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.”
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.
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.
- 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.