Maker Space Project Idea: Creating an LED Village in the Classroom Maker Space using Paper Circuits and the Microbit

Which Curriculum are you using?
(hey is that a  Mircobit?)

Cardboard house models

East Side of LED Village

When I started teaching at the San Diego Jewish Academy it was a “small” school of about 700 students, and curriculum was a thing I was expected to build from the available library of resources, the Microbit was years away from being invented. The Math class I taught had a book, but we were expected not to “teach the book.” We were teaching Algebra the mathematical discipline, not the title of a textbook. I knew I was joining a small school, I didn’t know it would be the largest school I ever worked at.  I started teaching as an English instructor, and that has always been the core of what I do. I have also taught Photography, Algebra, Advisory class, Technology, and various Makerspace workshop-style classes.

The most engaging challenge of each of these jobs was constructing learning experiences that would resonate with my students. I have tried so many things over time, and so many were just lipstick on a pig.  I would dress up a conventional lesson by wedging a small element of choice into it and it would be slightly better than the assignment without the choice. But these conventional lessons, even when they work, whatever that might mean, they don’t leave my students more excited about who they are. I want to teach in a ways that helps kids discover their own power and interests, everyday.

So now I build curriculum from scratch everyday and adjust and extend as I can. I look for connections to NGSS standards, and I create a culture of creative confidence and empathy. I find, discover, construct, and contrive, compelling reasons for kids to work with concepts they don’t yet understand.

Build from what? where to start? Where do good ideas come from? The best ideas come from time traveling. I travel to the past.

Good Learning has an Authentic Problem … and it’s me

side eye from inside a cardboard box The lesson started with this authentic problem: The fourth grade needs to learn series and parallel circuits in a more effective manner. Clearly, this is a teacher-owned problem and the magic of curriculum creation has to transform this into a student-owned problem. I know I am more technically curious than many of my fellow teachers, but I don’t have a burning love of circuits. Ward does, and I use to just ask him to teach these classes, but now we both work at different schools and the kids still need to learn how circuits work.

I started with exploration and circuit blocks. They had fun and liked the ease of connecting things, but the exposure was quick and it felt like an activity. Afterward, they didn’t have a lasting understanding of the uses of series and parallel circuits and how to construct them. I knew I needed to do a better job with circuits so I began to think about when I used or cared about circuits and building them. This is where the time traveling comes in. I visited my folks and dug enough pieces out of the HO scale train kit to get a small train up and running. Model trains are an open circuit and a classic entry point for physical programming (LINK TO ORIGIN OF HACKER).

At this point, I had a bad electricity lesson and a train set. . . I got some more trains, and I set one up in the classroom on rare occasion. I had some plans that didn’t work out, because my transformer delivered AC to the rails. . . and that is different enough from the battery-based lessons I wanted to adapt that I was stopped. I think I still could set up a Low Volt DC power from a breadboard, but the idea has already moved in another direction. To this mix, I added “paper circuits.”

Paper circuits are fun and real. Working through them requires thinking through the circuit plan and actually building the circuit, often more than once. The circuits on trainboard are usually not visible, but if you approach the same task from a paper circuit perspective, the trainboard starts to look like a giant printed circuit board. Also paper circuits has some good tutorials, so I don’t have to build all the directions the kids are using.

I knew that If I could get the kids to want to create a lighted model of a village or town, I could create the opportunity for us to spend enough time together with circuits to really understand them.

I still don’t know if I have done it. I will share where I am so far.

When I began this project I did not have a laser cutter and I was planning on the kids cutting out the buildings by hand. I was likely going to use chipboard or 2 ply cardstock, once the Glowforge laser arrived I gladly included it in the process.

The Process and the Microbit:

Step One

Design a building in Google Draw.

I started with an old model kit and I scanned it.   This template gave us a sense of size for iterations on the design.

Step Two

Print the building in the strongest available medium, consider cardstock in a conventional printer, or glue the paper to cardboard and then carefully cut it out.

Step Three

Assemble the building. Use the glue that works with your kids. Think about how to support pieces as the glue sets. We used low temp hot glue with stretchy knit gloves for safety.

Step Four

Add a light. We used copper tape and regular LEDs, and ran the leads out of the building, using alligator clips to connect to a battery.

Step Five

Light 2 buildings. The kids pair up and light 2 buildings with 1 battery. Don’t let them chain batteries together.  This step should be the building of both a series and a parallel circuit.

Step Six

Map the village. We planned the village- roughly. I think that this step can use more time and support. I think if we had looked at some aerial maps and played some sim city this would have been much better.

Step Seven

Install breadboards. I started with one and when I couldn’t find a way to run more leads, I set up another. I decided that the circuits would be visible, not standard trainboard style, hidden under the board. This meant that I only had so much space I could run the tape.

Step Eight

Build circuits. I used copper tape. I built the first 3 circuits, as clear examples. I wanted something I could literally point to and say “Like that.” I ended up using the soldering iron on a bunch of contacts, trying to make sure it had the best chance of working.I also had my co-teacher following me with a volt meter, checking to see that the circuit was complete.

Step Nine the Microbit

Program it. With all the circuits connected to a breadboard, You can program this contraption with an Arduino, a Circuit Playground, or a Raspberry Pi. We used a Microbit and coded it with the MAKECODE website.

I did label every circuit with the pin it was using as we worked, so the board had plenty of documentation on it, and the kids had a visual reference when they were working. The Microbits are pretty simple to swap programs on so this made it possible for several groups to try out some code. It also made it simple form to load a base-level flashy lights program each tie they finished with their programs.

Step Ten


Fun fact, the past tense of troubleshoot rhymes with “doublehat.” For this project, the troubleshooting was all me. This is appropriate, my fourth graders can’t do this in a large group. I was able to enlist one or two kids to help, but I was also trying to get it to be flashy fun at Open House.

What Next?

So now I have a village that takes up 2 tables and requires 2 grown men to move it. What next? The simple answer is MORE. The village can get more buildings, the buildings can get more modeling.

The village could become a miniature set for film work that uses green screen. The architecture could be a model for a class project about a community or book. The project started with the kids creating the historic LA buildings, there is no reason we couldn’t further that rabbit hole.

Trains! I have several and I was intentional about the track. We have a train behind our school. I don’t know what all I will do with the trains, YET.

The Payoff?

What does it do? Why is it here? What will the kids do? -Be prepared to answer these questions and more. The main thing this project “does” is create an opportunity to talk with each other kids about circuits and how they are constructed. The project is visual enough that as they revisit the board, they learn more. I can clearly see how several of the NGSS standards, from electricity to making a technical drawing, to testing and finding the short, are met without modification at all. Could this project meet other standards? You bet, there really isn’t a limit.

Make a Big Cool Toy Together

In broad strokes, that is what we have done. I was surprised by the ownership that ever 3rd grade took in the process, although they worked in groups on single buildings. When they came through for Open House they pointed at the flashy buildings on the board and proudly said “I made that” “That is mine.”

This work isn’t easy, you need to have enough happening in the room that some people can be working on the big cool thing while others work on other things. You can’t build a big cool thing big enough that it will hold everyone’s attention and interest. You want them to be able to choose to work on the big cool thing and you want to help recruit interested kids to the big cool thing. At the same time, the maker space ends to help kids with their own cool things.

About the author, Sam

Sam is Makerspace coordinator at Echo Horizon School, the nicest little school on Los Angeles' West Side. In the classroom since '02 Sam has taught grades PreK-12. Every lesson is a writing lesson.

Leave a Comment