Maker Experiment #3

On Making, McGyver and McLuhan (sort of)

After deeply engaging with Maker Education for the past few weeks, I am sure that the Maker ethos will continue to inform and influence my work with others. How could it not? I have been a Maker for as long as I can remember.

As a very young boy of four or five, I recall gathering shoeboxes and used light bulbs, knobs and dials and other parts off broken toys and electronics, and combining them into “inventions” which were powered only by my imagination. The urge to create something new from something old was a powerful one even at such an early age. Flash forward 50 years, and I am a charter subscriber to Make Magazine and still creating things, often out of recycled materials. So, clearly, I have been a Maker since long before I started this class. But I have no doubt my past continues to influence and inform my work with other educators. Likewise, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the motto of Renew-Reuse-Recycle is one my family and I have taken personally for quite some time. How could it not bleed over into my professional life?

Still and all, just as the week three lessons brought learning theories studied in undergrad back to the forefront of my consciousness, so too did the rest of the course cause me to take a fresh look at Making and its influence on my practice.

Just one question...

Just one question…

For me, CEP811 was a reminder that creative solutions to problems are not always as McGyver-like as defusing a bomb using duct tape and a swiss army knife. More likely they take the form of a database report or a well laid out newsletter or a chart in a spreadsheet. But just sometimes they might include an empty tuna can or a plastic gelato container. While not as exciting as the fictional McGyver’s solutions, they are certainly more functional and useful in the real world.

As I continue to assist others in the integration of technology into their own work, be it with students, teachers, administrators or even parents, my measure of success will remain as it always has: does the tech make things easier? Does it clarify or enlighten? Does it allow the user to do or be something more than before? If, in a particular situation, recommending a Maker philosophy satisfies one or more of these measures, I will definitely suggest it. Considering, more specifically, the littleBits kit I both studied and played with, I’m fairly certain it will be part of some future recommendation, most likely at the elementary level. Both the ease of use of the littleBits as well as their ability to draw users in, their inherent playfulness and coolness, are great tools to get kids interested in creating technology solutions quickly and becoming inventors in their own right. At root, technology is really nothing more than a tool, much like a pencil, albeit a rather sophisticated one. As a quote often mis-attributed to Marshall McLuhan states, “We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us” (Culkin, 1967, p.70). Bringing littleBits into the lives of elementary students seems like a wonderful way to shape some of those young minds.

Regarding my own growth and work in CEP811, I am relatively satisfied. I certainly appreciated the focus in weeks four, five and six on instructional design, experience design and universal design for learning. Those three weeks in particular gave me a welcome new lens (or three) through which I could view my work as a technology coach. I guess if I had a regret, it would be that we did not complete more hands-on Maker projects like week two. I believe a course designed around such work, while definitely less academic than what I accomplished in CEP811, would add a wealth of great ideas and tools to my practice. In fact, “more hands-on, in general” would have to be my best recommendation for improving a course titled “Adapting Innovative Technology to Education.”


Bajec, R. (Photographer). (2008). Graffiti text [Photo], Retrieved October 30, 2013, from:

Culkin, J. M. (1967). A schoolman’s guide to Marshall McLuhan. The Saturday Review, 50 (11). Retrieved from


On Choosing My Own Adventure

This week in CEP811 I explored the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and was asked to go on a sort of “choose your own adventure in SoTL” by creating an annotated bibliography of five scholarly resources that relate directly to my teaching practice and interests. Further, I was requested to engage MSU’s Library Support resources in my search for scholarly readings, and that’s where the real adventure began for me.

Beginning with the question, “How do I find research on ‘tools that enable or enhance cross cultural collaboration in Project Based Learning’?” I set out on my journey. One of my favorite features of MSU’s library online is the Ask a Librarian link under the Contact menu. Specifically, I chose the 24/7 research help via web chat. This allowed me to chat with a librarian from MSU (or a partnering institution) to get immediate 1:1 assistance with my research. Unfortunately, the first librarian I connected with suggested things I had already tried and after only 15 minutes had to leave the chat session to cover the reference desk. However, connecting up a short time later, I found another librarian who suggested that the research I was seeking might be either too new or too specific to yield the research I was seeking. Together we went through several variations on search terms and verified results with one another. Ultimately, she suggested I contact Jill Morningstar, the education subject specialist at MSU’s library.

Leaving little to chance, I both called Jill (left a message) and sent her a follow-up email. She responded within a couple hours, and we started a rather in depth conversation by email about what I was trying to accomplish. One telling aspect that Jill pointed out was that a common problem among ed tech students is that what we want to study is current and popular and may not have been published or researched yet. She specifically stated, “The scholarly communications cycle is unfortunately about a year behind.”

Relieved that I was not doing it completely wrong, I thanked Jill for her assistance and started exploring the more general theme of technology coaching, my career path following the completion of my MAET. With that (and some great info on PBL), in only a few short hours I was able to select five interesting scholarly resources for inclusion in my Annotated Bibliography.

Two of the entries in my bibliography will be useful for a project I am working on in CEP812 on Project Based Learning. The other three provide some excellent research on the utility and importance of technology coaches. I intend to use them in discussions about why the work I do is critical to a successful school.

Maker Experiment #2 (ME#1 Revisited UDL style)

This week in CEP811, we were asked to revisit Maker Experiment #1 looking at aspects of Universal Design for Learning that were either present in the plan or could be added to enhance the plan. I have included UDL Guideline references in green for aspects I felt already employed UDL. Likewise, I used red for additions to enhance the universality of the plan’s learning design. (Note: All UDL Guideline reference numbers are clickable links to specific guideline explanations.)

My guiding question for this activity is: how can students use technology to explore randomness vs. pattern in abstract art production? (4.2)

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 starting with what students think the words mean and progressing through dictionary and practical definitions of each. (2.1)

2.) Display several images of abstract art via a large format (TV, overhead, doc cam, etc.) as well as in books and on posters (1.1) 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. Have the students identify randomness and pattern in them. Elicit from students suggestions of art they may know with either pattern or randomness, have them search for images on the internet and display same. (3.1)

3.) Lead a discussion about techniques that were (or could have been) used to achieve the randomness or the pattern. (3.2)

4.) Play the first 3:55 from the YouTube video “Robot Art: Harvey Moon’s Drawing Machines.” Activate closed captioning while playing. Offer SAP for ESL students. (1.2, 2.4)

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. (8.2)

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. (6.2, 6.4, 8.1, 8.2, 8.3, 8.4) Contrast the difficulty of creating randomness vs difficulty of creating pattern; compare with the time and effort Harvey Moon puts in. (6.1)

9.) Offer an opportunity for students to display their work in a public space. (7.1, 7.2)

By viewing my lesson plan through UDL glasses as it were, I was able to recognize several places where my plan already anticipated a universal design. For example, Step 8 allows students to show and explain their work (6.2), provides formative feedback via peer discussion (6.4), and provides several options for sustaining effort (8.1-8.4). Similarly, the discussion in Step 3 is important for highlighting critical features (3.2) of pattern and randomness in the identification of how each comes about. But the UDL feature I like most about this lesson is the entire lesson itself. By creating artbots, students who might otherwise perceive themselves as “bad at art” because they may not have the dexterity to draw or paint like some others, may come to recognize that they are artists, that they are creators. It is as though the entire lesson is a kind of assistive technology for these students. (4.2) And I would hope it might inspire them to continue to create.

I did add quite a few features to enhance the UDL of this lesson as well, though space constraints prevent me from detailing them all. But I would have to say my favorite is Step 9. By adding an option for public display of their creations, student choice and autonomy are enhanced (7.1) and the lesson takes on an added relevance in the real world. (7.2) By making the product of this lesson authentic, the lesson becomes better for everyone. And I believe that is the goal of Universal Design for Learning.


Burgam, K. J. (2013). Maker experiment #1. Retrieved October 18, 2013, from

UDL guidelines examples. (n.d.). Retrieved October 17, 2013, from

Wakefield, M. A. (2011) Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Retrieved October 15, 2013, from

Design Experiment #1 (Experience Design)

The space I have chosen to explore “with 21st-century eyes” is the computer lab at the Cayman International School. The lab is adjacent to the school’s Library, and it is located on the second floor above the Administration wing in the northwest corner of the school.

The Technology Lab is actually 2 labs: the primary 42‘ x 23’ area where 20 desktop computers are located and another 25’ x 18’ area with 18 laptop computers. The main lab itself was just restructured last year. The previous arrangement in the larger lab had tables lined up in several short rows all facing the “front” (short end) of the room where a large SmartBoard was placed. The current arrangement resets the old configuration into two long rows of desktops all facing away from the SmartBoard (now centered on the long side wall), thereby forcing students to turn away from their screens when observing interaction on the SmartBoard and allowing an instructor a clear view of student screens even while at the new “front” of the room. While the new arrangement excels as a practical improvement for classroom management in a traditional lecture style environment, it still has some way to go before it could be considered a truly 21st-century learning space.

One key aspect missing from the lab are smaller spaces to invite and Southencourage collaborative work. By swapping several of the desktop computers with laptops from the second lab area one could free up some of the space in the larger area. Then by regrouping some of the tables and chairs into smaller group configurations, students could work together on projects while still using Teacher View Leftseparate devices. Likewise, by adding some comfortable seating and placing the SmartTables in prominent positions, more collaborative creative spaces could be established. Finally, moving the large plasma screen to the far end of the room and adding a few comfortable chairs would create an excellent second small group Northviewing location while still maintaining the large group view available via the central SmartBoard.

EastThis move away from a didactic lecture model and toward a collaborative workspace model is based in part on experience design. It is important to plan lessons around not just what will be learned but how that learning will occur. As Sir Kenneth Robinson notes in his speech on changing education paradigms, “Most great learning happens in groups. Collaboration is the stuff of growth.” (RSA, 2010, 10:45-10:48) By recognizing that understanding and meaning are developed in a social context, that the experience of making Teacher View Straightmeaning is shared with others in society, we acknowledge the importance of collaborative learning. Likewise, Howard Gardner’s ideas on Multiple Intelligences suggest that students benefit from a variety of ways to approach an idea. (O’Donnell, 2010, ch.2 #14) Shifting the lab from a lecture based design to a small group collaborative design Westfacilitates just such variety.

The primary resources for restructuring the lab are already present: desktops, laptops, tables, chairs, SmartBoards, SmartTables, and large format TV. Some additional “comfortable seating” would need to be purchased, and some additional network drops would be required to allow for the new configuration. However, the overall physical cost of making the change should be under $3000.


Perhaps the greatest hurdle to overcome would be bringing all of the stakeholders on board with the change. Certainly school board and administration would be obvious stakeholders. Likewise, parent and student buy-in would create substantial momentum for a successful transition. However, teacher attitudes toward the shift might end up being the single most significant factor. Without teacher willingness to buy into a collaborative, project-based curriculum, the change would end up being little more than window dressing. And critical to developing that willingness is effective professional development for the teaching staff. Here the cost is much more difficult to predict as it would be based on both the current skill level of the staff and the quality of the expert brought in for training. This could range anywhere from $2500 to more than $10,000.

Finally, regarding timing, the staff development training would need to happen first so teachers are ready once new network drops are in place and the furniture and technology can be moved.


Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. (2010, October 14). RSA animate – Changing paradigms [Video file]. Retrieved from

O’Donnell Wicklund Pigozzi and Peterson, Architects Inc., VS Furniture., & Bruce Mau Design. (2010). The third teacher: 79 ways you can use design to transform teaching & learning. New York: Abrams.

The Art of…

Following an exploration of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) and the Peer to Peer University ( this week, I have created my own mini online learning experience, an Ultra-Micro MOOC as it were. The model for my UM-MOOC is the widely known and highly respected DS106. (I highly recommend checking it out if you are not already familiar with it.)

In my “The Art of…” course my peers will practice digital image editing, audio file creation, animated GIF creation, and video editing by exploring creative expression through seven school-subject based projects and through collaboration with and review by peers.

3180236074_608666c955_qCourse Topic: Exploring creative expression

Course Title: The Art of…

Who is coming to your course? Students from high school through adulthood interested in exploring their creative side make up the target audience for this course.

What will attract them? A desire to stretch their creative muscles in a structured environment with like-minded peers.

Why would they want to participate in this experience? Creativity, like any skill, takes practice. Taking a course like The Art of… offers people an opportunity not only to practice their creativity but to do so in a collaborative setting and allowing for peer review. It creates an environment where risk-taking can be encouraged and even failure is accepted.

What do you want learners to be able to do when they are done? Students completing The Art of… will increase their skills using digital tools to manipulate images, sounds and video. But the true goal of the course is to enable students to open their minds to new ways of looking at things, to view the world through “art colored” glasses as it were and to expand their creative consciousness. We begin to think more creatively by acting more creatively. The Art of.. is designed to get students acting creatively. By working on projects in the course, students will be constructing or at least expanding their own creative vocabulary in a discovery learning environment.

The course is designed to run over a period of 8 weeks, one for each of the first six lessons and two weeks for the final lesson. No specific tutorials are offered for learning the skills required each week. Rather, students are encouraged to use the internet to seek out such opportunities via YouTube, online forums, and even free tutorials offered by vendors. The aforementioned DS106 Tools website is an excellent resource for finding out how to accomplish many of the tasks students will want to pursue.

What will peers make? Below are the seven assignments comprising The Art of…

Math – They say math is everywhere. So prove it. Create a collage of photos/images representing the numbers 1 to 10. (It should include at least 10 images but may contain more.) Explore creative alternative methods of representing numbers in your images: words, numerals, objects, etc. (Extra bonus points for coming up with your own et cetera.) Create the collage using a digital image editing package (such as Photoshop if you have access or The GIMP if you need something free) that allows you to create and manipulate layers. Each image gets its own layer for easier manipulation. Experiment with placement of the images beyond the standard one through ten positioning. Can you tell a visual story with your number images? Have a peer review your collage and identify the images belonging to the numbers 1-10.

Science – Humans communicate with sound (words), as do most animals. But who speaks for the inanimate around us? You do! Select an inanimate object, pretend it is now alive and needs to communicate with others of its specie. Record the sounds that your newly animated object makes

1.) when it is happy,

2.) when it wants to scare off a predator,

3.) when it wants to attract a mate and

4.) when it is hungry

into 4 separate audio files. Write descriptions from a naturalist’s viewpoint about why each sound indicates a corresponding feeling. Have two peers attempt to match the descriptions with the sounds.

Language Arts – Brevity is the soul of wit. As well as at the heart of this creative challenge. Create a six word story (a la Ernest Hemingway) with a strong emotional theme in a particular direction, e.g., happy or scary or brave. After swapping stories with a peer, write a six word sequel for your peer’s story in the complete opposite emotional direction.

Social Studies – Create an animated GIF of a social convention such as a handshake, a hug, a kiss, a wink, a nod, a tip of the hat, a wave good-bye, etc. Bonus points for multiple animated zones in the same GIF. Collaborate with three peers to create a 4 panel animated GIF comic strip that tells a story in which each peer contributes 1 animated GIF to the strip.

Physical Education – Create a piece of art using large bodily movements: e.g., an open shutter light painting, a sand or snow angel, throwing paint at a canvas.

Music – Collaborate with two other peers to create a found sound musical composition and recording. Make sure your composition has both a “verse” and a “refrain.” Note: lyrics/words are not required, just the “music.” A minimum of 3 different found sounds should be used in your composition, but an orchestra of found sound is welcome. Originality of the composition is not required, i.e., creating a found sound cover of Mary Had a Little Lamb is acceptable.

Art – Create either a remix or a curation of the previous six projects using video editing software of your choice such as iMovie or PopcornMaker or Magisto or even using presentation software like Keynote, PowerPoint or Prezi. Present the final product for peer review.

How do those activities hang together as a course?

The seven activities in The Art of… are designed to be a structured opportunity for students to play with creative ideas in fun and interesting ways. By allowing students to explore creative expression through a variety of methods (graphics, text, audio, video), The Art of… takes into account Howard Gardner’s theories on Multiple Intelligences. By offering structured yet still somewhat open-ended objectives in the activities, The Art of… builds on constructivist learning theories allowing students to develop their own understandings of creativity and the creative process. Perhaps most interesting about the structure of The Art of… is how it aligns with the exemplary learning environments described in an E.P. Clapp review of Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, a book about designing educational experiences which cultivate innovation and creativity. According to Clapp, Wagner describes institutions that place “an emphasis on collaborative, multidisciplinary, trial-and-error-oriented learning that focuses its pedagogy on creating over consuming stemming from intrinsic over extrinsic motivating factors” (Clapp, 2013, para. 6) as excellent places for fostering innovation. Those same characteristics: collaborative, multidisciplinary, experimental, creative and intrinsically motivating are precisely what I attempted to design into my UM-MOOC, The Art of…

How will peers help each other in your course?

Collaboration and peer review are the two primary ways in which peers will help one another in The Art of…

The process of exploring and outlining my UM-MOOC has given me an increased respect for those who create online learning environments. Moreover, it has fueled my desire to go out and do something creative.


Clapp, E. P. (2013). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. Harvard Educational Review, 83(3), 532-534. Retrieved from

Goble, F. (Photographer). (2009). Light my path [Photograph], Retrieved October 6, 2013, from:

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.

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.