Science for Young Makers Class – Part I

Reading Time: 11 minutesLast year, the school my boys attend asked me if I might be able to come up with an after school camp or club with hands-on projects and some science tossed in. I was allowed to set the fee (to cover my costs and time), so I agreed to give it a try. Not knowing what I was doing and being completely clueless about the logistics of teaching a camp like this, I set the max at 20 students and hoped maybe 10 or 12 would sign up. Low and behold, the class filled up in two days and I was promptly asked if I could add another class. I agreed… and that one filled up. Uh oh.

Those first two “camps” would each consist of one hour per week for ten weeks. I did the first class on Tuesday and the second class on Wednesday. Between the time I was asked to teach the camp(s) and the first day of activities, I had about two full months that I spent researching projects on the internet and trying to find those that could be done in an hour. My per-student budget per class was approximately $5US, which actually allowed me to pull together some fun projects for each group. These projects including making homemade slime creatures (complete with their own glass jar house), building foam rockets to launch, Brushbugs, marshmallow blasters, and six more hands-on activities.

The two camps were a LOT of work. I created a tumblr.com webpage where I shared photos and notes about each week’s project as well as book recommendations, websites kids might enjoy and much more — parents could login to this private website to see their kids having fun and read about our activities. I learned a lot (and will share that in a moment) and figured it would be a one-time thing that the kids would enjoy sharing with their family and friends. This was Fall 2014, and little did I know where this “one-time” event would be taking me.

My boys’ school asked me to teach another one in Spring 2015. And this is where I’ll take a moment and share some of the things I learned that have changed the way I create these camps:

  • 20 kids — TOO MANY! I’ve since cut it down to a maximum of 16 and even then it’s still a push to get everything done on time.
  • Age ranges were all over the place. I’ve since locked it down to one particular grade per camp and I don’t do them for 2nd grade or younger… I’ve found they just don’t have the attention span.
  • Camps can get pricey for instructors — I’ve had to slightly raise my camp fee to cover the higher (more advanced) projects the older kids are now demanding. What I’ve discovered, however, is that parents don’t gripe about the costs when their kids come home with smiles on their faces.
  • 10 weeks — TOO LONG! I’ve cut my camps down to half that… five weeks. Five projects.
  • No back-to-back camps — I now have at least one day between camps, preferably Tuesday and Thursday. Mondays are too hectic and Fridays I’m just not mentally there anyway.

I’m telling you all this because it’s now Fall 2015 and my camps have evolved. It’s now called Science for Young Makers and the kids are expecting a bit more from me now. Any projects need to be a bit cooler, a bit more advanced. I thought I was going to have to really struggle to find some worthy projects, but as luck would have it, the solution was already sitting on my bookshelf.

For some time now, I’ve been reviewing a book series from Quirk Books that features brother and sister twins, Nick and Tesla (Book 1 review here, Book 2 review here) . Each book consists of a fiction story and 5-6 projects that are scattered throughout the book. Just as Nick and Tesla build some crazy contraption to solve a problem, the reader is also given complete instructions to build a matching device. There are currently five books out, with a sixth book due out soon. The first few books featured projects that weren’t linked together other than being tools for the story to develop. But one of the books was slightly different — in it were four projects (a bit more involved than the other books, so fewer) that built on top of each other. The book is called Nick and Tesla’s Super-Cyborg Gadget Glove. It was a set of perfect projects that I felt the kids could understand and would also give me some science topics to talk as we worked on the projects.

cover

After reading the story again and building a prototype glove of my own, I was confident it could be done. There would be a lot of ordering special parts online and some pre-assembly needed here and there, but it could be done. I felt it was important that each student should go home with a copy of the book so they could read the story and get glimpses of the upcoming projects. I had a strong suspicion that parents would be supportive of a camp that also encouraged reading, right?

Over the next four or five posts in this series, I’m going to share with you details about each week’s activity and the work involved, components needed, and more. It’s my hope that there are others out there who might find this useful for creating their own camp, so I’ll do my best to share where I’ve deviated or modified the project (and why). I’ll also include some details about costs and where I ordered stuff as well as give you some ideas for what science-y topics work best for each project. (You don’t have to order a book for each student, but a few extra copies might be useful for those who are interested in reading the story or investigating the various projects. The books are around $12 each.)

So, I’ll start with the first project that involved wiring up a glove so that touching pointer finger to thumb would light up a super bright LED. Between the two camps, I have 28 students. A nice round number because my parts sourcing began with a search for gloves. I found a smaller kids-size glove set at Home Depot for $2 each, or $1 per student.  Tuesday class would get left-handed gloves and Thursday the right-handed gloves. (Trust me, I learned early on to try and reduce the number of decisions that students can make to save time.)

The other items this first project required included a coin battery (CR2032), a super-bright 10mm LED, and wire. Lots of wire. The instructions recommend 24-guage speaker wire, but I couldn’t find it anywhere and I had a big 75′ roll of 20-guage that wasn’t being used ($13 from Radio Shack). A hot glue gun and electrical tape are also recommended in addition to wire strippers. The speaker wire is two strands of twisted wire that I had to split into individual wires, so this is one area where you can save some class time but cutting and stripping wire ahead of time. Lots of stripping of wires. And twisting them.

speaker wire

I should mention that the instructions work fine, but I didn’t like the idea of just twisting exposed wires together and hoping they’d stay put. There are a number of times in the book where you’ll need to twist wires together and later untwist them to add another wire. For this reason, I purchased some bags of wire nuts — two different sizes. These were $5 each and came with 100 in each bag. Each student will end up needing two wire nuts (one large, one small) so budget about $0.20 per student. The wire nuts would keep the wires together and unexposed (and less likely to poke the kids) and could easily be removed in later projects.

Coin batteries were ordered from eBay, as were the 10mm LEDs. Prices are good, but be sure you’re ordering from a reputable supplier with good reviews. I got 40 batteries for $14 (free shipping) or $0.35 each. LEDs were 100 for $10 (free shipping) or $0.10 each.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but you’ll also want to make certain the kids aren’t wearing their glove when you use the hot-glue gun to secure wire in certain places. I had a few kids want to wear their gloves while we use the glue guns… nope!

Gather all your supplies. Books, gloves, LEDs, batteries, wires. Here are 16 left-handed gloves, 16 books, and a bunch of LEDs and batteries.

Supplies

To save time, I went ahead and pre-cut some wire and stripped the ends prior to the first day. My son helped me get lengths correct by trying on the glove and being patient as I wrapped wire here and there and made test cuts. What I ended up with were 16 pieces of 7″ wire as seen below.

wires

It was during my test build with my son that I found another way to improve the glove design and speed things up with assembly. Twisting wires together works fine, but one of the steps involves wrapping a wire around one of the LED wires. Just trust me… not easy, and the wires tends to not want to stay put. You can use electrical tape, but let me offer up an alternative.

I found these little components a year or two ago and I absolutely love them. A box of 25 runs about $4.00, so they’re not cheap, but they can help you avoid soldering and they make a nice tight connection between two wires, stranded or solid or a mix. Here’s a picture of the item.

connectors

Basically, you place one wire in a little tube… the other wire in a parallel tube, and then you crunch down on the yellow button with a pair of pliers and it seals the two wires inside the clear portion… and prevents them from coming out. I used these to connect one long wire that follows the pointer finger (with an exposed end that J-curves around the tip of the finger) to the LED’s longer leg.

You’ll need to cut two more pieces of wire for each glove. One wire will have a 2-3″ exposed section wrapped around the thumb and the other end of the wire running down to the wrist. The other wire will touch the positive terminal on the coin battery and its other end running down to the wrist. Finally, the short leg of the LED will touch the negative terminal on the coin battery — use a tiny piece of electrical tape to secure the leg and the wire to the battery’s two sides and then wrap it again in a longer bit of electrical tape. You’ll want to be careful handling the LED and battery once they are taped together because the leg and wire can easily be pulled out from the tape.

The way the thing works is when the wearer touches pointer finger to tip of thumb, it closes a circuit and lights up the LED. Here are two photos of open and closed circuit with my prototype glove.

open

closed

Look at the photos and you can see where I used a hot glue gun to secure the wires to the glove. You can also see the small yellow button connector that’s pinching the longer leg of the LED and the wire from the pointer finger. There’s one glob at the base of the thumb, a few on the top of the pointer finger, and one big glob on the back of the hand. There’s an unseen tiny glob holding the wrapped coin battery to the base of the pointer finger. Finally, you can see the larger tan wire nut that I used to secure the two wires running to the wrist together. This is important because later projects on the glove will have wires joining this connection. If you want to leave the two wrapped wires exposed, that’s fine… just don’t use tape to wrap them yet until your completely done with all the glove’s projects. (An upcoming glove project will use a slightly smaller blue wire nut… stay tuned.)

Here are some of my final thoughts on this first project:

  • The lengths given for the wire in the instructions are suggestions, not the rule. You’ll want to make your own measurements. If time permits, you can custom cut and strip each wire per student, but always go longer than you think is necessary — always easy to trim wire down once everything is glued in place.
  • I discovered the 2″ length of exposed wire wasn’t enough to wrap around my 3rd grader’s thumb, so I increased it to 3″ of exposed wire… there’s extra, but it looks cool and cyborg-y and the kids love it.
  • Don’t be stingy with the hot glue. Put a good sized blog down first and then push the wire down into the hot glue and then seal the top with another small blob.
  • For larger groups, it helps to have an aide. I have one for each group, and both of them are invaluable.
  • Don’t hot-glue the coin battery down until last and use a very tiny dot so you can pull it off easily when the battery dies (eventually).
  • These super-bright LEDs are bad for the eyes. Do remind your students not to shine them in eyeballs. I took gloves away for a few students who violated that rule and they won’t get them back until the next glove project.
  • Names in gloves! Use a sharpie if you have to… the gloves I gave the kids have a rubberized palm that was perfect for writing their names.

That’s about it. The complete instructions can be found in the book, and I highly encourage you to read over the instructions numerous times AND create a prototype or two so you know exactly what’s involved for each project.

Total cost for project one per student(finger-LED):

Glove        $1
LED          $0.10
Battery     $0.35
Wire Nut  $0.10

(Hot glue and wire costs were negligible and were materials I had on hand, but these may be true costs to you if you must purchase.) A few upcoming glove projects do have a higher cost, so be aware that this first project isn’t typical.

Bag everything up to make it easier to hand out to students, but make sure to tell them to keep everything in the bag until you tell them what to pull out. Lots of little pieces that can fall on the floor.

bags of supplies

Finally, make sure to bring all your tools. I keep everything in a single container shown below, including extra gloves, LEDs, batteries, and connectors/wire nuts. Also have a few extra wires (cut and stripped to length). I did have one student break an LED wire and it was just faster to wire up a new one with the spare parts. (The multimeter was brought along so I could test connections if the LED didn’t light up.)

tools

As for science discussions — we briefly discussed the flow of electricity (looping) and how open and closed circuits allow for electrons to flow. I also gave demonstrations of how to strip wire and the difference between stranded and solid core. Finally, I gave a demo of using the small connector to join two wires and we examined the surface of a coin battery and talked about positive and negative (V and GND). Start slow… build up as they show interest and let their questions guide you. One of my camps wasn’t interested in the electronics bit but loved the assembly, so we talked about making things and the value of prototypes. The other group was more interested in the wiring and how the battery could provide power.

If you have any questions, post a comment. I’ll do my best to answer. I can’t post pictures of the happy students (for privacy reasons) but here’s a photo of a student version of the Cyborg Gadget Glove. Note that the long wire and coin battery haven’t been glued down yet.

student glove

Next week: Project 2, A personal panic-alarm triggered by another finger touching the thumb.

Get the Official GeekDad Books!