I was given the opportunity to work with an after school class at the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago. The teachers wanted the kids to explore circuits and prototyping along with something digital. A great way to explore all of those things at once is to create a physical circuit that lets you interact with a digital computer program. We use a tool called a MaKey MaKey to allow the students to perform this task. More information about the MaKey MaKey can be found at the MaKey MaKey website.
The tools and materials I brought along with me for this class included several laptops (with the program Scratch downloaded to them), the MaKey MaKey, some recycled materials, tape, scissors and a power strip and extension cord (very important when working outside of MAKESHOP). I also brought along some conductive materials such as copper tape and aluminum foil. These conductive pieces would allow the kids to create switches that could be used to control something on the computer. We started by simply try to create a controller that could be used to get a digital shape through a digital maze. The kids had to work together to think of new switch using the MaKey MaKey to replace the arrow keys on the keyboard. There was a lot of trial and error during this part of the class. Some of the groups wanted to get really complex with their controllers, others took the simple path, while others just explored the recycled materials and tape. All of this exploration was productive. The kids were up and moving around, trying out new ideas, discussing and arguing with each other and simply having fun.
After a while a couple of the groups decided to try to make some new programs in Scratch to control. One particular group made a bunch of sound effects in the program and then created a conductive drum kit to allow the user to make different noises. The group even went so far as to build a container for the MaKey MaKey out of an egg carton. This is the same kind of prototyping and problem solving we do at the Museum with our exhibit pieces. Not only do you need to think about how people are going to interact with something but you also need to think about how to keep your components safe and in working order.
An activity like this can really get a group of kids thinking about what they can do and what they can create. I like to start with a simple prompt and then allow for the kids to expand and explore on their own.