Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Alternative Circuits" at Design, Do, Discover 2014

You don't have to have soldering irons and Arduinos to dive into electronics with your kids!  You don't need  an extensive 1-to-1 laptop program or really any digital technology at all.  Simple alternative circuits are an excellent gateway for all ages to have quick and exciting success in circuitry with minimal chains to preconceived notions of one's aptitude in technology.

The awesome Jenny Howland and I are presenting workshops at Castilleja and Marymount Schools' Design, Do, Discover in June 2014.  Here are some tips and tricks in preparation for those workshops!

Copper Tape and LED Art

Copper tape (or other conductive tape, like aluminum) provides great opportunity for creative use of circuitry in art or even academic work products like posters.  One of my students made a marble run that incorporated copper tape to complete an LED circuit whenever the conductive metal marble rolled by certain sections of the run.  Others made cute artwork to hang on the walls.

Copper tape is easily acquired as "snail tape" from places like Amazon and hardware stores, although sometimes that tape is not as conductive on the adhesive side.  Adafruit also carries copper tape that is conductive on both sides, but more expensive.  LED and battery sources can be found at the bottom with other materials for sewn circuitry.

Tips and Tricks

1) When mounting your LEDs on the copper tape, put tape on both sides of the LED lead, as shown below.

2) You don't really need a holder to put your batteries in place... You can just use the tape itself.  Make a loop of the tape, and place the tape loop such that it is part of the circuit.  For example, if you need to double your batteries to get enough voltage to light your LEDs, you can use a loop of tape to connect the positive side of one battery to the negative side of the next.  As shown below...

Also take note: DON'T attach the batteries by wrapping the tape around!  Notice how the tape is touching the positive side of both batteries? (I was nervous just taking this picture!)

3) Get creative with your switches!  An easy switch is just to fold over a corner of the paper, but try making flaps, buttons, and other innovative switches as suits your needs!  Check out the cool matching game I made using copper tape and LEDs, with simple paper flap buttons.  The cute purple flowers are just for show... the actual switch uses a piece of copper tape on the bottom of the paper flap to connect with the battery only when you press it down.

Sewn Circuits

I've had great fun sewing LEDs into cute cuffs, patches, and even my rad green hoodie.  It's a particularly gender-agnostic activity that boys and girls across the spectrum of gender-conformity can enjoy, and that builds excellent craftsmanship skills and understanding of circuitry.  I have tons of blog posts about sewn circuitry at conferences and with my students.

Find my general guide introducing Sewn Circuits here:

Tips and Tricks

1) Sewing an LED and battery holder in place is relatively simple, but having uninsulated wire (thread) makes it extraordinarily easy to short your circuit.  Neat trimming of loose threads and small neat stitches can reduce floppy wires that short your circuit and prevent your LED from lighting up.

2) Sewing in the battery holder has been among the most challenging aspects for my students.  Here's a little help:

Loose battery holders, explaining contacts and sewing tips

Sewn-in battery holders, showing neat stitch structure.
Note that the negative-side stitching *only* touches the bottom of the battery.
The positive-side stitching *only* touches the side of the battery.

3) Ensure you're acquiring conductive snaps if you're planning to use snaps as switches! The conductive thread can be used directly for sewing the snaps in place, giving a nice solid circuit when the snaps are closed. Nickel-plated works great for me.

4) There is not much more hilarious than watching someone first navigate the topography of sewing in snaps. Both ball-sides up (rather than one ball and one socket), both snap pieces on the same side of the fabric, losing one of the sides entirely... Be sure to plan out your snap placement and test its functionality before actually sewing in place because, yes, you'll have to start over if it doesn't work.

Some places for handy snap tutorials:

From Makezine's baby pants snap mod

From Purlbee's bib tutorial

Materials List / Sources for Sewn Circuits
You can put together a whole kit for several classes for a little more than $100!  I've had several requests for info for my materials sources, since I've managed to find my way around digikey.com, so here they are!

lithium ion coin batteries (digikey)
coin battery holders (digikey - these are not "sewable" and you have to use needle-nose pliers to bend the surface mount components to render them "sewable."  You can also sew directly across the bottom of the holder to reach negative and across the side to reach positive.  But MUCH cheaper)
simple, low voltage red LEDs (digikey)
simple, low voltage green LEDs (digikey)
conductive thread (sparkfun)
packs of felt (Jo-Ann Fabrics)
packs of needles (Jo-Ann Fabrics)
some colorful thread for decoration (Jo-Ann Fabrics)
sewable snaps (Jo-Ann Fabrics)
- scissors
needle-nose pliers for bending battery holder leads and LED leads (Jo-Ann or wherever)

Sewn Circuit kits provided for Design, Do, Discover participants!

Have fun!


  1. Thank you for sharing that bib tutorial. I really want to learn how to make baby bibs because they are such a very lovely thing to have for the babies.

  2. What a great set of tips!! Thanks for sharing.

  3. This sound truly interesting and I know exactly which students would love to partake in this project. Our library is on the verge of changing to a resource commons and makerspaces are perfect ideas. We would like to see a green screen in the library, book art is returning, Graphic novel club, Techi Tuesday will be designated for circuit projects , and posibbly makey -makey. Thank you for providing me with inspiration to continue helping the students enjoy learning and sharing experiences.

    1. I don't know if you'll get this comment, but thank you for the kind words and good luck on your space renewal! You can read more about the growth of our program at GettingSmart.com, where I've been writing much more lately.

  4. You might be eligible to receive a $1,000 Amazon Gift Card.