Eco-Friendly Circuits at FabLearn 2019

The theme for this year’s FabLearn in New York City was “what role does maker education play in a world with growing social and environmental challenges?” Taking inspiration from the topic, serial WICO collaborator Angela Sofia Lombardo and I tested out a new twist on a computational tinkering workshop at the conference.


We started by connecting sustainable circuit elements like solar panels and wind turbines to Scratch 3.0 using an experimental Micro:Bit extension that allows for more ways to interface with the physical world designed by the one and only Kreg Hanning.

Before the conference we tested out some example projects. In the first set up, I connected the wires from a solar panel to a numbered pin and the ground pin on the Micro:Bit will alligator clips. The first example project I made was a little animation of a cat outside on a snowy day with the sun (and dance track) coming out when enough light shined on the solar panel.


To make the elements a bit easier to use. I ended up mounting the components on wooden blocks just like the circuit boards that we use for basic electricity explorations. Also we created some blocks with LEDs that could be powered by either the generators on their own or with the Micro:Bit. It was fun to work on another prototype extension this classic tinkering activity.


After finishing up the green new circuit blocks, I packed up all of the materials and tools for the workshop in a huge suitcase for FabLearn NYC.


We started our workshop by dividing up for an initial exploration with half the team playing with the analog elements while the other half got familiar with the Micro:Bit.

Some of the explorations that people engaged with included using multi-meters to measure how much electricity each component created, stringing solar panels in series to see how bright they could get an LED and noticing how similar elements could work very differently depending on the size of the solar panel, the shape of the blades or the direction of the current. We set up some really bright lights near the solar panels and table with fans for testing the turbines.


The Micro:bit side of the room had a bit of technical difficulties just getting Scratch and the Micro:Bit to sync up together. Once we got the scratch connection working right on all the computers the participants quickly tried to make something surprising happen on the screen when a button on the Micro:Bit was pushed (or when the onboard light sensor was triggered).


For the last forty-five minutes or so the groups came back together and worked with a partner for a mash-up of the activities to connect the eco-circuit to the scratch project as a deeper computational tinkering experience.

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These projects were pretty challenging and it was at times difficult to facilitate the interactions. Luckily we got a assist from Kreg (who was dragged out of a different workshop to lend his technical support).

It was great to see how much people were willing to work through frustrations with out giving up. Later on we found out that maybe half the group had never used scratch before and almost 3/4 had never tried out Micro:bit so this was an impressive first project with these computational tools.

At the end of the session we took 10 minute to go around the room and share the projects that the groups made! There were lots of good ideas from around the room including a solar powered coffee maker, a leaf blower and a wind turbine that spun on the screen when triggered by the fan in the real world. Although many groups could have used a bit more time to fully explore their ideas, it was nice to celebrate all of the works in progress and reflect on the complexity of computational tinkering projects.


After the workshop we reflected on the activity. It seemed that everyone needed more time to fully explore the idea and we know that it’s always tricky to set up participants computers (especially with bluetooth) on the fly. But this was a great first step that surfaced new possibilities for connecting physical elements to scratch through the Micro:Bit (maybe over multiple sessions or event throughout an entire semester).

The concepts of sustainable energy, electricity and environmental technology should be taught through using the materials instead of only on a conceptual level. Part of developing a computational tinkering activities is taking similar topics and creating opportunities for them to be explored in open-ended and personally meaningful ways.