Making without A Space: Tinkering with Circuit Playground Express in Elementary

Circuit Playground Express Education Kits

This past summer at ISTE, I was able to get my hands on a few Circuit Playground Express base kits through Microsoft’s MakeCode initiative. The circuit playground express, a microcontroller created by Adafruit, serves as a pretty solid introduction to electronics and programming that can be coded with Microsoft’s makecode, CircuitPython or the Arduino IDE.

I knew that this fall we would have an opportunity to introduce physical computing and programming through a dedicated program in elementary (3–5) that my department teaches with a focus on technology but I wasn’t quite sold yet on the CPX being the tool of choice especially when we could have easily introduced physical computing through our Raspberry Pis.

After spending quite a bit of time immersing myself into research by tinkering with the support of Adafruit’s extensive learning library, it occurred to me that if the end goal is not just our small group of (120) kids tinkering but entire grade levels, we needed to model an entry point that was purposefully aligned to our learning standards as well as accessible to any level learner, including teachers.

We also needed to make it visible.

One more thing…I am 100% self taught and honestly had no clue whether this would be a success or failure. The thing is, when you want progress, you have to be willing to put yourself out there and make it happen, even when you have no clue. Otherwise…you’ll always be wishing you could.

From our budget, I purchased 15 Circuit Playground Express Base Kits as well as 6 Education Packs(12 CPX units). I also purchased additional alligator clips and motors from Amazon. (Just to be clear that this was accomplished from our own department budget)

6 Weeks of Tinkering

We are working with grades 3–5 students this fall across two campuses for 6 straight weeks, once a week. The goal by the end is for students to work in pairs to basically, “hack” a 6x6x4 gift box powered by their Circuit Playground Express. (Students will also have access to duct tape, markers, popsicle sticks, skewers, cardboard, LEDs, copper tape, alligator clips, motors, pipe cleaners, googley eyes and more)

Week 1

Students rotated between 5 stations interacting with programs loaded on various Circuit Playground Express kits as well as on computers. They were asked to observe, make conjectures, tinker with code and of course…play. Each pair had a handout with questions to answer and about 8–10 minutes in each station.

Station 1: MakeCode tutorial (Using the “getting started” from the makecode site)

Station 2: Lights (Photon Beatbox & Animation Shaker)

Photon beatbox was loaded on a CPX and kids tinkered with code in the animation shaker.

Station 3: Light Sensor

I had to create this program to utilize the light sensor as well as sound. I may or may not have programmed a portion of the Imperial March for this. Kids also tinkered with code.

Station 4: Touch Pads, Motor

I created a super simple program that just played a single note for 4 touch pads. Kids touched the pads themselves and then connected to playdoh. They were then provided instructions to connect the motor which was also programmed.

Station 5: Fidget Spinner Tachometer (Uses light sensors to measure fidget spinner rotations)

I modified Adafruit’s tachometer program because I did not have access to an LED backpack and wanted to highlight results in a fun and visual way. I created a spreadsheet using Microsoft’s Project Cordoba program with Excel, which not only reads live data but allows users to make it visual. I was also modifying for 3rd grade so we went with a rounded RPM in lieu of decimals, even though the live data feed is still every piece of data. If you have Project Cordoba, you can download the excel file here. You will also need this modified code from adafruit. (Commas to create columns in excel) I re-taught myself macros and using touch screen PCs, this was definitely a highlight!)

A little social media…

Week 2 (Just Completed)

Our kids have coded with code.org and some have coded their lego wedo 2 kits. Even with that experience, majority needed a great deal of help to understand how to use makecode for the Circuit Playground Express. Since they will need some programming to utilize in their final project, they need to learn some basics.

Using our school mascot theme, we coded “Panther Pride Blinkly lights” learning about loops and lights before learning to flash (download) our first program to the Circuit Playground Express. The excitement and joy from seeing their programs load was chill-worthy.

We also taught them about inputs as well as simultaneous code before challenging them to create their own custom program, including music (whether we liked it or not).

I created “task cards” similar to the Scratch task cards but they didn’t use them.

Some Social Media

Weeks 3–6

We plan to spend one more week coding and learning how to extend capabilities with the touch pads, especially the motor. This is kind of important! Weeks 4–5 will be a combination of research, design and building with week 6 as their showcase week where we will invite their school community to view and engage.

What I Want You to Take Away From This

My plan is to extend these lessons beyond this core group and into classrooms. I’m actually taking it to a classroom next week. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to pilot experiences such as this. However, we still exist in a space where testing accountability, both state and locally, often dictate experiences that kids get in school.

We can all hate it and tweet all day about it but this is a reality…period.

What I am doing is purposefully aligning to math/science standards, while relying on the joy/excitement of kids to extend the conversation.

We have to start somewhere.

I want to say thanks to the Project Cordoba engineer who helped me with my modified code by telling me to basically exchange my tabs for commas. Thanks to the Hacking Stem team for posting finished spreadsheets that I could basically “hack” to make my own. You need elementary lessons. Let’s chat. Also, thanks to Jacqueline at Microsoft for entertaining my endless stream of emails without frustration. We would not be doing this without her. After-all, she handed me the CPX kit at ISTE…so there’s that.

One more thing…I now have 120 kids who now want their own Circuit Playground Express…to keep. Oh, the joys of school budgets!

Dreamer, Blerd, Educator, Disruptor of Ridiculousness, STEM & Digital Access Advocate