Archive for the 'Digital Fabrication in the Classroom' Category

Digitally Interfaced Book: Paper, Graphite, Makey Makey, Scratch, and Imagination


As a professional artist, deepening the ways in which seemingly disparate objects and processes are interconnected through locating, and mapping their intersections has been one of the main elements of my studio practice. The Fab Lab tools and working processes create an environment that is well suited to investigating those types of intersections.

In an effort to integrate Fab Lab tools centered on craft, and studio-based processes into the classroom, I have been working to implement a Mobile MakerCart at a project-based K-8 charter school. In addition to introducing craft-based physical computing projects to the children, a guiding principle behind the MakerCart is to give teachers the opportunity to develop familiarity with the MakerCart’s tools and processes in order to be able to envision the ways in which they might be able to develop their own curriculum for use in the classroom.

The cart, housing a laser cutter, 3D printer, sign cutter, sewing machine, and various circuit building components and tools, is a flexible platform designed to circumvent the school’s space issues, move the tools freely within the school, and also to fulfill one of the school’s missions of moving out and interacting with the broader community.

The initial project run through the cart was a DIY Sound Studio where the children learned the basic physics of sound, and learned to craft their own sound scapes. The project started with making lo-tech record players out of needles, solo cups, and chopsticks (Figure 1), and moved to crafting their own soundscapes in Audacity and Garage Band, and playing them with Scratch/MakeyMakey based instruments through speakers they made themselves (Figure 2). These projects are designed to be iterative and carried through into other projects to deepen and enrich the children’s processes of making, and the objects themselves.


Fig. 1


Fig. 2

A major component of the projects done by the children have been ones of engaging in reflective processes to help guide them toward developing studio habits of mind. Incorporating these reflective processes as part of the work itself, one of the next projects to be introduced through the MakerCart is the writing, and crafting of a book that will incorporate and be interactive with Scratch programmed environments through circuits built into the book. This project is intended to incorporate multiple elements of literacy through having the children craft richly layered narratives that interconnect across multiple media.

The Scratch programming language, developed by Mitchell Resnick and his team at MIT, allows children easier access to learning the principles of programming. Released in 2006, it is utilized extensively in both traditional school environments, as well as in informal learning spaces such as the Computer Club where it was first tested. Programming in Scratch is a process of connecting Graphical User Interface (GUI) drag and drop blocks into a work window. There are eight different types of blocks: Motion, Control, Looks, Sensing, Sound, Operators, Pen, and Variables which work in concert through their various commands. As a GUI programming environment the focus is taken away from needing to be syntactically correct in the programming process. This utilization of a GUI is intended to encourage a more playful process of developing programming literacy, by allowing for the programmer to move quickly through iterations of their building of the program (Figure 3).



With Scratch, young people can program their own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art — then share their creations with one another online. In the process, young people learn important mathematical and computational ideas, while also learning to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively. Scratch is designed to make the activity of programming more tinkerable, more meaningful, and more social — and thus appeal to broader, more diverse audiences than traditional programming languages. Scratch builds on youth interests in popular culture, social media, and expressive communication.

Makey Makey is an object interface board developed parallel to, and intended to work in concert with Scratch. Makey Makey consists of a PCB that has all of the inputs that it takes to operate a computer keyboard, and a usb port that allows for the Makey Makey board to be connected to a computer. This feature allows for any keyboard command operation to be conducted through the Makey Makey board directly, but more importantly the board allows for the connection of any conductive object to run keyboard operations by connecting the objects directly to the Makey Makey board. Makey Makey boards are commonly demonstrated by connecting bananas to the board, and then using them as “piano keys” to play a virtual piano on the computer.

This book project uses all of the same basic parameters of hooking up the board to external objects, but utilizes a circuit that is drawn across the extent of the book in graphite (Figure 4). While the graphite is fussy at times, and will rub away leaving behind an inadequate substrate for the circuit to function properly, it is simple to develop the circuits, and also provides opportunity for the bookmaker to debug their book. Significantly, however, the book is a tangible object that is itself constructed, and done so in concert with programming in Scratch thus may provide a means to not only deepen their story in the book through external events in Scratch, but to also develop multiple literacies across media.


Fig. 4

The media in this way are no longer abstracted from one another, nor is a story developed solely within a singular environment, either as only a book, or on the screen. Additionally the bookmaker has an opportunity to create his or her own visual and auditory environments in design programs such as Illustrator, Inkscape, Audacity, or Garage Band, among many others. This project can be seen through the lens of the remix technology being designed by Mozilla, and incorporated into such projects as the National Writing Project’s, Six Word Story, that is being run through Mozilla’s Thimble platform. A fundamental difference of this bookmaking project, however, is the physical component of it that allows for an embodied experience of the programming environment.

This opportunity to connect one’s body to the process as it relates to the programming environment is an extension of Seymour Papert’s ideas of embodied cognition as they relate to the LOGO Turtle. The bookmaking experience is clearly not a one to one body experience of course as with the movement of the Turtle as it relates to the body moving in space, but the aspect of creating the physical object that triggers the programmed environment through manipulation with the hands is an embodied experience nonetheless.

Below is a video documenting an initial test of the book-making process. It follows the arc of building events in Scratch, using a pencil to draw out a graphite circuit, and hooking it all up to a MaKey MaKey board to run the program through the graphite circuit.



The following sections step out the process for creating the book circuit and hooking it up to the Makey Makey board to drive the Scratch programmed events.

1.1    Fold The Paper

Using a single piece of paper of any preferred size (here I have used 8.5” by 11”) follow the instructions for folding and cutting the paper as provided in Figure 5.


Fig. 5

1.2    Create Your Story

Using your preferred creative method for crafting a story in text or image, or both, fill in the pages of your book with something amazing, hysterical, historical, or otherwise as in Figure 6.


Fig. 6

1.3    Build The Circuit

Using graphite, or any other conductive material (here I have used aluminum tape), build a circuit that will allow an action in Scratch to be triggered from each page you want to have interactive, as shown in Figure 7.


Fig. 7

The integrity of the book’s circuit is important because only one ground wire will connect the book to the Makey Makey board, and then a jumper wire will lead from each circuit point on the bottom of each page to the respective keyboard key interface on the Makey Makey board as will be shown in the steps provided in the following section.

1.4    Hook Up Your Book to Makey Makey

Taking one point as your ground on the book circuit, run a jumper wire to the Earth Strip on the Makey Makey Board. Using jumper wires continue to hook up each other point in the circuit on the book to the section of the Makey Makey board that you have programmed Scratch to be triggered by. In this example the keys I am using are Space, Up Arrow, Down Arrow, and Right Arrow, as shown in Figure 8 on the following page.


Fig. 8

1.5    Plug in Makey Makey and Run Scratch

Plug the Makey Makey board into the computer, and load your Scratch program (Figures 9 and 10).


Fig. 9


Fig. 10

1.6    Read Your Book, Make Scratch Play

Thumb through your book and use your finger to close the circuits. Your body is the switch, and the book circuit should now run through the Makey Makey board and trigger the events you’ve programmed in Scratch as shown in Figure 11.


Fig. 11

— Christian–

Interactive Book Test 1

This is a video documenting the initial graphite circuit test for an interactive book project that will have the kids program in Scratch and trigger the programmed events through a MakeyMakey board hooked up to a book they’ll make. Looking forward to the next round of Passions.

— Christian —


DIY Sound Studio


With the BPS Fab Cart’s first foray into the Passions just wrapped up, the excitement of starting the next round is in the air. The first three weeks of the DIY Sound Studio Passion kicked off with a quick intro to the basic physics of sound, building model eardrums, and learning how to make a chopstick turntable.

The kids hooted, hummed, sang, and hollered at their model eardrums, red plastic Solo cups with a latex glove pulled tight over the top, and learned how sound waves cause eardrums to vibrate by using their voices to bounce a layer of salt on top of the latex. Continuing the investigation of sound as vibrations, the kids were shown how records are the physical analog imprints of recorded sound, and were then given a challenge to play a record with only a chopstick, a needle, some tape, and the cup from their model eardrum. It was amazing how quickly they solved the problem, figuring out how to use the cup with a needle run through the bottom of it as a combination player/speaker. Working in teams of two they put the records on the chopsticks, and while one turned the record with the chopstick the other placed the needle on the record, and to their amazement the sound was amplified through the cup.

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 1.30.41 PM

The projects moved from the analog to the digital, and the sound editing software, Audacity was introduced to the kids starting with how to create tracks, and generate tones. The kids tested the tones they generated by making a non-newtonian fluid out of cornstarch and water, and watching it “move to the music” on the speakers they patched their sounds through. These visual cues as they related to the audio provided the kids a great opportunity to learn about frequency and amplitude, make an absolute mess, and have a blast doing it. This project was one that they never seemed to grow tired of, and many of them revisited it even during the final week.


The kids combined the sounds and tones they were making in Audacity with Garage Band, and many of them brought their own music passions into the mix, recording their instruments, and building compositions. The final week involved the kids in learning about how speakers function, and then building their own. They played their sound compositions through these DIY speakers, and through iterative processes gradually refined their speakers to produce clearer, and louder sounds. Some of the kids even started making headphones out of the magnets and wire.

This next round of Passions will introduce the kids to circuit bending, making contact microphones from piezos, and modifying speakers to cut their own records on old cds, as well as to begin building their own interactive instruments in Scratch that will interface with objects through MakeyMakey boards. Based on the absorbed engagement of the kids, and studio-like atmosphere that developed over the course of the first DIY Sound Studio Passion, I’m sure the kids will be producing amazing things in the weeks to come, and I’m looking forward to being around all that great energy.

And here I want to point to the energy and enthusiasm the teachers, Tarrey, and Emily have brought to table. These two amazing teachers have really carried forward to the kids the excitement of their own discoveries with the projects and processes. And this is critical, because the teachers’ adoption of the Maker/DIY culture as it exists around the Fab Lab environment into their own culture in the school environment can only happen with their own engagement with the tools and processes. And this informal format of the Passions at BPS is a perfect vehicle to allow these adoptions to occur. These are opportunities for not just the children, but also for the teachers, and this is such an important element in allowing for the possibility of perhaps even the “formal” classroom itself to be a makerspace.

— Christian McKay —

It *is* Rocket Science!

It is Rocket Science!

Many of the students at The Project School have recently been building and designing their own air-powered rockets.  As a part of their Wednesday enrichment choices, students are able to take part in science/physics activities as laid out by the NASA Ignite program. 

In addition to our air rockets, we have done marble run activities, lunar lander simulations, balloon powered racers, and balloon rockets designed to emulate lifting payloads into space. Our sessions begin with brief open-ended questions designed to start the inquiry process, like:  Have you ever thought about the difficulties of landing a rover on Mars?  What keeps a rocket from spinning out of control?  What forces do you think are involved?  There is always some brief discussion facilitated by the leader who refrains from answering any specific questions or validating anyone’s conclusions.  At this point in the activity, there are no right or wrong answers— only possible solutions and ideas.

After questions we move on to the building and hands-on activity which allow the students to explore their former ideas, change their designs, learn from other teams, meet the challenges of the activity, and, in many cases, deal with the consequences and realities of failure.

This is the time when students really become truly engaged.  They are no longer just thinking about science and inquiry.  They are doing science and inquiry.  They build and design their landers or rockets, and then they try out their creations.  They fail, they modify, they problem solve, they fail again.  Some rockets shoot a hundred feet up while some tank at twenty feet and flutter to the ground like wounded birds.  This is all part of the process, and after these events we go back to the drawing board.  We talk and share ideas.  What worked?  What did not?  Why did Jim’s rocket spin out of control?  Why did John’s go so high?  What was so different about the rockets we saw?

The wrap up is always aimed at the original questions.  Students may not have names for the forces involved.  They may not know the definitions of inertia or centrifugal force.  Even after the teacher explains, they may not remember the terms, but one thing is certain:  After watching a marble go through a loop, after designing the loop and failing many times, they have come intimately to understand the concepts of inertia and centrifugal force.  After watching multiple rockets launch into the air, they are keenly aware of lift, drag, gravity, and thrust.  Add a dash of mystery about the universe and the great unknown, of stars and black holes, of pulsars and nebulae, and you have the ingredients for a mighty inquisitive and excited group of learners.

You can see some of the delight in students’ voices in this short clip of one of our launches:

What’s next?  I’m glad you asked.  Next we will explore the likelihood of life on other planets.  We will explore what that life might look like.  We will talk about extremophiles, and even the amazing tardigrade.  Don’t know what a tardigrade is?  Well, it’s also known as a “water bear”.  I’ll leave the rest of the inquiry to you.  Keep star gazing!


Mark van Dyk

Preparing to Make!

I’ve always believed that building was a universal link to many threads of learning. When given the option to construct a class I’ve tending to develop it around building, designing, or making something (a boat, an environment, models, etc.). At The Project School we believe that kids should have an opportunity during their day, week, or experience at the school to engage deeply in something they are passionate about or passionate about learning more about…we call that passions!

Here is a description:

Each week, students engage in a deep study of something they are passionate about. These teacher-, student-, and community-member designed courses of study are rigorous, inquiry-based, and experiential. Passions is based largely on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow. Flow is a state that is reached when one is so engaged in an activity that all sense of time, and possibly place, is temporarily lost. For example, an artist may be “in flow” while painting and an avid gardener while gardening. Passions works to create the culture and conditions that will allow students and teachers to reach a state of flow while engaged in something they are intrinsically motivated to do. Periodically (at least twice a year), students will have an opportunity to choose a passion and engage in a multiage class with peers who share their interest. These courses of study are directly and intentionally linked to developing the Habits of Heart, Mind and Voice. Teachers use the same curricular and assessment process in designing, implementing, and evaluating the Passions curriculum.

When I was introduced to the idea of the Maker Movement I immediately went to passions as a place to “try this on” in a school setting. I’m excited to explore and play with kids as I learn more about this with them. That’s probably the most authentic component of what we are doing here…learning together.

More to come…


Identity Building

In my limited, but expanding experience with Bloomington Project School, my observation is that it has begun to develop, or perhaps was developed with an identity of being forward thinking, and based in a systems thinking, and sustainability model. This identity development is both top down and from within the student body.

A significant component of the school’s culture is one in which the students are given agency through being active partners in developing their own education. This process is seen most clearly in what is known as Passions, a forty minute block of time four days a week where the students are able to participate in hands on activities of their choosing and design. These activities range from making jewelry with duct tape to yoga to geocaching and mapping. These Passions sessions run for three to four weeks, then some new ones are structured, some favorites remain, and the students rotate into a new experience for the next round.  

The children have agency in developing parts of the structure of their learning, and through that experience their self-identity as both individuals in a community of students, and in the broader community of Bloomington. This is valuable in how it may lead to their capacity to positively affect and help develop the identity of Bloomington itself, a town that has as its primary face forward an identity wrapped in the trappings of Indiana University. The children, through their development of both identity and systems thinking skills, can begin to look beyond their immediate school environment, and into the community of Bloomington in ways that can allow for its deeper histories and broader population to be more integrated into the conversation of the town’s own identity.


Knowledge Building Through Construction

So, some of the primary thoughts that I’ve had around the Maker Cart and future FabLab are that they are generative spaces. That is that they serve to broaden and deepen the potential of the learning environment through the affordances, both actual and virtual, of the tools.

This is to say there is no reason to narrowly frame the space in terms of how it can serve just one Passion, but rather how can it serve any number of the passions at once. For example while it may serve a Passion around designing and constructing architectural spaces through the utilization of TinkerCad and 3D printers, it can also serve to deepen the Passions of geocaching, nature walking, and mapping concurrently by allowing for embroidering GPS pathways and waypoints in conductive thread as a map of everyone’s experiences and patterns of movement in each of those passions. This could be a collaborative tapestry that then even leads into map of where the 3D printed buildings are located.

This is a rhizomatic manner of thinking about the affordances of these maker spaces. It also goes back to how, as Rafi was talking about, we can make thinking visible. This of course also feeds right back into, Tarrey’s showing by doing of the things that are possible with these spaces. It is a way, through making both the children’s, and teacher’s thinking visible to illustrate the potential of the Maker Cart, and FabLab in the teaching space of the classrooms, and the interconnectivity of the various “disciplines” that we teach children.