Tinkering with #bigmakerbook Lilypad Arduino Guitar Plushie

While I was at ISTE this year, I met Josh Caldwell from code.org. He told me that he’d just gotten a copy of the #bigmakerbook that Aaron and I wrote, and that he was working through the projects with his own kid. (WHICH I THOUGHT WAS SO COOL!) When he mentioned hacking my sewing circuit guitar plushie with Circuit Playground Express, I was intrigued! Aaron and I wrote this book back in 2016, and at that time, those intro boards and MakeCode didn’t really exist yet. So I thought it’d be fun to try out some beginner boards and see how they compare to programming the Lilypad Protosnap board.

Lilypad Protosnap

When I created this project, I knew I wanted to make a soft plushie guitar that only played music when you played air guitar. After speaking with the folks at Sparkfun (Thanks, Jeff Branson and Angela Sheenan), I landed on using the Lilypad Protosnap board (they’ve upgraded this board since I wrote this project, so now this is the equivalent.)

What I love about this microcontroller is that you can test your code before snapping the components off and sewing your circuits. Being able to run sketches before sewing (and not having to alligator clip them!) was amazing to me as an educator. Since I was still quite an Arduino noob in 2016, Trey Ford from the Denton Public Library helped me write the Arduino code. Together we decided to use the light sensor to pick up when the guitar player was actually  playing  “air guitar.” One other thing I really wanted was the guitar to play only when strumming and always play the next note when you started to strum. Trey helped me work out how to get that bit of code functional as that was the most complicated problem to tackle. Once we got that going, it was time for the fun of determining what notes to play on the piezo and the duration for each note. I chose Iron Man as the song for the guitar because I thought it would be hilarious to have such a metal song, pinging through a little tiny piezo buzzer. My hope was that if learners wanted to, they could easily change the notes to any song they wanted to play.

My favorite part of creating this though was mapping the circuit traces. It’s no secret that I’m a nerd for sewing circuits,  and I loved the challenge of creating circuit traces that were not only functional, but pleasingly aesthetic on the guitar plushie. I loved making it appear as though the conductive thread was part of the guitar design. For me, sewing circuits was a breakthrough in understanding the world of electronics and components. Breadboarding always confused me until I started sewing circuit traces. The act of physically mapping a circuit is a great way for beginners to understand these concepts.

So I still love the original project, but could it be simpler with one of these other boards?

Circuit Playground Express

The Circuit Playground Express hit ISTE last summer and I saw everyone walking around the conference waving magic wands. I was intrigued, but I’d tried the developer board previously because I was hoping it would be a good introductory board and I’d had some difficulty with it. I wasn’t sure how much they updated it.

I’ve tested it since, and the new Circuit Playground Express has improved a lot since the developer board. It can be a fun quick intro to the world of electronics and I love the embedded neo-pixel ring.

It was more complicated to program the song than I wanted in MakeCode, but only because I couldn’t figure out the ratio for the light sensor reading (until I looked back at the original Arduino code Trey helped me write.) After that, programming the music tones was fairly straightforward and I could alter note duration on each code block which I really liked being able to do.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to make the code ONLY play when the light is covered, instead, the light going dim starts the song and because of the block coding (I’m guessing), the song will have to finish all the way through before the sensor picks back up the light reading. (I did try an if/else statement, but the code still ran all the way through. I’m sure one could tinker with the JavaScript and find a way to make this happen, but at that point, it wouldn’t be an introductory coding project.)

Screen Shot 2018-08-11 at 11.27.55 AM

So the coding experience was fairly straightforward, but the sound was a bit wonky (See the video below). My biggest complaint is only that there would be no sewing circuits if I wanted to use this controller instead of my Lilypad board. For me sewing the components is fun.My other worry is the AA battery pack for the Circuit Playground is very large compared to the tiny rechargeable Lipo battery for the Lilypad board. However, this board could still be a great way to get started testing a project idea, especially for beginners.


The code for Micro:bit was very straight forward, but I decided to try using the “on shake” as the event that triggered Iron Man because I thought that would be a good reason for a guitar plushie to start playing a song too! The thing I like most about the Micro:bit is that you can wire a speaker or headphones to it and the sound quality is pretty good. I even liked the idea of using the shake to play the song. But just like the Circuit Playground, the shake started the song and the song wanted to play all the way through.

Screen Shot 2018-08-11 at 11.35.27 AM

I also figured out that Micro:bit has a light sensor (through the onboard LEDS! Did you know you can use LEDs as a light sensor?) This was cool because I could use the light sensor like I did with my original project, however, I couldn’t get it to stop playing the song when the sensor wasn’t covered.  I’m wondering if this could be tweaked in Javascript too, so I guess I have some learning to do there.  The smaller battery pack on Micro:bit is nice, but still not as small as the Lipo.

Screen Shot 2018-08-11 at 11.56.29 AM

Being able to wire a speaker does make for a cool extension of the project I’ve been wanting to do for some time. Since the original piezo buzzer is pretty soft, I’ve always wanted to make a soft amp. How adorable would a functional stuffie/plushie speaker be??!?!?

Final Thoughts

I’m still the happiest with my original project. I like the idea of using a Micro:bit to test and try more ideas, but I am still underwhelmed by this board only having 3 pins. The Circuit Playground and Lilypad Arduino have way more break out options. But I do like both of these beginner boards for testing out ideas. I also like the functionality of the Circuit Playground, it’s just that I personally like sewing the components. It helps me understand how each component works. (Like to make a sensor work, you have to power it, ground it, and assign it a function through a pin. If everything is onboard, and I don’t have to wire it or sew it, how do I learn these things?)

In the end, for you, it depends on what you want to teach! Do you want to teach wiring components? Or do you want to teach if/else statements? What would you want students to learn from a project like this?

Watch all of the board play below:




Advanced Maker Ed Workshop for #SanAngeloMakers



Wanda Green of the Tom Green County Public Library asked me to offer an advanced maker education workshop in addition to a Makey Makey Teacher Certification workshop when I presented there earlier this summer. I designed this advanced workshop specifically for the resources available at the Tom Green County library system. This amazing library in West Texas not only has a fully stocked makerspace, but it has maker resources available for checkout to local educators.

Wake Up Challenges

To start the second day of making with #Sanangelomakers at the Tom Green County Public Library, I created wake up challenges to get educators associated with some very quick and informal learning tools like Strawbees, Keva planks, Dash and Dot, and using a homemade wind tunnel. (The first day was Tom Heck’s amazing Makey Makey workshop.)































This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Educators really enjoyed these challenges because they instantly saw them as quick collaborative engineering projects for kids (the KEVA planks) or as a fun iterative design  intro with the wind tube. Check out these teachers and librarians playing and learning below.

During these warm up activities, I also shared my love of combining making and literacy. I just love having students build characters for stories with their hands as part of the wind tube activities. (Please go check out Angela Stockman’s Make Writing or Hacking the Writing Workshop for more ideas on this!)

Cardboard Exploration

Wanda also wanted me to share some low cost ideas since a lot of educators do not have specific funding for makerspaces and maker activities. I had educators explore cardboard techniques with this great cardboard attachment technique slideshow from the fabulous team at the Pinecrest schools in Florida. I was hoping these cardboard techniques could be used later in the day when we started exploring microcontrollers. (Because I think cardboard robots are a great intro to making!)

I also wanted to focus on cardboard cutting tools that educators could actually use in the classroom, so I brought an arrangement of tools. (I’m hoping to craft and curate a cardboard resource soon for other educators new to making. Watch this space!)

Toy Take Apart and Invention Literacy

Then my favorite part of the day was guiding educators through the parts, purposes, and complexities of animatronic toys. Our guiding theme for the day was still Invention Literacy (or learning how things works, so we can make new things.) I shared this video of Jay Silver from Makey Makey describing the concept:

If you want guidance with taking apart toys as a way of learning how things work, check out this super handy guide from Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio. Also, don’t buy new toys for this, hit up local thrift stores, or see if department stores can donate broken toys. (Thanks to @mrsk8e for this last tip!)

Educators REALLY loved taking apart toys to see how they worked. One of my favorite moments from the workshop was when participants got up and shared how they assumed the toys worked and then how the toys actually worked once they dissected and looked at what was inside.


It seems that speaking with them about invention literacy, then following the Tinkering Studio Guide and having educators draw what they thought was inside the toy before dissecting, and then really drawing what was really inside got these educators into thinking about how these toys worked.

They were also excited about harvesting toys parts for new maker projects. Check out this post from Ryan Jenkins when he was at Tinkering Studio. We collected all the skins, stuffing, and guts in boxes for the teen librarians to use for a future Frankentoy workshop. Hacking toys is not only a great way to learn how things work, it’s an awesome experience in reusing and recycling materials.

Microcontroller Exploration

My plan was for educators to mash up cardboard or toys with microcontrollers after lunch. So I created exploration stations for Hummingbird Robotics and ScratchMicro:bit and MakeCode; and Makey Makey and Scratch. This exploration really helped teachers realize what they wanted their toys to do and made them realize that they needed to tinker with each controller to figure out which one would best suit their design needs. (Ironically, Bird Brain Tech announced the next week that they have a new Hummingbird kit that will now work with Micro:bit!)

Mashing it All Up

The microcontroller exploration after lunch went well even though most of these educators had no prior knowledge. What was super cool, was that after playing with the controller, almost everyone got their toys back out before I even gave them the challenge. They were stoked to give their toys a new life with their new skills. Most of the educators chose to hack their toys instead of building something with cardboard. (But it’s still really important to offer choice for learners that are new to these concepts!) One of the coolest things was how the act of toy hacking really hit the heart of invention literacy.

At one point, a teacher explained to me that a random electronic in a toy was a speaker because it had a magnet. At another, some ladies that were at first frustrated with the microcontrollers, were excited to learn that they could program a Makey Makey to work the same as they toy that they just hacked. They could use Scratch to program Makey Makey to make three different soundbites based on a “toy press” variable. They instantaneously learned how a toy worked that one of their grand children had, and how they could use that knowledge to make a new toy with Makey Makey and Scratch.  I compiled all of the learning from toy hacking that day in the video below:

At some point in the afternoon, I looked up and it was pretty much time to go and every one was still HEAVILY involved in still tinkering with their toys. I was like, ” Um…. it’s almost time to go, how long were ya’ll planning on staying?” Toy hacking was super engaging for these teachers new to making!

I think the success of this workshop not only goes to a lot of planning, but on the open-minded and playful nature of the educators in San Angelo, Tx! It was a blast showing them multiple avenues for playing and learning in an educational makerspace. I hope they will have me back soon.

For more info on upcoming workshops from me or Aaron Graves, please visit this page.