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Beyond the Museum: Tinkering with Paper Circuits

Beyond the Museum: Tinkering with Paper Circuits

One of the things that we are currently thinking about in the Tinkering Studio is how we might translate work we are doing on the floor of the museum to after school programs, classrooms, and other formal and informal educational settings. We've been inspired by a collaboration this summer with artist-in-residence Jie Qi from the High-Low tech group at the MIT Media Lab to try messing around with paper and copper tape to make circuits.


Paper Circuits feels like tinkering to us for several reasons. First, it uses both familiar materials like paper and batteries and unfamiliar materials like copper tape and surface mount LEDs in surprising ways to get people thinking with circuits in a different context than these concepts are usually presented in school. Also, the activity integrates science, art, and technology in a way that allows each learner to decide where they want to place their own emphasis. One other thing that we really like about it is that it supports the complexification of designs, meaning that people start with something simple and quickly move to a more personalized, complicated, and satisfying creation. The project allows us to value both a simple circuit with a "complex" story or craft around it just as much as a technically advanced "all the bells and whistles" project, depending on the thoughts and ideas of the learner.

Getting Started

The first thing that I would recommend if you want to try this activity on your own is to read the tutorial on the high-low tech website. It's a great starting point that shows where to order the materials online, gives some templates for simple circuits, and inspirations for next steps. You can also check out this handout that she made to show the materials and process on a one page pdf.

Workshop with Jie

Next, collect copper tape, surface mount LEDs, coin cell batteries, clear tape, binder clips, and small pieces of card stock paper. It also helps to have scissors or exacto knives to cut the tape precisely and tweezers for handling the extremely tiny LEDs.

When we've tried this activity in the tinkering studio, we've set up a large communal table with shared materials that are available and accessible. This way we often see new ideas travel around the space and can encourage participants to show others what they've figured out.

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Facilitation Strategies

Usually we get people started on making a simple switch in the shape of a square. This initial project lets people practice the somewhat difficult techniques of folding the copper tape at right angles and get a feel for the other materials while thinking about what they might do next. Facilitators may show a simple example and examine the components alongside the learner. One thing that I've seen, that is hard for people is folding precise angles with the copper tape so facilitators often just let them practice that with a scrap sheet of paper and small pieces of tape.

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You can fold over one side of the card stock and attach a binder clip to secure the battery in the circuit. Another thing that facilitators can work with participants to figure out is the directionality of the LED. The light only works if it's oriented in the proper direction so if everything looks okay on the circuit, you might suggest flipping the surface mount LED.


Throughout the making of a simple circuit, our facilitators tend to watch the participants closely to see if they think they'll need help at any point. We'll let learners get frustrated a bit as they try to work it out but we are always around to jump in and show tricks and techniques for working with these novel materials. One more thing that facilitators can do in the early stages of the project is ask people what they are thinking about making next or what other ideas they have so that when they finish the simple circuit, they are ready to work on something more complicated or personalized that makes use of what they have learned.



The copper tape that we use for this activity only conducts through the top layer which makes soldering a valuable addition to the experience. We like to teach people how to use soldering irons in a heavily facilitated and safe environment. If this is possible in your environment we think that this activity provides a good introduction to soldering in a way that doesn't feels intimidating and supports personalization. Working on the paper feels approachable but also allows people to practice the fundamentals of this important tool. Soldering the small components isn't as scary as it may seem at first and it helps to use metal tweezers and attach the "legs" one at a time.


Taking the Experience Further

There are many ways to go deeper into explorations with paper circuits. One thing that we've tried is to incorporate pop-up elements into the designs. Jie has experimented with making pop-up books using different paper folding techniques. We have also tried adding lights to simple origami shapes, using the moving paper to create switches.


Another way to build on explorations with these ideas and materials is by adding microcontrollers and sensors to your creations. We've experimented with cards that activated with lights or sounds and programming the LEDs to flicker on and off in patterns. Paper circuits can be a way to explore inputs and ouputs with Arduino and other ways of programming. Once again the high-low tech website contains lots of inspirational ideas. If you want to know more about programming microcontrollers with Arduino check out this handy tutorial from Dave, one of Jie's collaborators at MIT.

Workshop with Jie

Workshop with Jie


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!