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.

Micro:Bit

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:

 

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Makerspace Storage Solutions

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I’ve had a lot of questions about storage for maker tools, so I wanted to compile a list of maker storage solutions I’ve tried over the years.

Microcontroller Storage Solutions

Arduinos, Micro:bit, and Makey Makey are awesome tools, but they don’t come in user or library friendly storage containers. Lately, I’ve been buying photo storage boxes to contain my microcontrollers in a compact and clear solution. What I love about these Iris photo keepers is that 6 of the the containers fit inside another clear unit. Plus, you can easily spot that you have your Makey Makey, alligator clips, and USB cable when students hand the kits back.

If you have some old clear VHS cases, they are also perfect for storing Makey Makey and accessories! I saw Diana Rendina do this at FETC last year, and I almost looked for back stock so I could put all of my Makey Makeys in old VHS boxes!

However, you might want to store things like Play-doh inside your Makey Makey kits, if so a larger storage box works great too. Check out Bill Steinbach’s storage solution:

I’m use these photo boxes to store table supplies for workshops too. Below is a kit for creating paper circuits during a Makey Makey Invention Literacy workshop. These little boxes are great for storing rolls of copper tape, drawing pencils, foil, batteries, and coincell battery holders.

The Iris Photo Keeper sized 4X6 is also good for Micro:bit and accessories.  This size is perfect for the cable, controller, and battery holder. If you want to store more accessories, you’ll want to go a box size up.

Consumable/Recyclables Maker Storage

At Ryan High School with the help of my ITS, Leslie Terronez, we organized all of our materials in these large tubs and labeled accordingly. (See more about the process in this previous post.)

These tubs helped students find things quickly.  I ended up moving all of this organized chaos to the “maker classroom” side of the library at Ryan, and then used these huge shelves behind the circulation desk for “in-progress” projects. During our Invention Literacy projects with 10th grade, I quickly realized that I need to move our consumables far away from our non-consumable items like knitting needles, Raspberry Pi components, etc. I needed all recyclable and prototyping material far away from things I didn’t want torn up. During that project, students sawed knitting wooden needles in half to make catapults!  I didn’t get upset with them for their creative reuse, but oh my! If only I’d remembered Krissy Venosdale’s Maker Confession we’d discussed at SXSWedu last year!

At my new library, I have mostly only recyclables and and consumables. So I keep my Micro:bit and Makey Makeys near our computers and I have a wall of recyclables clearly labeled for students to use in projects. I’ve also learned to cut my cardboard into square and rectangle sheets so it’s a little more accessible for my elemakers.

It’s handy to save round things in a bin labeled “round-wheel like things”, cardboard tubes, interesting plastic, soft things, pom poms, straws, popsicle sticks, etc in your consumable area. However, with younger students remember to tell them not to be wasteful. You may even have to limit how many materials they can use. During our Micro:bit pet project, Mrs. Honea and I saw the kids decimate all of my sorted reuse materials in 2 minutes! Plus, they only gathered them all and then had to put them back. It’s important for students to understand that they do not have HOARD materials because they will stay in your storage tubs for further use.

Storing Works In Progress

Last year I noticed that it was getting harder to keep “in progress” projects organized on the shelves. So I decided to buy tubs that students could label with their names and an expiration date. If they were working on a project of their own, they needed to write an expiration date. If they were working as a class, they just needed to label the tub with their names. At Ryan I kept these behind the circulation desk. At my new school, I keep in progress projects on empty shelves in my office so idle hands do not find them and destroy them. Read more about the in-progress shelves in this post I wrote last year.

During the “works in-progress” clean up, I also tried out making a re-purpose it bin. This seemed like a good idea for repurposing old projects, but not many of my high school students would go through it to look for parts. It might work better in elementary, since the kids really love scavenging items. Only time will tell!

The red tubs work great for in progress work when I have one whole class working on a project. For open maker time projects, these little containers with lids work a little better. An expiration date is necessary for free lance projects because sometimes kids abandon projects for a long time. I can’t tell you how many times a students would come back months after they started a project. It’s always difficult to tell them you’ve recycled their work, but it becomes a little easier when you have an expiration date on the bin!

Skinny containers with lids are great for storing sewing and sewing circuit projects!

Throwback to Lamar Middle School

I started the in-progress shelves when I was working at Lamar. At the time, it was just empty shelving for student projects. When I stored projects like this at Ryan, inevitably someone would mess with another student’s project. That’s why it’s important to use bins or storage tubs to keep work separated and safe.

Need More Ideas for Makerspace Storage?

Visit your local re-use stores to get more great storage ideas! Scrap Denton had great ideas for re-purposing old containers for consumables supplies. At Ryan, I used biscotti tubs that a teacher gave me to store consumables like popsicle sticks and wooden dowels. To keep your area looking neat, make sure your up-cycled containers are all matching! You can reuse tennis ball containers for ribbons, popsicle sticks, etc! While you are at your re-use store, be environmentally friendly by picking up more supplies for your makerspace instead of buying all brand new materials.

Pinterest always has great one trick ideas too! I found this great way to organize thread by hot gluing golf tees to the top tub of tool box drawer.

What are some of your favorite storage ideas? See my previous post about makerspace storage for ideas on storing littleBits, Sphero, and more!