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Paper Circuits in After School at Lighthouse

Paper Circuits in After School at Lighthouse

For the past several weeks we've been heading to Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland to collaborate with their After School Program to host tinkering activities (you can read more about the history of the partnership here). This semester we've been focused on exploring cirucits, starting with Toy Take Apart, then moving on to Circuit Boards (including time to build our own) and home made switches.

For the past two weeks we've had the chance to delve into making Paper Circuits. One thing I love about going to the after school program is that we get to dwell on activities and build on past experiences in a way we don't often get to in the Tinkering Studio. Whereas a visitor may come to an activity in the Tinkering Studio for 20 minutes, in after school we have two hour blocks to dive into activities and can continue explorations over multiple weeks.

As we were preparing for the paper circuits workshop, Ryan and I thought it'd be a good opportunity to revisit some of the examples we use. For the first week we made some examples that show concepts that help you get started building a paper circuit, like connecting many LEDs in parallel, simple switches, or that there are different sizes of LED. For the second week, we made some more complex examples that include elements like pop ups, movement, or multiple switches.


One thing that I enjoyed observing over the past two weeks is how examples were used to inspire ideas, often in ways I wouldn't have expected. On our first week doing paper circuits, one student found an example that had zig-zag paper standoff that was used to create a switch. She used that idea to make 3D supports for her character. She then complexified the design and added tubes around the LED to concentrate the light behind the sunglasses.

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That same example inspired another student, who had made paper circuits before, to incorporate a switch into his design but put the light on top of the raised panel. The idea presented a challenge in both the mechanical design of getting the copper tape to move flexibly with the light as well figuring out the circuitry involved.

Another student saw a paper circuit with a flap switch. Instead of using that design component in the same manner as the example, she chose to make it part of a narrative element of her story. The flap hides a jack-o-lantern that the three children in her story must seek and find.

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Inspired by this student's card, we started our second week of paper circuits by thinking about ideas of narrative and storytelling and how they can incorporate into our projects. We also took a few mintues to work with a partner to examine an example and think of how they could be improved to tell a story. We brought both the examples themselves, as well as tiny pictures of the examples they could place in their journals if they wanted to annotate it or add notes.   One student took the idea of the "button" switch from the previous week and decided it could be part of a camera switch. When you push the button on the back of the card it triggers the LED to flash. This card had an exceptional construction challenge because she wanted to use the tiny surface mount LEDs but attach them from the back of the card. She figured out how to solder the tiny LED onto two extra pieces of copper tape, then use scotch tape to attach them to the circuit she had already designed. There was a lot of trouble shooting we had to go through to get the LED attached, since neither of us had built one like this before (taking a short break for a snack was helpful when things got frustrating).

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After a lot of trial and error trying to get the LED to work, she noticed that when she pushed on the contact point with a multimeter, it seemed to light up better. She decided to add an extra layer of tape to add more pressure, and it worked! After testing a few more times and adding some final details, her card was complete. We had a little time left in the session, so she decided to take a moment to journal about the activity. Some weeks we do formal reflections in our journals, but this week she decided to jot down some notes on her own.


Her introspection of noting that her favorite part was the "process and learning from [her] mistakes" blew me away! We always hope that people doing tinkering activities in the museum, at home, in after school programs, or anywhere get an opportunity to value the steps they take as they develop their own understanding of phenomena, but this moment of seeing it so clearly for this student was truly special.

Over the next several weeks we'll continue to explore circuits using different materials and building on past experiences. I'm excited to see what this group will come up with next!


Overdeck Family FoundationThis collaboration is funded by the Overdeck Foundation and the National Science Foundation.