alexandtheweb / blog

DigiCrafters: fun, physical computing for kids

One of the last modules I took as part of my MSc at Sussex Uni was Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments, taught by my dissertation supervisor Dr. Judith Good. In a laid-back, “caffeine addicts anonymous” atmosphere, we covered learning theories, learner-centered design and issues of motivation and emotion in instruction. Good fun.

The Fear sets in.

Then our graded project for the module was announced and it was… erm… daunting.

Our team was to visit a local school and, with the help of its students, devise a way to teach kids how to become creative users of technology. For a child-allergic introvert like myself this was as close as you could get to “worst nightmare” territory.

But hey, it’s nice to be surprised – especially by yourself. Over the course of several visits to the Self-Managed Learning College, Marie, Andy and I hung out with a group of 10-12 year old girls, made silly Arduino-based projects and generally had a grand time. In the end, inspired by the fun we had, we made something which I think is pretty cool: DigiCrafters.

DigiCrafters

But… what is it?

DigiCrafters is a handful of basic, color-coded projects which let kids craft cool stuff with circuit boards, lights and sensors. As a “thing”, DigiCrafters is a website and a series of instructional videos – but only for now.

How did it come together?

Wires and circuit boards are intimidating. We wanted to show our girls how easy it was to use a few basic digital components to make crafty stuff. We decided the best way to go about it was to make things that were weird and mysterious – like our Glowing Gremlin Egg project.

Our team’s objectives meandered somewhat at the start, as our intrepid group of girls decided they wanted to use our treasure chest of electronic gizmos to build a musical instrument which responded to their heartbeats. We briefly pursued this, but then realized that, rather than teaching the kids anything, we’d end up making them a toy to play with. So we shelved the idea and focused on small, rewarding projects that slowly opened up the possibilities of wires, circuits and code.

But the idea that 10-12 year olds were keen to design something as amazing and complex should not be dismissed. It showed us that kids are keen to make new and fantastic digital products, even if they don’t yet have the skills to do so. So something may yet come of the musical heartbeat idea – watch this space.

What are you teaching?

Our projects are not aimed at kids who – as many lucky ones already have – had exposure to electronics and basic coding concepts. We wanted to introduce kids to the idea that it’s easy to make something fun and creative with computers and their various components. Along the way, we would slowly be exposing them to the core concepts of digital and analog signal processing, I/O, tangible UI design and of course code.

Why circuit boards and sensors and wires?

We think teaching kids to code is fantastic. But computers don’t just exist as laptops, tablets or smart phones anymore. They’re everywhere! Almost any object can execute code. Almost any object can sense. We felt the idea that the digital and physical boundary has long ceased to exist should be taught.

What’s next? Workshops!

This feels like the first, tiny step in something that could become quite awesome. And while having an Instructables-like website is great, DigiCrafters is more fun when done in a hands-on, group environment.

This is why we’re keen to develop a proper “curriculum” of crafty projects and package them into kits and workshops suited to various interests and skill levels. And then let kids come and make stuff!

To start with, we’re hoping to run a few trial workshops during the Brighton Digital Festival. There’s loads to be done and we’ll need help: volunteers, experts, sponsors. If you want to get involved, please get in touch

Last but not least, epic thanks.

It’s early days but we already have tons of awesome people to thank. Dave, Kate, Jenny, Naomi, Philip and everyone at the Self-Managed Learning College: thank you so much for your support. May you be richly rewarded with kittens and cakes forever.