Fold-Up Paper Projects

My k-8 classes have been exploring different tools we can use with simple materials like craft paper, coincell batteries, LED's and brads. We have been talking a lot about using tools like scissors, paper straws, hole punches and our Glowforge to produce machines with a construction paper chassis that folds up from a symmetrical 2D geometric net into a 3D structure. With the fish in the photo there is a simple brass brad as an eyeball, but it is also the lynchpin of the whole structure, that when taken back out allows the fish to unfold and allow change the battery, change the LED's or modify the paper chassis design. The idea is to make projects that can easily come apart for rapid design interactions by the students. 

Light and Texture - 1st Grade

Today the 1st graders will look at light and texture. We will build the RGB LED project below. We will take a small square of Japanese art paper and wrap it around the powersource and RGB LED. The paper vaires in density quite a bit as do the lights. Each of the three R,G,B LED’s are placed at different points within the clear dome of the main LED so light diffusion is quite variable in one cycle. We will look at how similar these modules are to the kinds of photos we see of far away dust laden galaxies in the universe and ponder how diffusion is the same on earth as in space.

Those 30 Second Cooking Videos Work!

In the last year it seems like there has been an explosion of 30 second cooking videos on the interwebs. These might seem gimmicky (and often click-bait), but when done well they lay out the steps to accomplish a project new to you that might seem daunting or overly complicated at first. You can always choose to slow things down or pause the video while you catch up, but it is nice to know that every step is encapsulated in just that short video clip. Below is a one minute video that takes students, parents or teachers through the basics of making a switch with an LED, a couple of craft sticks, wires and brads. The main tool is called a Crop-A-Dile and is used in our classroom a lot to fasten grommets and rivets.

Blue LEDs & Yellow Index Cards make a Green Reading/Writing Karaoke Project

Yesterday students used paper straw LED holders to make lighted karaoke wands. After students assembled the wands they wrote short stories and used the LED wands to move from word to word while they shared their story with a friend. This lesson supports primary color mixing, story composition/sharing as well as the technical STEM lessons of actually making the LED wand.

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No-Tape LEDs with Coin Cell Batteries

Fine motor skills can be a challenge with smaller tools and materials when working with k-3 students. Over the past few years I have had early elementary students use blue tape to attach LEDs to coin cell batteries. Getting the LED to turn on is not the challenge, but unwrapping the tape from the LED and battery can be a difficult. This caused me to really spend some time exploring what building method(s) could be used to allow students in the k-3 age range to both assemble and disassemble LEDs and batteries. Yesterday the class used paper straws to hold the LEDs on the batteries. The students used a rectangular hole from a 15mm x 3mm ID punch to hold the battery in place with the LED. No wires, no tape - easy to assemble and take apart!

 Materials cost: $0.13 per student, using a ID Card punch.

Materials cost: $0.13 per student, using a ID Card punch.

Quadrilateral Drawing Compass - 1st Grade

Last week a student noted that brass brads with the head down slide across a surface much better than brads with the head up and the sharp legs pointing down. We applied the principle to design a compass with 4 popsicle sticks using the small hole punch in a Crop-A-Dile tool. Note in the photo that the orientation of the brads on the right are facing head down to slide across the surface smoothly, while the brads on the left are facing up. Pushing down with two fingers on the left will cause our drawing compass to hold fast in place while we trace a perfect arc on the right with a pencil. The words "top" and "bottom" in the diagram refer to which sticks are on top when we assemble the compass.

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Fashion Forward Eyelets - 5th Grade

Grommets, Eyelets & Rivets, are all names to describe a bit of metal that you squish between two surfaces to hold them in compression. This year we have found that using the Crop-a-Dile tool students from 2nd through 8th grade can create rotary joints in craft sticks and thin pieces of metal. Students in our 5th grade class wondered why we could not use the laser cutter to etch the enamel on these eyelets and combine that with LED’s. The resulting effect really supports the union of steAm and stEam.

Great projects come from great techniques. I think our 5th graders just nailed it with this one!

 Laser etched eyelets with LED inserts: Engineering + Art

Laser etched eyelets with LED inserts: Engineering + Art

Rich Sentences - 4th Grade

I enjoy a well constructed, adjective rich sentence in the same way I enjoy an indulgent Hollandaise or Alfredo sauce. Today my 4th grade class learned this sentence: "I used jewelry pliers with conical jaws to make torsion springs that resist twisting".

The class is using these springs for another project with popsicle sticks. At each stage in a project I like to take a moment to think about a sentence I can share with students that summarizes what they built. In this case we also touched on Geometry, Physics, and Tradecraft while talking about bending a paperclip.

 There are three springs in this picture. Can you find them?

There are three springs in this picture. Can you find them?

Making Metal Working Tools from Popsicle Sticks

Over the last few weeks we have been exploring the use of the Crop-A-Dile tool in the classroom. So far students have used the tool to make objects out of paper straws, cardboard, thick paper, popsicle sticks and aluminum business card blanks. This post looks at using the tool to actually make another tool.

Last week out students explored how creasing metal will increase the rigidity of a thin metal panel. That led us to think about making a tool that can crease and bend metal harvested from aluminum cans. To make a tool like this we want two parts: #1) a surface with a gap that will set the width of the crease and #2) a tool to push the sheet metal into that gap uniformly. The picture above outlines the steps to make the new tool.

Step #1 Gather one large craft stick and two regular size popsicle sticks along with a ruler, Crop-A-Dile, 4 extra long 1/8" eyelets and some scrap aluminum metal from a soda can. Punch 1/8" holes in the ends of the popsicle sticks and craft sticks so the popsicle sticks cover the side edges of the craft stick by the thickness of a single popsicle stick in the next step.

Step#2 Use the Crop-A-Dile tool to fasten the popsicle sticks down to the larger craft stick with a parallel gap of exactly one popsicle stick thickness. You can use a precise ruler or physically space the sticks with another popsicle stick lying on edge in the gap.

Step #3 You should be able to place a single popsicle stick on edge between the other two sticks so that it is tight enough that it can stand at an angle without support.

Step #4 You can now use the tool! Place the aluminum sheet on the new tool and use another popsicle stick as a pusher to run down the sheet and cause it to crease along the gap between the two sticks on the base.

Step #5 Start thinking about what you can do with a student made tool like this. We can now crease and bend metal easily in class!

 This tools takes less than a minute to build (after a you build a few of them) and allows students to form aluminum sheets recycled from soda cans.

This tools takes less than a minute to build (after a you build a few of them) and allows students to form aluminum sheets recycled from soda cans.

Bending Metal (6th-8th)

This week was a week of proper kindergarten style tinkering. Just picking up new tools and materials and getting to know them. No particular goal in mind, just tinker and play. It is turning out to be a great week!

Not many of the machines we deal with every day are made of wood or cardboard. This week my 6th through 8th grade students started working to form metal into shapes with the Crop-A-Dile hand tool. What is amazing to me is while that this hand tool was designed for scrapbooking and to be used with primarily paper and card stock, but is so well built that my classes easily punched holes in thin strips of aluminum while they explored how creasing affects a structural rigidity. 


 Creasing metal makes quick 3d forms from a 2d surfaces and creates a more rigid structure.

Creasing metal makes quick 3d forms from a 2d surfaces and creates a more rigid structure.

Toothbrush Robot Home Building Instuctions

A few folks have asked how to build Timmy the Toothbrush robot (hex bug style). Here are the instructions: 

Steps: #1 gather materials, #2 strip the wires of the motor about 1cm, #3 add double stick tape to the top of the tooth brush head, #4 stick on the motor and only ONE of the two wires - keep the other wire unstuck and floating, #5 squish the battery over the first wire and under the 2nd so it sticks to the tape, #6 use blue masking tape to make a switch that can pull the 2nd wire on and off the battery.

 Yup, pager motors #OldSchool

Yup, pager motors #OldSchool

Mechanical Circus

The project pictured below is a version of Ryan Jenkens' #MechanicalCircus. In our classroom we wanted to do something similar, but with a base the students could actually design and take home in a single class. My students will take this paper straw design and iterate on it over the next year. I can't wait to see what they come up with.

The theme we are starting out with this year in K-8 is simple hand tools before digital design. 3D printers and laser cutters are great, but we want to start by focusing on the power of short design cycles and rapid design iterations. 

 Somtimes a simple paper straw base is the best way to build a prototype. 

Somtimes a simple paper straw base is the best way to build a prototype. 

Fractions Rule, Fraction Rules (2nd Grade)

Why not give students early exposure to fractions? We start using rulers in early elementry grades. Why not put easily readable fractions on those rulers? Some students will pick it up sooner than others, but in all cases it is priming the mental pump for exposure to fractions in middle elementary school. The picture today is of a Victor ruler with brilliant hot pink background and a fraction caliper from Vinca. These are two must have investments in my classroom.  

 The play on words might be lost to the current generation, but "fractions rule" (they are really great, also, they are on a ruler - terrible puns today).

The play on words might be lost to the current generation, but "fractions rule" (they are really great, also, they are on a ruler - terrible puns today).

Piaget's Tool Box

I found Piaget's tool box! Really!! This is the actual toolbox that belonged to the famous educational researcher Jean Piaget - the father of Constructivism. There is no particular explanation I can offer as to why it was not put in a museum before this time. It was just sitting there on the sidewalk and no one seemed to want it, so I picked it up and took it into my classroom. Inside I found a few simple hand tools and some everyday materials, plus a few inexpensive items any serious scrapbooking grandmother would have on hand.

I was asked what I am going to bring into the classroom on the first day of school at St. Raymond. Answer: Piaget 's tool box. Along with the famous toolbox I will bring some LED's and Microbits and see what the students decide to build.

Looking forward to it!

*no actual thievery or skullduggery went in the writing of this blog post as I am only 99.9% sure I found Piaget's original toolbox, there is a small chance it was curated on my own from years of teaching.

 A few simple hand tools and some everyday materials go a long way to setting students up for success!

A few simple hand tools and some everyday materials go a long way to setting students up for success!

Paper Straws as Classroom Building Blocks

Over the last week I have been obsessing on paper straws. They are a great building material in the classroom. When I found the very weird sounding "Crop-O-Dile" tool I was hooked. This is not a paid promotion. I just love this tool for the classroom. You can connect paper straws, emery board, popsicle sticks and playing cards together with eyelets. Tools in classroom Makerspaces should be useful, cheap and plentiful. At St. Raymond having a one-to-one ratio of useful hand tools for students in the Makerspace is a priority. 

 Paper Straws make great building blocks for quick classroom prototypes!

Paper Straws make great building blocks for quick classroom prototypes!

One volt does not matter. Two, sometimes.

One volt does not matter. Two, sometimes. As an engineer I accepted standards and never questioned them. A 5 volt circuit needs 5 volts. Don't run it on 4 volts or 6 volts. After years of working with teachers and students new to electronics I am finding that keeping to engineering specifications only serves to make STEM/STEAM projects less accessible. 

Using a 3v coin cell to power a 2 volt or 5v LED is just fine. Forget the resistor, the battery has enough internal resistance on it's own. The 2 volt red LED will shine mighty bright for a long time and the 5 volt LED will shine less bright for even longer (days). You can take this further with powering the robust Arduino and most old school integrated circuits. 

Jim Keith at Electro Schematics wrote an amazing article summarizing his work testing the venerable 555 IC. I have found similar results with over voltages. Here is the reality: when working with inexpensive electronic components and the goal of engagement and education it is better to worry less about one volt and focus on getting teachers and students picking up and using components to build projects that make them smile.


2D to 3D FAST

We added a strip heater to the front of our laser cutter so you can quickly go from a 2D geometric design and fold it into a 3D part. The sweet spot here is 1/8" acrylic that cuts fast on the laser and heats fast for bending. Why do we have the laser on a cart in the first place? When you roll the laser outside for cutting there is no worry about smell from cutting plastic and wood. Even an indoor air filter will leave a Makerspace smelling badly when cutting acrylic.

What is a billion (or two) transistors?

The iPhone has 2 billion transistors in the CPU! 
Wait, first, what is a transistor? If you are feeling intimidated by the question, or even worse, comfortable with not having any idea, then you are on the un-empowered side of the very real digital divide in society. If you are on the empowered side of the digital divide you might describe a single transistor as a kind of switch that allows electricity to flow or not flow depending on an input signal. The idea is that the transistor is always in an on or off state, a 1 or 0 state: a binary system, true or not true, high or low.

This summer in the St. Raymond Makerspace we have been developing curriculum that introduces a single transistor on a paper circuit to control a small motor. Students can build this circuit and gain some confidence and better understand the digital world around us.. What I wanted to cover in this blog post is one step after that. When someone knows what a transistor does, then how do we scale that up to understanding many transistors on a computer chip a.k.a. integrated circuit (IC)?

A great first integrated circuit (IC) to study is the venerable 555 timer chip. The different functions can be understood at a high level right away and a first project might take only a few minutes to complete on a breadboard. The problem is the person learning can not **see** the transistors and with only a nascent knowledge of how a single transistor works we go from practical knowledge to the world of theory because we are literally working with a tiny black box. Circuit schematics give us detail, but only build a mental picture. We can not physically probe the inner working of the tiny black box with a voltmeter.

So why not just build a 555 timer out of full size transistors and resistors? There are not that many to put together and we do have a schematic:) Once you get to understanding how a single transistor works then build this full size 555 chip. You can start to get a sense of what is going on inside of a simple IC. This is literally a "dis-integrated circuit" which is a lot of fun to say as a tongue twister when trying to emphasize the right syllable so as not to sound like "disintegrated".

When someone builds this full size model of a 555 IC they can then start to absorb some of the block schematics of the IC as meaningful information. Next year this will be a required project for every 8th grade student. Those students can then appreciate statements like "there are two billion transistors on an iPhone processor" because they actually built and played with exactly the same thing, admittedly with a few less transistors, but not less complex operating theory. To build this oversized is to help students and teachers jump the digital divide by going from ""tiny theoretical black box" to "large guts exposed and poke around in it box".

 The original 555 IC in the upper left .vs the larger than life version below made from full sized transistors and resistors. 

The original 555 IC in the upper left .vs the larger than life version below made from full sized transistors and resistors.