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Making for the Masses (aka Paper Circuitry)

Making for the Masses (aka Paper Circuitry)

Written by Paul Oh
November 23, 2013

Reposted from my blog.

Paper + Circuits + LED stick-on lights + Art and Creativity = Hacked Notebook. As in:



This low-cost, lo-fidelity making happened this week at the National Writing Project’s Annual Meeting, Jie Qi of MIT’s Media Lab along with her collaborators David Cole, Jennifer Dick and me representing my org, helped a group of teachers turn their notebooks – that icon of the writing class – into a mashup of technical and artistic interactivity.

Jie’s work is mind blowingly beautiful. Only a few seconds into this video, you’ll understand the truth of that statement.

Just as amazing as her vision and talent, though, is her desire to make this kind of e-crafting available to all. She is continually iterating on the idea of using readily available materials that are relatively inexpensive – copper tape found at Home Depot that is generally used by gardeners to keep snails away, watch batteries, tape and tiny LED lights – so that anyone can hack a notebook. All while learning concepts of circuitry within the context of self-expression, from the whimsical to the profound.

David and Jennifer, of NEXMAP, have taken Jie’s ideas and turned them into a hands-on learning experience for educators. A really good and immersive one, complete with a gorgeously designed Scout book that has elements of engineer’s notebook, school primer, and artist’s sketchpad. There was laughter, frustration, questions, failures, collaboration and ultimately some level of triump for all.

As we reflected on the activity, our very brilliant NWP teachers made such interesting observations as:

  • Building with lights and circuits made one teacher, Dawn Reed, think of the lights all around us in Boston, where the conference was taking place, and how those lights have an impact on us as “readers” of our landscape
  • A better understanding of the science behind circuit creation, though challenging for many, would have helped in the planning of the artwork and circuit design
  • In this initial foray, working with an already completed circuit, and layering art on top of that, leads to different design considerations than starting with the artistic vision and trying to add lights.

Jie said afterward that our teachers’ responses were genuinely helpful in her considerations about how she might iterate her professional development and presentation. Usually, she said, the response to her work is, “I lit up a dragon! So pretty!” Which is a great response, but perhaps not quite as deeply reflective as what our English teachers were able to plumb.

Teachers were still trying to put finishing touches on their notebooks even as we inched towards and then passed the scheduled close of the session. As they walked away, a few said they’d be working on their projects that evening, getting help from their hotel roommates or showing off to colleagues their pictures of people, landscapes, bugs, text, all turned into mixed media with the layering of lights activated by a reader’s completion of a circuit. That desire to continue on, to keep trying and learning past the fixed boundary of any kind of face-to-face learning moment, is the true mark of a successful learning experience. And many talked of ways they’d implement this work in their literacy instruction.

We’re continuing our partnership with Jie, David and Jen, through the NWP-powered Educator Innovator network. I’m proud to have been able to have been a part of making this learning experience happen, and excited beyond words (I may let out an accidental “squee”) that I get to continue to work with these forward-thinking makers, hackers and dreamers.

In the meantime, if you want to support Jie’s crowd-funding effort to produce her own design of stick-on LED lights and other innovative paper circuitry materials, check out her Kickstarter-like site. And also check out Jie’s tutorials.

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