The Importance of Sharing Mistakes- Reflecting on #SXSWedu – Post One

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Maker Confessions

#SXSWedu is a great convening of minds, life changing sessions, and amazing conversations in hallways, over coffee, and between sessions. It is those moments and casual conversations between that can have the biggest impact. On the first day I arrived at the conference, I found myself at the convention center with hours to go before any sessions started. I messaged Sam Patterson and Krissy Venosdale to see if they wanted to meet up and chat about maker education.


After chatting with Sam about writing, teaching, and making mistakes… he decided we needed to make a quick podcast with Krissy. The next thing I know, we were huddled in Krissy’s hotel room and recording our “Maker Confessions” for a podcast episode. We discussed how it is just as important as maker educators for us to share our “anti-Instagram” moments and celebrate our failures as loudly as we celebrate successes. You need to listen to this conversation about failing, making mistakes, and how difficult it feel to share these moments via our positive social media accounts.

“Because we teach in a process-focused approach, we have to subvert the “product- focused” nature of social media and find safe ways to share our daily struggles. If this resonates with you, share your struggles with us and let’s all work together to keep the process visible.” – Sam Patterson

Listen to the full  podcast here.  

Twinkling Stuffies

During our conversation, I talked about the saga of George. At the beginning of the semester I challenged my sewing circuit club to design and make their own twinkling stuffies. I put together this example stuffie sewn with a Lilytwinkle controller and Lilypad LEDS.  I documented the process so I’d have picture tutorials to aide my students if they needed it.

Here is my final example:

Workshopping Stuffies

On the first day that students began designing stuffies, it became evident that a 1 to 15 teacher/ student ratio for designing and making stuffies was not going to work! I needed another sewing circuit expert (and plushie designer) to make it through! Luckily, one of the girls in my club is already an excellent plushie maker, and she helped a table of students design and make their own ideas.  (I also had an aide that quickly adapted to sewing with conductive thread and was able to help those that needed it.)

It was a loud and rambunctious hour with many students designing and cutting fabric and only a few kids made it to actually sewing on the battery holder. It quickly became evident to me that this workshop that I thought might take two hours, could possibly end up taking the whole semester. (And I’m not sure I can sustain interest in making a stuffie for an entire semester!)

The Working and Not Working


After our second session, one student had a complete and working stuffie! His name is Seymour and I love the way his expression seems to change as different LEDs light up.

The Saga of George

On the opposite extreme of Seymour is George. The student sewing George moved quickly and had great success sewing the battery holder to the Lilytwinkle controller. I thought it meant she’d do well sewing the rest of her circuitry. I walked away to help others and came back to discover she’d sewn every pin of the controller together with her conductive thread. Curious as to what this would do, we alligator clipped from one pin to an LED. We were both surprised to learn that it still actually twinkled a bit, but as brightly as it should.

(Teaching note: If I had this to do over again, I’d have all kids sew their battery holder to the controller and then alligator clip LEDS before sewing to experience that each pin would sew only one conductive trace. This is the way I really learned how to sew circuits, but I didn’t think about it as being a necessary visual step that our learners might need! Lesson learned! )

For the next time we met, I told her to go ahead and sew from one pin to one LED and follow the suggested circuit paths.

Well…during that fated club meeting she sewed all of her positive traces and things were looking great. I told her, “Next time you come in, it will only take about five minutes to sew your negative trace and ground all of your LEDS.”

So… the next club meeting rolls around. The other students have moved on to making Makey Makey fabric switches and George is about to BE FINISHED! I see that the student has sewn the negative trace OVER the positive trace and I was like … oh boy… now what. More troubleshooting and problem solving led to me showing her how to insulate the circuit trace and for a moment… George lit up!

But it was short lived.

The way the circuits were sewn, it was just not going to work. At this point, we both admit defeat. It’s time to let go of the circuitry. I tell her, “You have two options. One, you can take the components out and resew now that you understand how to sew the circuits. Or you can take out the components and just finish George.” She didn’t want to sew the circuits again.She didn’t want to take the components out either. She just wanted George to be finished. It took some hemming and hawing, but we finally freed the components and another student helped her finish sewing George together. She came back the next morning to make George a cape and finish him completely. And you know what? George is cute even though he doesn’t light up. And the student still learned about sewing microcontrollers and LEDS with conductive thread. Yes, she’d really have the knowledge cemented in her head if she’d chosen to resew the circuit traces, but that’s for next time, right?

Moving Beyond Failures

Maybe saying we should “celebrate” our failures is too extreme. It isn’t that we should celebrate these moments as great things. BUT since our students see us failing and persevering everyday, we as maker educators should share and inform those around us that we often have things go wrong. We teach lessons that totally flop. We have projects that don’t work. We don’t label things and kids break components, or tear up rulers. It’s important to share when things go wrong. It helps us all teach just a little bit better everyday. So what’s your maker confession?





An Intro to Sewing Circuits Affordably


Paper Circuits to Sewing Circuits

In our #bigmakerbook, I suggest crafting with paper circuits to learn about simple and parallel circuits before delving into sewing circuitry. Last year, my GirlsinTech campers had a great time with paper circuits, but when we began to explore sewing circuits, they ran into many roadblocks. Some had never sewn before, some couldn’t thread the needle, some had pre-conceived ideas about sewing that led to disastrous short circuits, etc. (Note: I did have great success with teaching a parallel circuit bracelet at the DPL, but I also had 3 extra helpers for that workshop!)  So I wanted to try something new this year to get students started sewing and creating circuitry knowledge, but still keep the project simple. I wanted to share that project with you, and give you a list of some of my favorite sewing electronics books that aided me in my own journey to learning about creating and debugging soft circuits.

Keeping it Simple

Last year my students learned about circuits with paper circuits and jumped right into sewing parallel circuit bracelets. Instead of sewing a parallel circuit first this year, I wanted my students to really learn and understand the concept behind sewing a circuit. (Plus, I really want students to be able to go further throughout this year with soft circuits and programming.) Lastly, I wanted their learning to be really visible AND I wanted to make it a really easy project if they had never hand sewn, but still appeal to an expert.

In talking with Josh Burker about some ideas for our workshop during the PineCrest Innovation Institute (info in upcoming post!), I’d thought about adding a sewing circuit element to a workshop. My idea was to share a simple circuit template in an embroidery hoop and let participants add their own artistic flair around the light with fabric paint, markers, embroidery floss, etc.

A few days after our conversation, I realized that this would be a great way to start my club that is focused on learning sewing AND learning about electronics. I wanted to keep it simple by just teaching them how to hand sew with conductive thread (on white fabric so they can see their stitches!) and then each tips on embroidery techniques so my students can design with thread.

I made my own example, but only created the circuit and left my embroidery half-baked. I did this because this summer when I was knee deep in LEGO tinkering, I was struck by a tweet from Ryan Jenkins of the Tinkering Studio. This tweet stressed the importance of creating a “half-baked” idea or prototype because this would “invite participation” more than a fully baked idea that might not “instigate” a learning experience. Ryan and I spoke at length about this concept when I interviewed him for Challenge-Based Learning in the School Library Makerspace.

I realized that up to this point, I had made some half- baked prototypes on the fly just trying to get my kids interested (and it worked so well!), but then I’d started fully baking some prototypes which did not always lead to student participation.

As Patrick Ferrell of Harris County Public Library added, these half-baked examples get our patrons thinking they can not only make their own, but make one even better!

Below is my simple circuit with a couple of embroidery stitch examples.  I’m hoping to turn it into a cute spidery monster head with a glowing eye.  I promoted the heck out of the club, added new students to my Remind and hoped they would show up Thursday after school! As I was gathering my supplies, I realized I needed more coin cell battery holders.


Affordable Battery Holder

Since the cheapest coin cell battery holder to buy is two dollars a unit, I decided I wanted to try and make my own battery holder to keep costs low for my club. I found this great tutorial on sewing your own battery holder , but I didn’t have any neoprene fabric, and I was unsure about the safety of creating a battery holder with a different material.

I looked on Thingiverse and found this battery holder then uploaded it to Tinkercad for hacking. If you know much about me, you’ll know that I’m not really that into 3D design. So I messed around and added some ends for conductive fabric tape, and attempted a sewable hole. The first one I made, the battery didn’t fit. So I did some measurements and tried again. I used my new favorite tool conductive fabric tape from the Makey Makey Inventor Booster Kit to function as the battery tabs. It worked! I fabricated my first useful 3d printed thing and I was ready to manufacture! 🙂

It worked well for my students, but I realized I really did need to make a better hole for sewing each tab to the fabric. I asked for expert help from one of my favorite makers….

Thanks to Aaron Graves for helping me make this file presentable! (He helped me adjust the “thing” to the workplane, re-taught me about aligning shapes, and helped make the holes sewable!) Feel free to hack, reuse, and make your own!

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Update 1/20: I’ve since updated this battery holder so that it can be sewn as part of the project and resemble a pirate eyepatch!
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What Students Made

At our first meeting, we were a small, but mighty group! Which was a really good thing, because all of the girls were successful in sewing their first circuit!


Plus, my half-baked prototype worked swimmingly! The girls did not even follow my pattern for sewing a simple circuit, they forged their own paths. Like any great maker project, some students created simple designs, and others who were already knowledgable with sewing, took it further. One even sewed a cat with her conductive thread! I had to teach her about insulating threads on the fly. Another student decided to try and hide most of her circuitry and is already skilled at embroidering and ready to create her own artistic monster/robot/idea.  Overall it took them about an hour to sew a simple circuit.

The girls happily displayed their projects on the project shelf and asked if we can meet every week! (I have students store projects like these at the library so I can help with debugging as needed.)


Embroidery Stitches

Now that they’ve sewn their first circuit, I’m going to teach club members different stitches so they can add their own creative ideas to their work using this great tutorial for learning different types of stitches. The circuit is important, but I’m excited to see how this gets them creatively stitching and inspires them to design art with thread.

Great Resources for Sewing Circuit/Soft Circuit/E-Textile

If you are new to sewing circuits and are looking for more resources, here are a lot of things that guided me along the way. Read my past post about teaching a sewing circuit class at the Denton Public Library.  Plus, our Big Book of Makerspace Projects has a full chapter of sewing circuits that range from very simple to very complex!