Monthly Archives: July 2014

Reflections on the Summer of Making

My husband informed me a few hours ago that, essentially, summer is almost over–2.5 more weeks, and then it’s done.  This has been the fastest summer in history, but also the most fun, so I can live with that.  It will be good to be back amongst the kids and try to bring some of what I’ve learned this summer into the life of the library.

I’ve spent the last several days mostly working on sewing projects–first, this LilyTwinkle pillow (the LilyTwinkle makes the lights blink randomly):

And then today I went to the fabric store and bought some sherpa fabric and I am attempting to make a very simple teddy bear with it.  I’m still in the sewing/inside-out phase, so I have no idea how it will turn out, but I can tell you this: sherpa sheds like mad and is kind of a pain to work with, but omg, so SOFT!  I also bought some dark gray felt and a little gray felt purse-like thing that I hope will be good for an etextile project.  I’m hoping the conductive thread will kind of blend in with the gray.

But anyway, my husband’s comment got me thinking about what I’ve learned this summer (not specific things, which I have already posted about, but just in general) about making.

1.  Everything (EVERYthing) takes longer than you think it will, and there are always (ALWAYS) unexpected hiccups along the way.  I laugh when I look at my goals for the summer and what I considered the absolute minimum of what I would accomplish.  I was CRAZY over-optimistic, but I thought I was being conservatively realistic!  And I have spent a lot more time than I expected to spend on making!

2.  Directions (including, by the way, ones written by yours truly) that say “easy” or “simple” are LIES, ALL LIES.  Okay, not lies, but if you are new to making like I am, nothing is simple or easy.  It’s all relative.  Every single thing I’ve done this summer is simple/easy in the grand scheme of things, but none of it was truly simple or easy for me.  Some things got much easier as I went along, of course, and by the time I got around to documenting my eventual success, some of the problems/challenges seemed distant and insignificant.  But when you are doing a project you have never done before or working with new materials/technology, what seems easy or straightforward in either the directions or your mental vision is hardly ever that way in real life.  At least not if you are me.  (I’m sure some of this is because of my weakness when it comes to spatial thinking.  But not all of it.)

3. Sometimes there are no directions for what you want to do.  When you are on the 4th page of Google results and there is nothing that even remotely resembles what you are searching for, you have to either do something else (tempting), or see if you can figure it out, sometimes with the help of others and sometimes on your own.

4. 1-3 above are features of making, not bugs.  These are the most important things I’ve experienced this summer, more valuable than the specific things I have learned:  frustration; a desire to give up and do something different (which sometimes meant switching gears for a while and then coming back with fresh eyes/brain); a mixture of ultimate success and ultimate failure and a lot of in between.  The process is kind of like this:  vision (pure awesomeness!); wrestling with reality (oh wow, my vision was insane); adjustment of vision to something actually attainable; wrestling more with reality (my vision is now attainable but still way harder than I thought it would be); back and forth between adjusting vision and overcoming frustrations/challenges–vision gets simpler and then possibly goes back to being a bit more complicated once a hurdle is crossed (“if I can do that, maybe I can do that other thing that seemed impossible a few hours ago”); and eventually, some product that, because of all you went through in the process, feels AMAZING! even if it is just a pale imitation of the original vision.  Because you DID IT!

5. Sharing is an essential part of making.  Sharing the product but also sharing the process.  This is the educator part of me, I guess, but I think kids need to see and know that all of the messy parts of making are good and normal and worthwhile and important.

Those are my thoughts for now.  It’s late; I should sleep.


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More play

My first task of the day was to get this working (Lego dude dancing to music, using a sound sensor on PicoBoard combined with WeDo motor, and a very basic Scratch program):

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 1.05.01 PM

The Scratch code

Then I made a bunch of electronic greeting cards, some that were more about the circuit and some more about the art–got out my watercolor pencils, which I haven’t used in a long time, and also tested out more cards with the circuit showing (instead of shining through from the page behind).

photo 2 (23)


Then I had a nap.  🙂

Not sure what I’ll get up to this evening.

I realized that I have a tendency to avoid projects that will take several days (or more)–I need to get better at designing more complex things and then chunking them into smaller mini-goals.  I like the quick gratification of a simple project, but I’m now at the point in my learning with these tools where it’s time to tackle something more ambitious.  Last night, I started on a more complicated Scratch program, but I don’t really have a clear design–right now, it’s just a series of cool (to me, at least) art programs all running in sequence.  I’d like to try a more ambitious paper circuit or etextile project, but I need to take the time to plan something out.  Something like this, except (realistically speaking) far less complex:

I guess something between what I’ve been doing and Jie Qi’s poster.  🙂

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Scratch PicoBoard Solutions

Because I could not find the answer to these questions easily via Google, I am sharing my answers.

1.  Can you use a PicoBoard and a WeDo motor at the same time in Scratch?  YES.  I have two USB ports on my laptop, and although for some reason I had to plug and unplug and refresh Scratch a few times, in the end I was able to use the PicoBoard and WeDo together (using PicoBoard sensors to start the WeDo motor).  I didn’t really do anything fun with it beyond get it working, though.

2. How do you get the slider on the PicoBoard to make a sprite go all the way across the screen?  The slider sensor uses values from 1 to 100, which means it starts in the middle of the screen and goes to the right a bit when you set x to slider sensor value.  In the end, I came up with this (set x to (slider sensor value – 50) * 5) , which isn’t exact because I did some rounding (i.e., the paddle goes off the screen a little on both sides), but works for what I wanted to do:

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 9.19.51 PM


I ended up making a simple pong game and then a simple catch-the-ball game using the slider, learning a bit along the way about cloning sprites and scoring:

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 9.20.40 PM


All in all, a productive and enjoyable evening!

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Sewing, Paper circuits, and Scratch

The title of this post says it all: I’ve spent the last few days goofing around more with Scratch, sewing some monster stuffies, and making greeting cards with my paper circuit supplies.   Sewing and making greeting cards are both very relaxing for me, so good choices for weekend making.

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The only area where I’ve learned anything new is Scratch–just continuing to work my way through the book, and then when I tire of following directions, playing around on my own.  I’m having fun learning about using the Pen/Motion blocks together to create funky artwork.  Tonight, I’d like to try my hand at doing some more of the digital storytelling/artwork I played around with a few weeks ago–maybe I’m ready to tackle something a bit more sophisticated now?  We’ll see!


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Back to work

I’ve had a lovely trip to visit family, with loads of relaxation and card-playing and good food.  Now I’m all refreshed and ready to jump back into my maker summer fun.

Today I decided to get back into working with Scratch, this time using a book called Learn to Program with Scratch by Majed Marji.  I’m only halfway through Chapter 2, but have already learned some very nifty things that I wish I knew earlier!  I could have shaved a few hours off my recent 14-hour programming session!  But actually, I am glad that I started by playing and poking around without a text–I’m getting more out of the book now than I would have, and it was a lot of fun to explore on my own with no idea what I was doing.  That said, I am now ready for some instruction, and this book is just right for me so far.

I read something recently (sadly, I can’t remember what or where) about how people learn best if they are first allowed to just play around and explore on their own, and then given formal instruction, as opposed to the reverse.  It was an article arguing against flipped classrooms, if I recall correctly.  I don’t know what all the research says, but my experience with Scratch thus far would support that idea.  I don’t want NO instruction, but I feel far more equipped to soak in and process what the text is saying, having already played around and learned some things via trial and error.  It’s sort of like I have learned, on my own, the basic structure and language of Scratch, and now the book is helping me understand more about what is underneath that basic structure and learn some of the nuances of the language.  (I’m not confident in that metaphor, but it will do for now.)  I think if I had started with the book, I would be far more likely to be bored, because it is walking me through specific exercises/projects.  Since I already have a sense of Scratch and what I was trying to do before, the lens through which I see those exercises is very different.  I keep thinking, “oh, that would have made X work!” or, “that’s kind of like what I did when I did Y, but more efficient,” or, “if I did that on my project, it would make Z work so much better.”  I obviously can’t know how I would feel about the book or the exercises if I went into them with no prior experience, but I suspect it would be very different, significantly less enjoyable.  This is not a complaint about the book, which I think is excellent, but more an observation about the process of learning.  I am far more motivated to read the textbook after having struggled through the process of creating a few challenging (to me, at least!) projects without a text.

I want to think more about this.  I think frustration and getting things wrong a bunch of times before you get them right is not only important to experience in education because it’s how life is, but also because it’s at least part of what ultimately makes the whole thing FUN.  I am remembering a moment where my daughter, after months and months of being physically capable of doing a backbend without a spot but too scared to do it without an arm there “just in case,” finally did it on her own.  She was as happy in that moment as I had ever seen her, and it struck me–she was so happy because it had been so hard.  Those two things were connected.

At the same time, we don’t want to all be reinventing the wheel every day because the challenge is educational or fun.  There is some balance between figuring things out on your own (or with peers) and using the knowledge that is available to you out in the world.  Using existing knowledge means we can then build on it faster.  There is nothing inherently good or noble about starting from scratch.

I’m just thinking out loud here.  I am wondering where the balance is.

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And it continues. . .

Would rather work than write, but in keeping with my attempts to update my progress, here are two quick video clips:

First, a simple slide switch in my hacked journal, to brighten up a rollercoaster:

And then, a slightly more complicated one.  In this one, which is a greeting card with a built-in battery, I made it so that the part you are hitting on the slide (I need to draw an arrow or something there) is not straight down from the LED–behind the scenes, I had things crossing over each other (but using paper as a barrier to keep the copper tape pieces from touching; I should have taken a quick pic while in progress but I was too focused).  This isn’t really useful in this design, but I wanted to try out the idea.  So, robot family greeting card:

So far, a good day!


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I’m obsessed with paper circuits.

Today I got an early start because I was meeting up with a friend for book chatting and coffee, which was a great way to start the day.  Then I popped in to school just to pick up packages, including a set of circuit stickers, and then stopped on the way home to buy some glue and a blank Moleskine for hacking (how perfect that pocket in the back is for the battery and clips!).  I spent all afternoon and night playing in my new journal.

What I learned:

-I read that cutting the copper tape in half makes it easier to make shapes with it.  Tested this out, and found it to be true, plus that makes the tape last twice as long.

-I learned how to make a slide switch, which is super fun.  This can create an animation effect, which I want to play with (I just figured out the slide switch a bit ago, so haven’t “used” it yet besides just creating it with one LED and then with three).

-About circuit stickers: When I have tried with surface mounts to put lights of different colors in the same circuit, I often run into trouble with inconsistency in whether or how much they would light up.  The circuit stickers haven’t had that problem–I can put red, blue, and yellow together in one circuit and they all light up great.  I’m still using surface mount whenever I’m not doing that, because the stickers are pricier, but it’s nice to know that I have a reliable option for that kind of thing.  And the lights are really nice.  The stickers seem to stick well.  What has been VERY useful is the instructions in the sketchbook, which are available free online on the site linked above.  I highly recommend downloading it just for getting concepts, even if you aren’t actually printing/using the pages.

-I made a pressure sensor with conductive fabric.  The sticker kit came with some velostat, and that made me wonder if the fabric would do the same thing, and it sort of does.  I actually haven’t tried the velostat yet–I suspect it works better in some way.

It was a really enjoyable day.  I intended to go to bed over an hour ago because I am exhausted, but then I felt like I had to try one more thing.  This is my life right now: always one more thing to try.  Not a bad place at all to be.




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