“Push Me!” Teaching Paper Electronics to a Crowd with a Switch Sampler

Boston’s Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn is a 16-year-old maker program where annually 36 teens of color to learn, build and then teach 6 different technology, coding, and engineering modules.  Each year our youth teachers engage  700+ children at 30+ community organizations with constructionism-based activities at free 4-week summer STEAM camps.  This blog post offers insights on the process and planning for teaching paper electronics to families at a large book festival.  A switch sampler manipulative for teaching and reflections on how to make our activity better next time are included! 
It’s not always …easy to turn attention to processes, strategies, and practices—but that is at the core of the learning experience…Once you make something, it’s something you can reflect upon, share with others.

Mitch Resnick, MIT Media Lab Lifelong Kindergarten Group

Boston Book Festival calling!   Well, actually they emailed.  Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn (L2TT2L)  youth teachers were invited to do a paper electronics workshop.   Inspired by Mitch, I want to share the processes, strategies, and practices involved in planning and carrying out this opportunity.  I also want to use this as an opportunity to reflect on and document the lessons learned!

I love “hatching two birds with one egg,” so my plan was to:

  • Design a paper electronics activity to blend Reading & STEAM, with focus on authors of color with characters of color who look like our youth
  • Refresh an old “Blinkie Paper” activity with new ideas for summer STEAM camps
  • inject high expectations & STEAM opportunities in a complex  setting
  • Use preparation as a “project exercise” for the online “Learning Creative Learning” course I am taking with the MIT Media Lab Lifelong Kindergarten Group

OK, that’s” hatching 4 birds with one egg”-  a little crowded in that egg, but I enjoy a challenge!

Blending Reading and Paper Electronics

We decided to have a family activity based on favorite book scenes:

Blinkie Paper a Favorite Book Scene:  Family Paper Electronics

“Each parent and child pair will work together to create an “electrifying” scene from their favorite book using LEDs, 3D Printed diffusers and coin cell batteries with the help of teen youth teachers from Boston’s Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn program!”

To prepare I asked for book recommendations from two friends.  Dr. Kim Parker (@TchKimPossible) is a multicultural literacy expert who helps educators connect youth to texts that can change their lives.  Joyce King has been collecting children’s books by and for people of color for 50 years.  She co-founded St. Joseph’s Community School in the late 1960s, a free parent-run alternative school based on Nguzo Saba principles.

We created a poster of book covers based on their recommendations with the title “Good Books That Can Light Up Your Life!” It had an LED with a heart diffuser and battery that actually lit up the poster:

Refresh “Blinkie Paper” and Inject High Expectations

At L2TT2L, we have been teaching paper electronics, what our youth affectionately call “Blinkie Paper” for over 6 years, inspired by a series of workshops that our friend Jie Qi has offered (She now has her own company, Chibitronics!  Check out her new Love to Code chibi chip).  We’ve used Blinkie Paper storytelling and pop-up cards as inspirations for the activities in the free summer STEAM camps taught by our teenage youth teachers.

I wanted to try out some ideas for refreshing our Blinkie Paper activity:

  • 3D printed press-fit diffusers for 5mm LEDs.  We have been using simple press-fit LED diffusers in a soft circuit bracelet activity.  Using Tinkercad to create simple shapes with 5mm holes is very easy and the diffusers are very quick to print in a few minutes.  We used shapes like balls, stars, and hearts.


  • Switch it up!  Managing the CR2032 coin cell batteries has always been a challenge in our paper electronic activities. Children drop and lose the batteries easily if they are clipped on with a binder clip.  If the batteries are permanently taped on with cellophane tape, they run out very quickly.  We’ve been using Jie Qi’s paper battery holders (making them ahead of time – the paper folding seems difficult for the children to do — and even challenging for some of our teen youth teachers). The children also have a hard time manipulating the paper tab to turn the battery on and off.  

 Children love interaction, so finding some cool switches seemed like a great solution.   That way, we could use the paper battery holders (fixed in the “on” position) and pressing buttons or push/pull tabs could complete the circuit and turn the LED on.

  • Engage with solder!  I believe that introducing children to soldering at an early age is very empowering and has a positive impact.  

We usually use copper tape that is conductive on only one side to save money.  It’s often hard to get children to fold down the places where two sets of copper tape have to join to complete the circuit.  Those connections and LED legs connections are often easily disrupted if just cellophane tape is used to hold them in place. So, soldering the connections between copper tape and the LED is one solution!

We decided to have the children participate in the soldering by holding either the solder OR the soldering iron (if they were very good at the solder!).  Just touching the solder to the soldering iron tip was very exciting for the children.  

Updating a Childhood Inspiration for Paper Electronics

When asked to name a beloved childhood object during the first week of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group’s online “Learning Creative Learning” class, I chose embroidery and spoke about the elaborate embroidery samplers I stitched as a child to learn all the stitches — sort of like this one:

During the second week, we were assigned a project that involved animating a name.  I came up with the idea of updating my childhood love to express my new interests by making a “Switch” sampler for the Boston Book Festival as a touchable and playful inspiration for children & youth teachers.

I found a wonderful blog post and switch sampler template from Becca Rose and decided to incorporate Jie Qi’s paper battery holder in the mix.  I had so much fun making and decorating it in the 20 minutes here and there I could find on my busy days!

Having this manipulative, as well as a “boss” Harry Potter example made by our Tisch Scholar Rohun Dhar, turned out to provide a lot of smiles and inspiration as they got passed along at the Festival.  Rohun even made his circuit look like an “H” for Harry Potter!

Collaborating with young friend on teaching strategies

The South End Technology Center @ Tent City is located in a mixed-income housing development that came about because of a “Tent City” protest in the 1960s led by Mel King, our executive director.  Every Thursday we offer free open access to our Fab Lounge and many young people like Damani from Tent City Apartment drop in to make things with our teen “Fab Stewards.”

During Fab Lounge, I was working on my Switch Sampler and 4th grader Damani was fascinated.  Her class is studying energy at school and she had many interesting theories in her mind about how the circuit worked that she was eager to test.  

The first one — which startled me with its brilliant simplicity — was that Damani said: “Hey can’t you  close the switch with ANYTHING that is metal?”  This resulted in her and other children running (with gleeful chaos!) around SETC, looking for metal stuff to test.  They used scissors! rings! spoons! needlenose pliers!  pieces of scrap copper tape! wires. . . you name it!  Some found shiny things that were not metal and did not close the circuit.  I got so energized listening to their conversation with each other about why some things worked to light the LEDs and some things did not.

It reminded me of something Mitch Resnick always says,

“children don’t have ideas, they make ideas!”

 I decided to bring a lot of metal things with us to the festival so that the children attending could try this too.

When Damani was playing with the sampler circuit, she realized that all four switches did not work at the same time:  only pairs would light up together.  She came up with many theories about why and tested them out!  We had a great time together asking questions and testing out her ideas.  Finally, she decided to make one a mini-sampler with two of the switches.  Damani proudly showed it to her teacher who gave her “bonus points” for her efforts, even though she was already at the top of her science class!

Doin’ it at a Festival:  Strategies & Lessons Learned

Our youth teachers from L2TT2L  have offered activities at a variety of festivals through the years that range from the World Maker Faire to the Cambridge Science Festival.  So we’ve learned to be prepared for anything and everything beyond what we planned to do!    

Bring at least 3x as many materials as you imagine you need.  For this book festival, we offered to do an organized 2-hour workshop for 8 parent/child pairs.  When we arrived, we were in a large room shared with 5-6 other activities, with no way to easily manage who participated & when they started!   The actual number of Parent/Child pairs we served:  30!  We might have done more, but we ran out of materials (which was actually a blessing because it limited the numbers and allowed participants to finish on time).

It gets hectic to facilitate, so have a template for the project & do prep ahead of time!  We made all the paper battery holders and 3D printed diffusers ahead of time and made a template for the paper electronics activity.  Here’s the template:  
                                 Inside:                                                                                               Outside:


Divide the activity into parts and create stations. We set up the activity with three stations that the festival parent-child participants moved between  Drawing, Circuit, and Solder.  On each table, we had several signs with instructions to help teen youth teachers with guiding activities at the station.

Make lists, many lists of materials!  I LOVE lists, especially because it really helps when I work with teen youth teachers.  Here is our materials list, organized by station.  

Packing and organizing are key!  I am a “box whisperer” fishing out wonderful boxes from the dumpster behind my building and whisking them away from folks who receive boxed gifts.  So different materials were put in labeled boxes or in Altoid tins (that our youth teachers love to spray paint).  



Materials for each station were packed in separate bags.  I have a sewing volunteer who makes large bags with outside pockets for folders from remnant upholstery fabric and we put cardboard reinforcing bases covered with scrap vinyl from vinyl cutter projects in the bottom.  Then I staple labels on the outside of the bags.  Here’s an example from our summer STEAM camps, but you get the idea!  


The Festival was a success!

Most of the participants really enjoyed the activity.  What was cool was that many parents were super excited about circuit-building and soldering.  Their eager enthusiasm to share what they loved with their children was infectious.  Overall, we engaged participants in a pretty high quality of “hard fun.”  

Of course, it wasn’t perfect!  I always take 10 minutes immediately afterward to jot down notes that help me remember how to get better.

There were a number of parents who would have preferred a quick 15-minute activity with spectacular results to the hour-long learning engagement we planned for each parent-child pair.  

To increase the quality of learning that happens:

  • Better engage participants in troubleshooting. We needed at least two soldering irons going (only had one!) and a guide so that the parent-child participants could have been more independent in troubleshooting.
  • Increase youth teacher facilitators & add dedicated explainers. To get the most learning out of the activity, we needed more activity “how to do it” facilitators and a youth teacher at each station who was a dedicated  “explainer,” engaging participants in conversation about what they were doing (we only had five of us).   


I got so busy helping with soldering and troubleshooting that I did not have much time to take photos (Reminder to self:  bring someone dedicated to photographing!).  However here are a few photos of the 30 sets of family participants that I did take:

Each One Teach One:  Final Thoughts

One of the most powerful things about Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn – and that I believe should be part of any Maker Education Manifesto – is that all youth should have the opportunity (and be responsible!) to teach what they learn, share their knowledge with others.  For the past eight years, when given an opportunity to identify the most important part of L2TT2L to them,  youth teachers consistently report that being part of an effort to create positive community change and teaching children at community organizations rank the highest (surprisingly, getting paid ranks the lowest).  

The 30 families participating in our workshop at the Boston Book Festival increased the number of Boston children (800+) that our youth have taught and for whom they have been role models of color enthusiastic about technology, coding, engineering . . . and of course, making!

Recently, I have been reading the excellent and very inspiring interviews posted on the website People of Color in Tech (POCIT).  Asia Hoe, a product designer (who believes that curiosity is her superpower – I LOVE that!) says that this is also her top advice for young people of color aspiring to careers in tech:

Each one, teach one. Whether through teaching, mentoring, writing, or speaking, passing on your knowledge is of critical importance to not only improve the state of the world but to help you develop in [a tech career]. When you impart your knowledge to someone else, you must first break it down into the smallest components so that someone new might understand, further validating and ingraining your knowledge.

Being part of an effort to create community change for “People of Color in Tech” was also one of the inspirations for Ruth Mesfun who founded POCIT.  She says, “The main goal of the site is to help people of color realize that, even though the numbers are low, there are so many of us who want to support each other.”


Shout Outs!

To awesome Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn youth teachers Ke’Brant (KB) Almond, Nyari (ND) Davis, Trinity Merren, and Dee Dee Pimentel who taught this activity at the Boston Book Festival.

To Bill from our Personal and Professional Empowerment program at the South End Technology Center @ Tent City who took time away to help out.

And, as always to Eva Kerr, a wonderful eagle eye editor and a 16-year volunteer at the South End Technology Center @ Tent City.  No piece of my writing ever leaves SETC without being greatly improved by her careful edits and suggestions!