated diagrams. While people might know terms like parallel circuit, series circuits, amps, volts, and current, they may not have any hands-on experience testing out their assumptions with parts that are easy to understand. One of the joys of circuit boards is that it allows for both “experts” and “beginners” the space to make surprising and testable discoveries about how electricity really works.
When helping to get people started working with circuit boards it helps to begin with a non-threatening and open ended question. Some examples from our explainer facilitators include: “can you make this work?”, “want to try to turn some of these things on?” or “would you like to play with circuits?” Starting off with questions like these, as well as pointing out the difference between power supplies (battery packs) and outputs (bulbs, buzzers, motors), makes it likely that people will start out with a simple circuit. One hint that we often give people who need a little help is that a circuit is like a circle and requires a complete connection.
Once participants understand the idea of connecting wires from battery packs to lightbulbs and other components, the main role of the facilitator is to suggest ways to complexify the experience and follow the direction of the learner as they decide how to add parts to their system. Often, the first step in this process is adding a switch to the circuit. From there, facilitators might suggest turning out multiple elements with one battery, introduce more complex switches like ‘double throw double pole’ or potentiometers, or suggest ways to make the motor spin in different directions. We also provide hand crank generators for people to experience their own motion transferring to electricity to power components.
Batteries may run out of juice, bulbs can burn out and wires sometimes break, so part of the challenge of facilitation is understanding when pieces have broken and showing learners how to systematically test their components. By going through the checklist process of testing each elements, facilitators model a real method for troubleshooting electrical parts.
Taking the Experience Further
There are many ways that the experience of electricity boards can be expanded to further explore different ideas about electricity.
One way to go deeper into circuits is by making homemade switches with aluminum foil, foamies, clothespins, popsicle sticks and other craft supplies. Two pieces of aluminum foil (or other metal) will conduct electricity when they come into contact with each other and can then be connected to the battery packs and bulbs or buzzers from the circuit board set. Some interesting switches that we’ve designed include a push button made with yogurt containers, a tilt switch the uses a ball bearing, and a motion detector with a spring. A design challenge can be focused by creating a prompt that the whole group might respond to in unique ways like, “figure out how to make a switch that would sound an alarm if someone stole your dinner.”
Another exploration that we’ve tried is using two types of playdough: regular salty dough as a conductor and homemade sugar substituted dough as an insulator in an activity that we call squishy circuits. In this activity the sculptable dough is substituted for the wires and can be manipulated to explore interesting and surprising circuit arrangements. This exploration highlights the element of play as a valid and powerful mode of learning which can allow people who feel intimidated by concepts electricity to engage in a safe and fun environment of testing ideas, confirming assumptions, and generating a mental model of how circuits work.
Tell us what you’ve tried! We’re constantly experimenting with these activities and want you to try new things too. Let us know the discoveries you’ve made, innovations you’ve developed, puzzles you’ve encountered, and more!