Connected Messages at McPherson: Part 2

I’m happy to say that we at McPherson were able to get our Connected Messages mural completed with time to spare (in large part due to the kids borrowed from the Summer program who were very excited about the idea that they could make more than one box!).

The library was able to allow me the use of a small room downstairs which came in very handy in organizing the groups without all the interruption and distractions of the main area.  On my longer days I was able to rotate several groups who were very excited to participate (especially after seeing that the other kids who made boxes for the mural also got to take with them a light-up “kindness card” once they were finished).

It was great to see the pile of completed boxes grow and grow each day.   Getting the younger kids to get as colorful as possible was not much of a challenge, but the older kids…that was another story.  It was interesting to see that the younger ones drawing anything and everything. The older kids had the distinct impression that drawing and writing a list of names are the same thing. Which in some regards they wouldn’t be entirely mistaken especially when the entire neighborhood is covered in one form of graffiti or another. So I was happy to see them write their lists all day long if they wanted to so long as they did it in a colorful way. Bam, everybody was happy!

I had initially attempted to put the boxes onto the control board as they were created, but I soon realized that doing it that way wasn’t the best.  So once all 64 boxes were made I was able to apply them in a very stable way. After discussing the attachment of the boxes with the other Maker’s I learned that using an additional loop of the copper conductive tape at each connection point not only helped with maintaining a quality connection, but also to keep the boxes stable on the board.

I also found that some of the connections on the traces required additional copper tape. Luckily copper conductive tape was in abundance so that problem was handled in no time.

Once all the boxes were up on the board and operational I thought it’d be fun to decorate the rest of the board that was still exposed. I mean, the traces look pretty cool and all but not very festive. With a couple large bags of googly-eyes, colorful pieces of paper, and a few bottles of glitter-glue me and another kid set to work adding as much eye-candy as we could. And I think it worked out rather well!

We got out a laptop and allowed a bunch of the kids to go nuts turned the boxes on and off at their will. It was nice to see that even the ones who had minimal interest in participating in creating a box were pretty excited to be able to turn their own box on or off. Even if that excitement lasted for no longer than a few minutes and they soon were off like ping-pong balls looking for the next exciting thing to enter into their field of vision.

Art-Bot Attack!

So it only took the whole summer to finally get around to busting out the art-bots. Sadly I didn’t get as over-the-top as I had originally wanted to at the beginning of the summer after having explored it with the possibility box I received from MakerEd. It remained as simple as it was in the beginning: take a dollar store tooth brush and attach three markers to it via rubber bands and let them go nuts on a piece of paper. I only had two working electric tooth brushes so the supplies were limited, but as I found out quickly, the supplies were ample.

It didn’t take much to gather a crowd with this project. Seeing a handful of markers jut around in circles on a piece of paper apparently unaided is definitely something to be curious about. Seeing two of these going is something to sit down and get involved with.

Now, I knew that the art-bots would be making some interesting images, but what I didn’t quite expect was that having two art-bots going at the same time going at a particularly sad 3rpms would bring such excitement from the kids at the library who watched, perched on the edge of their seats. The spark that really ignited their fascination with the bots was when they bumped into each other. “Ooo! That one just hit that one!” was a shouted a lot. It soon became a table-top Battle Royale of art-bots.

The kids would sit around the circular table watching the spinning bots creep slowly towards each other and occasionally make contact. A winner would be decided, and the loser would be torn about and replaced with new colors…a new challenger entering the arena.

Now I would expect the kind of excitement I was getting if these were spinning much faster or maybe they were colliding and knocking each other over in some exciting fashion, but it was hypnotic sitting there watching these things gyrate. It was also just plain bazar that this went on for seven hours. Seven hours of watching two electric tooth brushes rotate at incredibly slow speeds bumping into one another about once every minute. Certain color combinations were given names. Like some kind of ridiculous WWE championship we watched the gladiators bump it out.

This was a really fun, really basic project that the kids simply loved. It was different from a lot of the other projects that we worked on this summer because all it was was strapping markers to an electric toothbrush. It didn’t involve abstract thought. It didn’t involve any dexterity in particular. It could be made by anyone, whether you had construction skills or not. A lot of times I felt that the projects that I tried to engage the kids in were met with skepticism and doubt that they could actually create them, gauging their own skills against my own. For this project I was happy to see that when they gathered around they didn’t see me…they saw a simple device that anyone could produce with two dollars and a couple minutes of time. There were no excuses with this project. It was fun, it was easy, and it was cheap. And best of all it wasn’t intimidating in any way…just plain old fun and enjoyment.

Invisible Ink

We gave invisible ink (aka: lemon juice) a shot one afternoon. We got quite a lot of participants all sitting around a table with bowls of lemon juice and q-tips for writing on piles of white paper. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of “invisible ink” which to a child’s mind seems like some kind of exotic and mysterious craft that could be used for all sorts of nefarious little transactions amongst friends.

The lemon soaked sheets of paper shuffled around the long table so much that it soon became evident why invisible ink can be a bit of a silly idea when the kids realized that a dry piece of paper looks just like the next hundred pieces of dry white paper! A lot of grabbing and yelling “this one is mine!” or “No, wait! This one is mine!” floated around the small room we were working in, deep within the basement of a library (where in my mind secret teachings in enigmatic writing should always reside).

The papers all became so disheveled that each one put under the iron for visualization were a surprise to everyone. No one knew who’s was next! It was really fun to see the excitement and wonder about a project that ultimately is rather anticlimactic when your imagination betrays you when the mystery message you jotted down onto your clean white sheet of printer paper is revealed by the heat of the iron when the lemon juice oxidizes and your message “Hi mommmy” hasn’t been some how transformed into The Da Vinci Code.

     I remember doing this project when I was really young, too, and I remember how it felt to see something you’ve created become visible through the wondrous and supernatural powers of a household iron. I was glad to be able to share in and pass on the experience with the kids at the library and only hope that they remember and do the same some day.


After several weeks of one hour sessions working with e-textiles we finally got it all finished up.

In the beginning we were concerned about only have enough materials for ten kids to participate in this project. A sign-up sheet was put out and filled up pretty quickly. Week after week, though, we saw the numbers dwindle and dwindle. This drop-off in participation was not for lack of enthusiasm for e-textiles, but for simple enthusiasm for summer and a child’s desire to be un-constrained by schedules and routine. I remember my own grade-school summers when forgetting what day it was was par for the course (save for Saturday mornings…Cartoon time!).

But in the end, the ones who stuck it out got to see their creations come to stuffy life. From the start it seemed as if the steps for each week were almost painfully slow and simplistic, but then when we got started it became very evident to me that these steps were very much necessary.

Some of the steps seemed a little counter-intuitive or perhaps more complicated than need be. Whether they are or not I haven’t quite decided even after everything has been completed. The steps were to basically first get the circuit completed and stitched on to the felt front and back of the creature before stuffing it. This would have the conductive thread stitched across the surface of the creature. Doing it this way makes it easier to see just how the circuit works for the creator as well as to others who want to know just how it works. But on an aesthetic level I thought it would have been better to stitch the front and back together and stuff it first. Then have the conductive thread go directly through the middle of the creature, in effect hiding the conductive thread. That’s the way that I put mine together, but I have a lot of experience making stuffed animal-things so doing this was pretty straight forward to me. I got the impression that if the conductive threads were hidden within the creatures the kids would have quickly become confused about just how the circuit is working.

In the end, whether the stuffed monsters were functional or not, it came down to creating accessories for the creatures to wear. With a real and clear objective for the projects (creating a stuffed animal with light up eyes) sitting down and working toward that end appeared to be seen as real work for the kids participating. But when they were able to invent accessories and personalize their creations it felt less like work and a lot more like fun, independent creation.

McPherson Connected Messages Mural part 1

So we’ve finally begun work on the Connected Messages Mural project at McPherson!  As we need 64 boxes total for each of the Murals I extended an invitation to participate to the summer program that goes on downstairs at the library. Primarily kids under the age of 13. I asked the coordinator if she could pick about 5 kids to start that she thought would enjoy the project. We decided that 1 o’clock would be a good time to begin with them.

When I arrived at the library in the morning I got the supplies together for the project and sat down at my usual spot in the library to get situated and figure out the best way to present the material to the kids (all of whom haven’t had the chance to meet or work with me before). Once I sat down I found myself slowly being surrounded by interested kids who wanted to participate!

It was decided that “Community” would be the underlying theme of the McPherson Mural.  First up we had to wire up the boxes with copper tape and an LED. In order to preserve the precious copper tape from the crushing hands of youth, I cut the proper sizes from the spools first. That made it much easier for the kids to handle. We didn’t lose a single piece to mangling! The wiring-up of the boxes went surprising fast.

The next step was to discuss the theme and talk about things that each of them thought of when they think of their community.  It was a bit sad to hear their initial responses of “not safe”, “no good”, “staying inside and watching TV”.  I wasn’t entirely shocked by these comments…I get to see what they’re community is like every day. I personally don’t live that far away, either, so at least from an adult’s perspective I know what it’s like.  But I was able to get them to start discussing positive things.  A lot of the positive emotions came from thoughts of family or statements like “I love my mom”. So we went with that. One of them wanted to make a box about recycling (not because the community is all that trash-conscious, but because it’s something he wanted to say he feels is important to making a community healthy).

We were on a roll for the first half of the day with minimal distractions or headaches from a few wandering trouble-makers.  Eventually had to start getting ready to set up in a separate area to work with the other summer program kids at 1. A couple of the kids asked if they could make more boxes later on. “Definitely!”

Once I was set up for the afternoon session the chosen few kids came and found me waiting. I was initially told 5 kids, but ended up with 7. I explained what we’d be doing and they were all very willing to jump right into it. They were all real quiet, not even talking much to each other. I was expecting a lot of talk, but they got right down to it. They were quick to figure out the copper tape (since it’s a bit tricky to peel off). And once we got their boxes wired I started talking about the ideas of community and what they “enjoy about your community” (I didn’t want them to have the same initial reaction the morning group did so I changed my presentation slightly). I got some really good responses and then they got to work making the covers for their boxes. They really liked using up all the space and using all the color they would. It was great to see. And again, a few asked if they could make some more boxes later.

I still have to figure out a few things with attaching the boxes to the board, etc, but overall the kids really seemed to get into this project and I can’t wait to see when we get it fully operational! I’ll be posting more as more gets completed.

Slop-stir Fest!

Well, this didn’t quite work out as planned…but it was still fun! This was a project that the library had looked up and wanted to try out so I was more than happy to lend a hand in the mess-making.

The idea was to make slime from a few household items…primarily glue and detergent.  Of course it seemed that the internet had failed us on this one. The instructional video that had provided the instructions must’ve left something out entirely because although what we ended up making could technically be classified as “slime” it was not the slime advertised!

We had a lot of kids want to try this out.  Even the ones who initially responded with “Ew!” were jumping on asking if they could try it.  Even after we had definitively determined that this project was a fail we still had kids asking to try it. Perhaps they thought that it just needed their particular touch in order to magically make this project work…or maybe the chance to stir muck for extended periods of time was enough of a draw? Whatever the reason we had a ton of kids having a go.

We had initially thought that we’d be adding food coloring to the slime once it had been made…even sparkles, maybe.  When we saw that it wasn’t working out we decided that what’s the harm in adding some extras to their mush? So green food coloring and silver sparkles were distributed evenly amongst the paper bowls of snotty-wonder.  We reminded the kids that although the project didn’t work out it was the attempt that mattered…the experiment. Of course I don’t think they really cared about any of that because to them it was a successful adult-sanctioned slop party. Soooo…mission accomplished?

Chipping away at E-textiles

We’ve been slowly plowing through the e-textiles project each week at McPherson.  This was a sign-up project since we have a very limited quantity of supplies for kids to make little monsters with light-up eyes. We’ve been conducting the program once a week for an hour. And every week so far we’ve had a diminishing number of kids attend.  It’s not for lack of enthusiasm for the project, but they simply forget…and come looking for us, sometimes days later, asking us to remind them again when we get together to do the e-textiles. We just shake our heads silently to ourselves and joke that if things continue this way we’re going to end up with only one kid finishing their monster!

When we do get together and work on the project all the kids participating enjoy it a lot. There is always a lot of laughter and joking around, and of all the project that we’ve done I don’t recall hearing any of them getting discouraged working on the e-textiles even when they’re having a hard time getting everything wired correctly.  It’s kind of like a weird little knitting-circle we have going each week.

We have a few more sessions to go before the project is completed and the kids really can’t wait to see how they each turn out.  You’ll be seeing more from this project later on!