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!


9 thoughts on “Paper Circuits: Teaching Science through Art

    1. dharlette Post author

      Oooo! No, I haven’t tried conductive glue yet! I did back the circuit scribe project on kickstarter for a conductive ink pen, but unfortunately it has yet to arrive.

  1. Rachel

    How do you get the surface mount LEDs to stick? I know they can be soldered, but this isn’t always a practical solution for me when working with kids. Also, do you have any tips for using the SM LEDs? They are so $%&# small!

    1. dharlette Post author

      The easy solution when working with these with kids too young to solder is to just use scotch tape. This ALSO neatly solves the problem of maneuvering the damn things; the trick is to pick them up with a piece of scotch tape, and then hold onto the tape instead of the LED as you move them into position. Taping them down works just fine for short-term projects, but you are likely to end up with a lot of loose connections, especially if you try to keep a work of art for any length of time.

  2. engagetheirminds

    Do you mind if I use one of the images of your greeting cards on my blog post tomorrow? I am doing a post about Valentine’s Day activities and love this idea. I will, of course, give you proper attribution.

  3. Pingback: Paper Circuits take 2 – on “embracing failure” | The Wanton Feminist

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