Category Archives: Pedagogy

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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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.