Love circuit

Paper Circuits take 2 – on “embracing failure”

If you’d like to do this activity in your own classroom, see my first post on Paper Circuits, which includes links & information about where to get materials as well as some inspiration.

Five minutes before the end of study hall I called for cleanup and my students started unplugging their soldering irons and packing up their projects — Valentine’s Day cards made for their 4th grade buddies — and one of my students paused for a moment between switching off the soldering iron and slipping her card into her project storage bin. “I feel so successful!” she says, “I’m really proud of myself.”

One of my students carefully adding solder to her paper circuit in preparation for placing an LED down.

One of my students carefully adding solder to her paper circuit in preparation for placing an LED down.

If there are moments as a teacher that fill you with that warm, fuzzy feeling that makes you willing to keep working through those long hours for little pay and less respect, that’s mine: when a thirteen year-old girl looks at her electronics project with pride and satisfaction. There’s just something about soldering that makes it irresistible–the mixture of fine motor skills and hot molten metal which looks so very much harder than it actually is and perfectly primes kids for a swell of accomplishment. Kids love it.

The more impressive part of this project, of course, is its flexibility: students can make a beautiful work of art with a single LED in a simple circuit, or they can carefully plan out an extensive project with twenty to thirty lights in intricate patterns. One of my students, who had some experience with the tools needed from working with me in an elective, used arduino to program five separate circuits attached to an ATtiny microcontroller, each of which blinked in one of two patterns depending on which way he had flipped a switch. More than any other hands-on project I’ve ever done, Paper Circuits lets every kid have the opportunity to feel both challenged AND successful. Differentiation is always one of the most challenging things for a teacher to pull off well, but Paper Circuits does it with ease, so every kid gets to feel challenged without feeling overwhelmed.

Love circuit

The girl who made this circuit spent a long time with the multimeter carefully searching for the place where her copper tape had ripped and needed to be soldered together.

Most impressively, Paper Circuits is an amazing tool to teach students how to troubleshoot. There’s a good-sized list of simple mistakes that can break a circuit: the LEDs can be put on backwards, they can be poorly connected, or connected in a series circuit that needs more voltage than your battery can supply. A rip in the tape can cause a loose connection, or a stray blob of solder or bits of copper tape too close together can short out the circuit. One of the keys to this lesson is to give students a toolbox full of techniques to troubleshoot with. I’ve found that for most of my students, the breaking point that makes them give up on a project isn’t really whether it’s working or not or how long they’ve been struggling, but rather whether they feel like they’re making progress. There may be a long list of things that can go wrong, but it’s a finite list; before too long they’re going to find something to fix that they can take action on.

Teachers love to talk about “embracing failure” as a way to learn resilience, but that’s not what students really need. Children need to internalize the idea that success comes from consistent and persistent effort, and that when things don’t go their way they have the ability to make them better. They need to learn that they have power over their ability to succeed or fail, and that success is the result of hard work, not inborn talent.

Troubleshooting Techniques:

  • Flip the battery – if this causes the LEDs to light up, it means they’ve been soldered on backwards.
  • Try a new battery – maybe your battery is out of juice!
  • Press gently on the LED – if a little bit of pressure causes them to light up, they aren’t properly connected. Try soldering the LED into place again.
  • Search for the loose connection – use a multimeter on a setting that makes a noise when the circuit is closed. Place one lede at the start of your circuit, and trace along the circuit with the other. When the multimeter stops making noise, you’ve found the break in your circuit.
  • Search for a short circuit – look for places where the line of copper coming from the negative side of the battery and the line coming from the positive side meet. Separate them!

The best thing about these circuits is that when they work, they work spectacularly. A student might spend ten minutes carefully troubleshooting, and when they finally find and fix the problem, the card suddenly and sometimes quite spectacularly lights up. There is a single moment where it goes from broken to working that has led to more shouts of joy than I can count. Students don’t need to embrace failure. Failure isn’t much fun, and that’s not what they need to strive for. The failure is there to present a challenge that strikes the right medium between being difficult to overcome without exhausting a students options. It exists to make the eventual success that much sweeter.

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Why do we expect less self-control from police than we do from teachers?

Recently, I got an email from one of my former teachers and colleagues. He had been shifted by the administration out of a teaching role and onto alumni relations, and was contacting me as a young alumna to talk about writing a blurb for the magazine. I made the mistake of asking why he’d switched roles, and the story he told me made me both sad and intensely uncomfortable.  A student had slammed the door to a classroom, and he’d lost his cool, slammed him up against a locker, and yelled at him. “I never hit the kid” he said, by way of explaining. He had just wanted to get the kid’s attention, throwing in the detail that the kid in question was 6’2″.  My friend never said anything about the kid’s race, but I can make a pretty good guess: he was probably black.

If you’ve never taught, you have no idea the sense of anxiety teachers have around certain subjects. When I was first taught to teach, the list of rules they had for us was extensive: always leave your window shades up, your door unlocked, preferably open. Never be alone in a room with a kid; there always needs to be a witness with you. Never hug the children.  If at all possible, try to avoid touching the children. All it takes is one accusation of impropriety, a single kid claiming that you’ve abused them, be it physical or sexual, and that’s it; your career is over.  Teachers agonize about the possibility, second-guessing how they intervene in the lives of kids who are in crisis, making sure that when we put in that extra time to support a kid who needs it that there are others in the building, nearby, witnesses to be called on just in case.

You can’t ever lose your cool as a teacher, or you’re out. Never mind that the job can be frustrating, frightening, depressing, or enraging. Never mind that, in high school at least, it’s not uncommon for students to be big enough to be a very real threat, and don’t always act in ways that are entirely safe. Teachers are public servants, and if you can’t keep your emotions in check and act like a professional, then you shouldn’t be in this profession. Period. As a teacher, you have enormous power over the children in your charge, and if you abuse that power, you are unfit to do the job. My colleague who lost his cool and shoved a black kid up against the lockers lost his job, because that kind of behavior is simply unacceptable. And you know what? That’s the right call.

But if you’re a cop? If you’re a policeman, and you lose your cool on the job and hurt an innocent kid, everyone is so very ready to forgive you. We worry about what your emotional state was at the time, whether you felt threatened, whether your use of force was justifiable. In the end, no matter how young or old the black kid is that you shoot, whether he staggered towards you or ran away, whether he had a weapon or was unarmed, whether he complied with your demands or not, whether he begged you not to kill him, whether he is a suspect in some petty crime that merits at most a small fine or is just an innocent child playing in the park…in the end, that officer is not going to go to jail. They’re not going to have a trial. Odds are, they aren’t even going to lose their job.

Is it a normal, human emotion to be afraid or angry in these circumstances? Yes, absolutely, but policework isn’t a job for every human any more than teaching is.  Police have all the power of the state’s monopoly on force behind them.  If you don’t have exceptional patience and understanding, you’re not going to last long as a teacher. Your behavior is unacceptable, and you’re going to be fired. Why do we let cops, who, like teachers, are public servants tasked with keeping our children safe, behave this way without consequence? If you can’t face a 6’2″ kid acting aggressively and follow protocol and act in the best interest of that kid, you don’t deserve to be a cop anymore than you deserve to be a teacher.  If you lack patience, if you lack empathy, or if you are easily frightened then you are not cut out to be a policeman.

The knowledge that all it would take is one mistake for me to lose my job forever frightens me, yes, but it also makes me careful, and I think that’s probably a good thing for everyone involved. So ask yourself: do you really want people in positions of power over your kids who know that whatever they do, they do free of consequence?

If you wouldn’t tolerate that in your teachers, why do you tolerate it in your police?

Taking the Keyboard Away

There’s a nasty thing that happens sometimes in group projects that contain a mix of boys and girls, where boys–who are trained from a young age to speak up–tend to put their hands into the mix early on, while the girls who have been trained to keep their voices small and polite and to always make space for others before claiming room for themselves tend to fall to the outer margins of a project.  Women in technology or gaming have a term for this; it’s called “taking the keyboard away,” and it’s pervasive.  It’s shockingly common for us to physically pry the tools needed to perform some project directly out of the hands of girls and women.  It will happen at the flimsiest of provocations: a single question about how to proceed is usually sufficient for someone to take the tool away from a woman or girl and do it for them.

This is not a good way to teach people.  It’s insulting, it’s demeaning, it shows a lack of confidence in their capabilities, and worst of all it denies them the opportunity to improve and learn.  It’s commonly done to women & girls, but it’s common whenever dealing with people whose skills in a particular area you don’t respect, especially when the “teacher” doesn’t have the patience to actually teach.  Taking the keyboard away is the kind of behavior that can take an otherwise amazing school project and thoroughly ruin it.  The teacher may think they’ve planned an awesome, hands-on activity that gives children room to fail and builds resiliency while leaving them room to tinker and be creative, but if only half of your students actually end up getting to put their hands on the project you’re not really accomplishing your goals.

The truth is that no individual teacher is going to be able to undo the years of gender norms that cause girls to put up with having a drill ripped out of her hands.  What you can do, however, is to keep it out of your classroom.  No teacher can be everywhere, but there’s a few things that you can do that make a big difference:

Tell, Don’t Show
Do not touch your student’s projects — ever. Put the tools in their hands and talk them through how to use them. If you absolutely must show, then have a demo project set aside to show them on, so that you never actually touch their work. We all want our students to be successful, but you are not there to do the project for them. 

Outnumbering the most overbearing boys is a good way to keep them from taking over.

Outnumbering the most overbearing boys is a good way to keep them from taking over.

Make Expectations Clear
From the very beginning of a group project, make it clear to the class that everyone is expected to participate.  If there are a number of different tools, state clearly (and frequently) that you want everyone in a group to use each tool at least once.

Avoid Letting them Specialize
Don’t let students specialize into their own roles too early; it’s all too common for a girl to get pushed into the role of “secretary” and be stuck taking notes while everyone else is drilling, sawing, soldering, or generally doing the “fun” part.

Two girls work together at the hot-glue station to attach their wheel & axle.

Two girls work together at the hot-glue station to attach their wheel & axle.

Work Together, Grade Separately
The smartest kid in your class probably hates groupwork.  The typical way of grading these projects is to give one grade for the entire thing, which forces those kids who won’t settle for anything less than an A to do more of their share of the work, while other students skate by on their hard work.  It’s a bad situation for everyone; the hard workers end up stressed and resentful, and other kids end up not learning anything.  Making kids do the in-class portion together while still being responsible for some sort of independent work does wonders towards keeping them all engaged & involved.  If that’s too much work, then start out with a shared grade but have each student receive a separate participation score.

Isolate the Overbearing Boys
You know that one boy in your class that can’t quite seem to shake the tendency of pushing the girls to the periphery?  Group him with a trio of girls.

Before letting them use the powertools, ask "Has anyone in your group not had a chance to use the drill yet?"

Before letting them use the powertools, ask “Has anyone in your group not had a chance to use the drill yet?”

Guard the Toys
If you’re doing a project that involves tool use, set up a station near the coolest ones to supervise.  Every time a kid comes to you to use them, go ahead and ask them “Have you used the (drill/saw/soldering iron/etc.) yet?”  If their answer is yes, ask if anyone else in their group hasn’t had a chance to use it yet, go ahead and pull them forward to get them involved.  This is probably the single best way to make sure that everyone ends up actually having their hands on a project.

Hands-on projects are a great way to keep students engaged and in love with the material.  Just remember that it falls on the teacher to make sure that everyone is getting the full benefit of the assignment.

Pretty girls, pockets, and possibilities: how fashion traps girls

I was ecstatic when I opened up the fedex box to find it there: all soft brown leather and brass and laces and (most importantly) pockets. I’d ordered it from an artist in Asheville, NC, a city with nearly as many skilled artisans as San Francisco but with the added benefit of fewer vegans…and hence, skilled leatherwork. It was a utility belt, and I bought it because I was sick of not having a vial or a ziplock to put the occasional interesting spider or butterfly in.

My utility belt fits the following: wallet, cellphone, chap-stick, keys, a half dozen vials of varying sizes, a few ziplocks, a knife, and two loups (16x and 10x magnefication). I could fit more in if I squeezed, but it basically amounts to the general contents of what would fit in most men’s pants. What’s important is that it’s enough for me to have the tools I need with me all the time, even if I choose to put on a pretty dress.

Click me to see the website of the awesome lady who made the belt!

Collection vials, magnifying glass, AND a pretty dress? Yes please!

Picture a child, playing on the edge of a pond, catching salamanders or tadpoles. Is the child a boy or a girl? Now, I think few in their right minds would argue that a six or seven year old girl has any less interest in capturing the local fauna than a boy, but the fact remains that it is far easier for one gender to actually do anything with that frog or lizard. If a child intends to set up an aquarium full of local organisms, watch tadpoles transform into frogs, or bring back that beautiful iridescent beetle for her bug collection, she needs something to carry them in. If our young scientist happens to shop in the women’s or girl’s aisle, then odds are she either has no pockets or pockets that exist primarily for show.

Via the excellent webcomic

Via the excellent webcomic

Can we pause to recognize how ridiculous this is? We have entire industries devoted to making purses and bags specifically because women’s clothing is intentionally designed to rob us of the ability to store our own belongings. We store our IDs, credit card, and a few twenties in our boots, or (if we’re wearing those nice strappy heels that make our calves look so shapely) shove them down our cleavage. Entire companies exist to create more convenient ways of shoving cell phones into our bras. The fashion industry would rather we shove our personal belongings under our sweaty boobs or stinky feet than give us actual pockets that work. Heaven forbid we ruin the smooth lines and perfect curves with a place to store a pocket knife.

Meanwhile, where are the little girls with magnifying glasses in their back pocket, ready to observe the trichobothria on a spider’s legs? Which of them is going to catch a honey bee in a vial and take it home to look at its pollen baskets? How are we to make young scientists out of these girls if we deny them the ability to carry the tools of science?

I don’t know what the solution to this is. I don’t know what to tell those of you who are parents of little girls aside from this: be mindful of what you buy your daughters. Girl’s clothing with pockets is rare, but it does exist. Pay attention when you’re choosing what to buy them, and whenever possible try to ensure they aren’t hobbled from the beginning.

Paper Circuits: Teaching Science through Art

One of the most successful projects I have done in my entire teaching career, paper circuits is an activity that teaches the principles of circuitry while encouraging children to be creative and artistic.  The activity itself is simple: using copper snail tape, small surface-mount LEDs, and coin-cell batteries, students draw out circuits on a piece of paper.  The LEDs can be attached with scotch tape (great for younger kids!) or, if you’re feeling particularly bold, they can be soldered into place.

A star built out of a parallel circuit.

A star built out of a parallel circuit.

Setting up a simple circuit with a single LED is easy, but if you want to include multiple LEDs, you’ll need to learn how to make a parallel circuit.  In the process, you’ll run into a lot of difficulties: loose connections where you haven’t properly attached things, places where you’ve accidentally created a connection where there shouldn’t be one and shorted out the circuit, LEDs turned around backwards, etc.  This project is a perfect example of giving kids the opportunity to fail.  No one gets it perfect on their first try: they’re going to have to spend some time huddled with the multimeter, sliding the probes along the copper tape in search of the place where they have that loose connection.  The result is that they learn resilience and perseverance alongside the technical skills.

Place the circuitry on a piece of paper on the inside of the card to build art with lights shining through.

Place the circuitry on a piece of paper on the inside of the card to build art with lights shining through.

My 7th graders spent several lab periods working on this project; we were preparing for a visit to the elementary school on Valentine’s day, when they would be seeing their 4th grade “buddies,” the children they have been serving as mentors for.  Not only did they make cards for their buddies, when they visited they worked with their buddy to teach them how to make their own cards using a simple circuit and a single LED.  The project went surprisingly smoothly, even when it came down to 13 year olds teaching 9 year olds the basics of circuitry!

The best thing about this project is how it reaches out to a group of students who don’t see themselves reflected in the images of scientists and technologists around them.  Our society tends to code electronics as masculine, and girls who might have gotten the subtle message that circuitry is a boy-thing and felt uncomfortable or unwelcome playing with a breadboard take to the craft-based paper circuits model naturally.  The simple act of putting it on a piece of paper and letting them be creative with it removes the oppressive gender norms that might have driven them away…and that’s just the girls; this project let me reach a number of ADHD kids of all genders who view science as intimidating but who are completely comfortable with art.

An origami circuit featuring a push-button.  It was a lot of work to eliminate the short-circuits that appeared when the students folded this!

An origami circuit featuring a push-button. It was a lot of work to eliminate the short-circuits that appeared when the students folded this!

This is that rare project that seems to genuinely touch on all of those educational buzzwords that most schools only pay lip-service to: it’s a legitimately student-driven, space-to-fail, STEM, STEAM, interdisciplinary project.

If you’re interested in trying this at home, the Exploratorium  has a great write-up of what you’ll need to do it.  The places they suggest are a bit on the expensive side; I recommend buying 1/8th inch copper tape from Lucent Path, which sells 55 yard rolls of it for $9 on Amazon.  The 1/8th inch tape is thinner and easier to shape than the 1/4 inch stuff that the Exploratorium recommends.  LEDs can be purchased from Digikey – be sure you get the 3.2×1.6mm ones, as anything smaller than that is so tiny as to be extremely difficult to work with.  The trick to working with these tiny things is to stick them on a piece of scotch tape, and then use the tape to position them properly.  Coin-cell batteries can be bought in your average drug-store for about $5 each, but digikey has them for only about $0.25 each.  If you have any questions about this experiment, or how to teach it at home or in the class, let me know and I’ll be happy to answer them!