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Exploring Light & Shadow with Circuit Playground

Exploring Light & Shadow with Circuit Playground
A light and shadow scene made with circuit playground

As tinkerers, we often find ourselves revisiting activities from our past with fresh eyes and different materials and sometimes expanded possibilities. Recently, Celeste Moreno gave us the chance to tinker again with "light & shadow" during her artist residency. She invited us to engage in this topic using a range of materials and in particular an affordable microcontroller called the circuit playground, which has eight LED lights on board. Thanks to Celeste, I got to investigate light & shadow, a topic that I really enjoy, in the context of a new exploration space (a word our Tinkering Studio group coined to better describe the exploratory nature of the tinkering approach).


What’s an exploration space? 

I like to think of an exploration space metaphorically as a room with a certain set of materials, tools and inspirations which I can enter to focus my tinkering on a certain topic. What I create in this room is different each time I visit depending on which new ideas and experiences I and others in the room bring in. Celeste opened a new light and shadow exploration room for us,  this time with the circuit playground as a material that allowed for computation. 


Creating a Miniature Shadow Theater

When I saw the circuit playground mounted on a 3D-printed disk, I immediately thought of it as a light source that could be the base of a mini lightplay box. For this remix of  the bigger shadow theaters we often build with learners (, I chose wire, vellum paper as a screen, and a big yogurt container as a base. This new exploration space Celeste created for us inspired me to work on a smaller scale than I had before.

My experiment with this setup involved using three layers (light, narrative objects, and projection screen) to create a yoghurt container shadow theater. By placing a figurine between the light and the projection screen, a shadow appears on the screen in a specific location. 

A character in a cup lit by a circuit playground


Exploring "Light & Shadow" through storytelling

What I like about this project is that it not only allowed me to explore the phenomenon of light and shadow, but also encouraged me to tell a story. As an activity designer, I try to combine scientific exploration, digital tools, and creative expression, and the mini shadow theater does just that. Motivated by expressing something personally meaningful with shadows, learners get an opportunity to deepen their learning about the science of light.

Creating a Platform for Learners

Finally, my goal is always to create something that can serve as an inspiration for other learners to bring their own ideas to life. I hope this project serves as a generative example that helps other learners to create their personal take on a computational shadow theater once they themselves decide to enter that metaphorical  light & shadow exploration space. As a next step I am considering a material set for this type of exploration that will make it easy for learners to get started. For example. cardboard or paper shapes that work as shadow-casters will be a good addition to scaffold storytelling with silhouettes. 

Celeste's artist residency gave us the opportunity to revisit a classic activity with new materials and expanded possibilities and opened a whole new exploration space for us. For more examples of what’s possible with circuit playground, take a look at this blog post by Celeste.


National Science Foundation Official Logo


This project is generously supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2005764.