Maker Experiment #1

I have always been interested in the intersection of art and technology. When I received my littleBits kit, I started thinking of uses to explore the crossover between the technology inherent in the kit and the creation of art.

In my first project, a moving shadow puppet theater (discussed in an earlier post), I combined the light and motion aspects of littleBits to create an automated kinetic shadow puppet screen students could use to explore the creative use of light and shadow.

Taking the auditory arts into consideration, I have imagined modulating the buzzer bit’s output to produce sounds that could be used as a part of a musical composition. More recently, I have explored the idea of using the powered fan bit controlled by one of the dimmers to blow ink or paint onto a canvas.

But the activity I planned a lesson on was inspired by the following littleBits workshop video link. This activity has students attaching “mark making devices” (e.g., pencils, markers, brushes, etc.) to littleBits creations to build automated graphic artists and using these “artbots” to explore the concept of randomness versus pattern in abstract drawings and paintings.

This is one lesson within a curriculum exploring several elements of art including line, shape, form, composition, negative/positive space and texture.

My guiding question for this activity is: how can students use technology to explore randomness vs. pattern in abstract art production?

Activity (Grade level: 4-5)

1.) In an art class where students have been exploring the creation of abstract art and how various artists achieved their results, focus a discussion on the topic of randomness vs. pattern.

2.) Display several images of abstract art (some suggestions include paintings by Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian and Robert Delaunay as well as Native American and Tibetan Sand Painting) and have the students identify randomness and pattern in them.

3.) Lead a discussion about techniques that were (or could have been) used to achieve the randomness or the pattern.

4.) Play the first 3:55 from the YouTube video “Robot Art: Harvey Moon’s Drawing Machines.” Note: while not Creative Commons licensed, the use of this video within the lesson is covered by the Fair Use doctrine in U.S. Copyright law.

5.) Have students identify and discuss Harvey Moon’s techniques for creating randomness and pattern as seen in the video.

6.) Introduce the littleBits to the class. Allow approximately 15 minutes for pure introductory experimentation.

7.) Challenge the students to combine the littleBits with available artists’ supplies (pencils, pens, markers, crayons, pastels, charcoal, paints, ink, styrofoam, sponges, toothbrushes, paintbrushes and various other objects that might be used as brushes) to create an “artbot” capable of creating either randomness or pattern on their canvases. An extra challenge is to build an “artbot” that can do both.

8.) Bring the class back together to share their creations with one another and discuss the challenges (and their solutions) of working with the littleBits as well as working with the artists’ tools to create both randomness and pattern.

This lesson is informed by a constructivist learning theory concept of building schema. According to Wheatley (1991), “the teacher’s role is to provide stimulating and motivational experiences through negotiation and act as a guide in the building of personalized schema” (p.14). In this lesson, students create a schema with the littleBits and combine it with their existing schema for the drawing tools. By joining both, they construct entirely new meaning by using ideas from both, as well as building a practical understanding of pattern and randomness. More significantly, again per Wheatley (1991),

“Students come to realize they are capable of problem solving and do not have to wait for the teacher to show them a procedure or give the official answer. Students come to believe that learning is a process of meaning-making rather than the sterile academic game of figuring out what the teacher wants.” (p.15)

And, in that process, students develop an intrinsic motivation for learning new things.


LittleBits TV. (2013, August 6). Drawing bots, generative art machines [Video file]. Retrieved from

The Creators Project. (2013, June 24). Robot art: Harvey Moon’s drawing machines [Video file]. Retrieved from

Wheatley, G. H. (1991). Constructivist perspectives on science and mathematics learning. Science Education, 759-21.


Once more unto the breach

James Paul Gee’s The Anti-Education Era discusses limitations humans must overcome if they are to stop being stupid and solve (or at the very least address) the complex issues that face the world today. His statement of the problem (or should I say problems), while blunt, is right on point.

This is a book that, at first, I found pedantic and repetitive. But, sticking with it (required reading for my Masters class, CEP812, after all), I am now a fervent believer that it should be read by everyone! Follow this link for a taste of what Gee sees as our limitations and some discussion on how understanding even just one of them informs our actions.

Moving littleBits of Light & Shadow

This week I visited all three Thrift Shops on Grand Cayman. Unfortunately, all three were very small and almost entirely filled with clothing items. It appears the thrift shop in the Cayman Islands is not a very vibrant business (at least, not compared to my experiences in U.S. thrift shops).

But I did not despair. When I first looked over the syllabus for CEP 811, I recognized that I would be doing some “Making.” The mantra of “renew, reuse, recycle” was one our family embraced while living in West Michigan. Although almost no recycling happens here on island (unusual, since one would think people on an island would be mindful of the trash they produce and want to minimize it), I started collecting here in the same way we did in the U.S. Over the past two weeks, I have gathered a fairly wide variety of cardboard, aluminum, tin, styrofoam, cloth, glass as well as many types of plastics in a broad range of shapes and sizes. Here is a photo of my collection midway through the week.

My collection of recycled materials; It's my own little thrift shop!

My collection of recycled materials; It’s my own little thrift shop!

So it is with these materials (and my littleBits kits) that I began my Maker odyssey.

Following a couple days of playing (mostly fun) and experimentation (frequently frustrating), I settled on making a motorized shadow puppet theater a la “Home Alone.”

Motorized Shadow Puppet Theater Instructions

Using nine parts from a littleBits kit and some basic materials found around the house, I created a motorized shadow puppet theater similar (though on a much smaller scale) to the one my ingenious namesake, Kevin, built in the 1990 comedy “Home Alone.” This project was inspired by discussions with elementary science teachers about technology projects involving light and shadow. Elementary lessons on pulleys or art also came to mind when considering this project.




1 – 9v battery/battery cable/power adapter (a1, a2, & p1 from littleBits kit)

1 – rgb led (o3 from littleBits kit)

2 – long led (o2 from littleBits kit)

1 – dc motor (o5 from littleBits kit)

1 – branch (w2 from littleBits kit)

3 – wire (w1 from littleBits kit)

1 – plastic screwdriver


1 – piece of cardboard (11” x 15”)

1 – cardboard box top (11” x 15” x 2”) (Much like the top of a Banker’s Box)

1 – tin can (3.25” diameter) (I used an empty tuna can.)

2 – plastic lids (3.5” diameter) (I used screw tops from Talenti Gelato. Mmmm, delicious!)

1 – plastic container (3.625” bottom diameter/3.875” top opening diameter) (I used an empty Tribe Hummus container. Also, yummy!)

(The exact diameters of the can, lids and container are less important than their relative sizes. The lids should be slightly larger than the can and slightly smaller than the container.)

1 – Philadelphia Cream Cheese box (or other card stock weight material of similar size such as 3×5 cards)

1 – sheet letter size paper

3 – sheet wax paper (10” x 14”)

2 – thumb tacks

1 – nail (2.5”)

4 – small washers

Sticky Tack



Craft knife



Step 1:

Assemble the littleBits according to the following: (click on any photo to enlarge)

IMG_0608a.) Connect the 9v battery/battery cable/power adapter (a1, a2, & p1) combo to the branch (w2). LittleBits are designed to magnetically connect only in the correct orientation regarding input/output paths. So, if a Bit doesn’t connect when trying one side, simply flip around to the other side to connect it.

IMG_0609b.) Combine the 2 long leds (o2) with a wire (w1) to the rgb led (use the littleBits screwdriver to set the rgb led to full brightness on all three channels). Then add this “light unit” to the branch (w2).


c.) Using 2 wires (w1) connect the dc motor (o5) to the branch (w2).

IMG_0611Tape the 2 long leds together, and then tape the rgb led to the bottom of the long led pair IMG_0614keeping all three lights aligned as best as possible. When all three lights are properly aligned, the light will cast a more coherent shadow, making for a better shadow puppet experience.

Step 2:

Prepare to build the base and the motorized pulley system:

a.) Orient the piece of cardboard with the short side closest.

b.) Using the nail, punch a hole in the cardboard approximately 2 inches from the bottom and 2 inches from the right hand side.IMG_0617

c.) Again using the nail, punch holes in the center of the tin can and in the center of one of the plastic lids. The hammer will be helpful for creating the hole in the tin can. Use the nail as a makeshift drill bit to bore a hole in the plastic lid.

IMG_0622d.) Lastly, use the nail to bore a hole in the center of the plastic container. This hole should be small enough that the d-spindle of the DC motor will fit tightly in it.

Step 3:

Assemble the base and the motorized pulley system:

IMG_0627a.) Inserting the nail up through the bottom of the cardboard, place the plastic lid onto the nail (oriented the same as when it is being used as a lid), followed by the washers (to be used as spacers), and topped off with the tin can (also in a right-side up orientation).

IMG_0825b.) Place the other plastic lid parallel to the first lid but located on the left side of the cardboard base. Do nothing to attach it at this point. Its final position will be set in a later step.

IMG_0831c.) With the DC motor and wire attached to the rest of the littleBits assembly, center the d-spindle with the center of the left side plastic lid, and use some Sticky Tack to mount the motorized pulley to the left side plastic lid, d-spindle pointing up. (Note: orient the DC motor littleBit parallel to the short side of the base. This will be important later when the “rope” is attached to the pulley and pulls the unit toward the tin can pulley.)

IMG_0832d.) Use a small piece of tape to secure the wire to the side of the plastic lid and keep it out of the way.

IMG_0842e.) Stick two thumb tacks at 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock just right of the lid where the motorized pulley will be mounted. These will prevent the lid from sliding toward the right side pulley. They also allow for some flexibility in position later when the “rope” is added to the pulley.

IMG_0833f.) Place the inverted plastic container centered over the DC motor and push down until the d-spindle just penetrates the hole.

Step 4:

Build the “rope” and shadow puppets for the motorized pulley system:

a.) Cut three 1 inch by 11 inch strips from the letter sized paper.

IMG_0843b.) Cut two “puppets” out of the card stock (cream cheese box for me). I chose to cut out a male and a female puppet. Other potential choices are animals or several flame shapes to create a shadow fireplace.

IMG_0839c.) Attach the paper strips in a straight line using pieces of tape and overlapping approximately 1 inch at each join. Keeping the strips straight is important for keeping the pulley functioning properly. (I taped mine together while they were lined up along the straight edge of a counter.) Flip the strip and tape the joins on the reverse side as well.

IMG_0845d.) Use the long strip to measure the distance around the two pulleys. Adjust the length of the strip so that only about two inches overlap. Cut the strip and tape the ends together to create a single loop.

IMG_0847e.) Attach the shadow puppets to the strip with tape. Add a slight bend to the puppets to make their trip around the pulleys easier.

Step 5:

Build and test the screen:

IMG_0849a.) Measure and cut an opening in the cardboard box top leaving approximately 2 inches of border around the edges.

IMG_0851b.) Attach the 3 sheets of wax paper to the inside of the box top opening with tape. Using 3 sheets creates a perfect translucent screen.

c.) Place the screen at the front (pulley end) of the base.IMG_0852

d.) Switch on the power and adjust the position of the lights by bending the wires that hold the leds. Likewise, adjust the position of the leds by moving the light unit closer to or farther from the screen.IMG_0853

e.) Have fun playing. Experiment with other shadow puppet shapes and positions on the “rope.”

Project Steps Summary

  • Gather materials
  • Assemble littleBits light and motion unit
  • Prepare parts for construction
  • Assemble base and motorized pulley system
  • Build “rope” and shadow puppets
  • Build screen
  • Assemble, experiment and play

Closing Thoughts

One of the biggest challenges of this project is determining how tight to make the paper strip “rope” on the pulleys. Too tight and it tends to work its way off. Too loose and there is not enough friction with the pulleys to move the shadow puppets around. Play with this tension to find the sweet spot.

Beyond the optics, light and shadow discussions and exploration generated by this project, the multiple circuits of the littleBits assembly as well as the basic physics of the pulley system offer a broad variety of science topics accessible to elementary investigators.

See the final product in action here.

Get the Scoop on this ill structured problem

Below is my response to this week’s CEP812 assignment to screencast a solution to either a well-structured or an ill-structured problem. I believe the screencast speaks for itself (in spite of the fact that I do nearly all the speaking in it), so I will not belabor any of the points I make in it.

Please share in the comments if you have used or even know about ScoopIt! I just discovered it and am really excited by its possibilities.

Hot Butter! Watch out!

During my adventures (or should I say mis-adventures) with PopcornMaker over the past week, I discovered that PopcornMaker and Mozilla’s Persona sign-in system do not play nicely with Safari 6.0.5 on MacOS 10.8.3 (see bug report here). In general, I prefer to use Safari as my primary browser. But once I adopted Chrome for PopcornMaker use, I was able to continue with my project. Eventually, I moved to Firefox with the assumption that Mozilla makes both FF and PM, so I expected them to work well together.

Next I decided I needed (wanted?) a video of cavemen telling stories around a campfire at the start of my week 1 remix assignment. Initially having trouble finding a Creative Commons licensed version of such a video, I decided to create one myself and post it to YouTube with its own CC license. I discovered GoAnimate, and proceeded to create my own silly cartoon version of cavemen swapping stories around the campfire. (You can view it separately here if you’re interested.)

Next, I spent a fair amount of time trying to determine how to apply a CC-BY license TO a YouTube video. As it turns out, it is not a very complicated procedure, just not as well documented as I would have hoped. Once I realized that one solution would be to upload the video to YouTube myself to access the option for setting the licensing (the screen capture tool I had been using to upload my creation to YouTube was simply applying the standard YouTube licensing to the clip and not offering the CC option), I was well on my way to producing a remix in which I could take pride. In the end, I decided against using my custom crafted cartoon version. At least I had fun learning GoAnimate!

Overall, accustomed to working with editing programs that function properly (i.e., smoothly, gracefully, efficiently), I am finding the use of PopcornMaker to be clunky at best and !#%$@& frustrating at its worst. On several occasions, I had to sign out and back in again in order to get the PopcornMaker app to respond to my clicks. Once, in spite of the play button clearly showing that it was paused, PM continued to play the media in my track, even past the out point I had set for it!

Now with a full week under my belt playing with PopcornMaker, I am wondering if its problems (my problems with it) are just bandwidth issues. I did not immediately suspect the possibility because I have more than enough bandwidth to stream MLB and NFL games on a regular basis. I watch Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and other kinds of streaming media both on my Apple TV and on the Mac Mini I have connected to the TV as a media center. That said, once I started replacing the video I was trying to remix in PopcornMaker with still images and text, the program became a little more functional. It still stops and chokes on the videos I left in place. But with less video, it does so less often. This leads me to wonder, if someone else views my creation from a different location (with different bandwidth and latencies), will it work properly for them even though it does not for me? Feel free to check it out and leave a comment to let me know if the video sections show up for you or just play as white (or even pause the entire project) as they do for me.

I really wanted to create a remix almost entirely from video clips. But I just don’t think I can. At least, not given my present situation. I have viewed several tutorial videos showing people doing exactly what I had hoped to accomplish. Unfortunately, when I tried the things they were doing, my results were markedly different. I suspect this might be the kind of lesson in failure that Andrew wants us to experience. In any case, I ended up substituting still images for video in several places on my remix to allow me to get through it (sort of, it still stops a lot).

With the above preface in mind, allow me to present my first PopcornMaker Remix:

(Note: I have attempted to embed the actual video within this post via multiple methods, all without success. For example, pasting the embed code from PopcornMaker directly into the HTML of this post results in WordPress deleting said code. Therefore, I have simply embedded the link to the remix.)

After viewing (attempting to view?) my remix, if at any time you saw a blank screen with audio playing, that was one of my errant video clips. Please click the Remix button in the lower right to view the structure of my project. If it actually plays through for you without stopping or dropping any of the video clips, please do me the favor of telling me so in the comments. I would greatly appreciate knowing if the problem is mine or PopcornMaker’s.

Thank you.

Below are the sources for the CC licensed content in my remix:



Still Images



The game is afoot…

Well, the game isn’t actually a foot. In fact, it’s not even a game. It’s a class. In point of fact, it is two classes: CEP 811 and CEP 812, the two classes I am taking via Michigan State University’s online Master of Arts in Educational Technology (MAET) program. I am required to have a blog, so this is how it all begins. (Is writing a blog like a gateway drug to writing professional development articles and later, FSM forbid, writing books?)

The actual adventure starts on Monday, September 9th. However, being the anal over-achiever I sometimes can be, I decided to spend my Friday getting a jump on some of the housekeeping activities that needed to be done. So, blog, thou art begotten! (begot? begotten?)

Whoa! Did I just instantiate an online journal? Well, that’s enough for this Friday. Tune in again next week to see where this thing goes (or where I left the cheese). Hopefully by then we’ll know the answer to at least one of those questions.