MiniMakers: Conductive Dough

I really love our local electronics store. It’s third generation, with the granddaughter working there, too. She is awesome. She’s answered questions, given me tips, and not laughed once (in front of me) as I’ve asked all the questions I can think of. And then I come back, buy a few more components and ask more questions.

One interesting by-product of the ArtBots was that when parents stopped in to pick up their children, they seemed genuinely okay whether the kid had a robot or not. Some of them worked, some didn’t, and that was okay.

I followed the ArtBots up with Conductive Dough. One complicated electronic project deserves another! Also, I couldn’t help myself. ArtBots sounded awesome and they were. Conductive dough sounded awesome, and is.

I made the dough the night before, creating a small test batch, and then larger batches for the MiniMaker group. IMG_9128

(Because the dough can mold, I didn’t want to make it too far in advance.) The red dough is non-conductive (sugar-based) and the uncolored is conductive. Conductive is a bit like salt dough, except that it’s cooked down with heat, has oil and cream of tartar added.


If it works correctly, you create an electrical circuit through the dough, enough to light an LED.

But not all LEDs light the same. Some, like the blue and yellow, take more power. At home, they didn’t light up. When the MiniMakers used these colors, we got wildly different results.


So the conductive dough, which had been pliable and firm the night before (the green above is more teal in person, and is what we used in our session, was wet and sticky. I’d already poured in about an extra cup of flour as I kneaded it into shape, but the kids held up sticky hands, wondering what to do next. I wish I had a photo of a dozen teal hands wiggling in the air. We made a lot of trips to the bathroom to clean up between kneading sessions (I brought extra flour). Then another teacher helped me un-dough those bathrooms (sorry!).

You can’t see the boys’ expressions in the photo below, but they are delighted with the results of their volcano dough. Big lights!

IMG_9148 - Version 2IMG_9147 IMG_9146 IMG_9145 IMG_9144

I would definitely do this one again, but I would rework the dough a half hour before the session started so the MiniMakers wouldn’t have to. It’s not a huge deal, but kneading is its own lesson and while some of them did fine, others really struggled or got side tracked. I would also have specific tests I’d have them do before they got to the free-flow part of the session. Additionally, we left a lot of flour on the floor of the science room (sorry!). I think this would work better over a couple of sessions (or a two hour session – I have an hour), and send them home with packets to keep working and tinkering with their parents.


MiniMakers: Conductive Dough

MiniMakers: ArtBots

The ArtBots and the conductive dough weeks were ambitious. I’d never done either, I have lots of children, and I have a small amount of time. Recipe for making fun disasters.

I used basic instructions from Girl Scouts’ Get Making with Get Moving booklet which is (I think) aimed at 4th to 5th grade students. This would be a fun weekend project with my smalls or with a small group of kids. I ended up spreading it over two weeks, and wish I’d worked it over three weeks so that all of the MiniMakers could have finished a robot. They were tough to pull together.

The gist: use a tomato basket, hook on a motor and some pens (as legs to do the drawing), and go. I have not been using glue guns but I will. I think they are the kind of tool that require a specific lesson just on using them and safety with a small project to learn the basics, then have them available, but supervised. I don’t feel like I can supervise a glue gun safely. With ten kids, for sure, but more than that, we are bonkers.

(I realize the “too many smalls!” is a recurring theme, but after a few weeks of club and reflection during and after, it’s the obvious conclusion. One person cannot adequately run this operation, especially when we’re all learning new things, with so many kids. It isn’t fair to them because things get hectic quickly in all the excitement of MAKING STUFF!)

The ArtBots suggested drawing or sketching a concept, which I did.


(My own sketch as well as a student sketch. I attached my eyeballs to the wrong end of my pig. Cue cackling six year olds.)

The kids wanted to get to it, preferring to skip the step. I should have stopped them except I thought it would lead to a teachable moment, and it did. The ones who had a plan were better able to execute than those who didn’t, and a few created a plan during our second ArtBot session that kept them focused, even if they didn’t realize it.

Here is S’s drawing from the second week. She worked diligently the first, but couldn’t get what was in her head to translate. So the second week, she sat for about five minutes and sketched this out:


And she is hanging the last bits together. The eyes are facing her. It worked! She had to do some troubleshooting with the motor. The motors need something attached to keep them off-balance and therefore the robot off-balance so it forces the tomato basket/form to jump around. Her motor was attached to the inside top of the basket with a pipe cleaner. She eventually added a second to better anchor it, but still had trouble with it swinging loose and then getting stuck to her mounds of duct tape on the sides.

I had my own share of trouble shooting. I learned to solder (and then had to do it two more times and finally watched a video to VASTLY improve my technique) and strip wires and crimp things to my wires so that I could attach 9-volt battery leads to the motors. My weak soldering and their enthusiasm led to a few batteries being stripped of their wires. Duds and disappointment.

IMG_8780Crimping. I’m pretty good at it. I’d really like a better wire stripper. A side effect of learning new techniques is the badass bonus. It’s impossible not to feel accomplished when you can strip wires, add batteries, solder, make power.


We hacked the batteries, though, because I wasn’t going to solder in the middle of club. Duct tape did the trick!IMG_8963

You can check out a video of an artbot at work here.

MiniMakers: ArtBots

MiniMaker Club: Parachutes

When I get ready for the MiniMaker club, I have to be sure I have all the materials in hand. I bring them over from our house to the school, loading in and out each time there’s a club. This isn’t a huge deal, except that I need a trolley and better bins. I thought one was enough. Why did I think that? It’s not.

There are 14 kids in the MiniMaker club. Most of them are about six, maybe turning seven. The rest are a little older. It makes for a lot of moving parts on a day to day basis and not a lot of photo opps. Also, any photos I take I try not to include faces because they aren’t my children. So if you see odd cropping, that’s why.

Parachutes. We made parachutes for J’s fifth birthday at Brooklyn Robot Foundry. It was the perfect one hour, small kid project. And it is one that can be complicated by adding weights to the parachute’s basket, changing the kind of parachute material you’re using, so on. These are really more like a cross between a hot air balloon and a parachute. They include a basket (dixie cup) that can hold ballast which could be an egg, some pom poms glued together to make a buddy (we call them dudes), or other items.

We’d hoped to toss them from an upper balconey into the school garden. Wouldn’t that have been awesome and very photographable? But we got one of the two storms to grace us this winter on that day, so we tossed them from the second floor to the first inside the school building. Still awesome.

One of the boys, who likes to speed through his projects and zip off to make things elsewhere (I’m into making movies), came late, created a parachute, and said, “I’m throwing it out. It doesn’t work.” I asked if he’d tried it. He hadn’t. Off he went. Three minutes later, he was back, cackling, “It worked! It worked!” Excellent, my MiniFriend, excellent! 

So, as before, if you’d like to look at the process I hacked together, see the attached file. I cribbed steps from a few places including a recycled materials video (link included).

  • Method 1 coffee filter + pipe cleaner + small cup + decor
  • Method 2 circle cut from plastic bag + yarn + small cup + decor

We had two options for the parachute itself: coffee filter or cut plastic bag (you should get two circles from a bag). The coffee filters I bought were the largest I could find without going to Peet’s coffee and asking for one of their foot-diameter filters, about 6 inches across, which is absurdly small. Too small.

As with the goo session, I erred on the side of letting them do more than their age, our ratio of kid to me, and our club time allows. The instructions suggest using a hole puncher to make holes in the chute. However, my hole puncher required careful sliding of the material into a narrow gap. Took forever and didn’t work for most of the kids so I started snipping slits instead. While the plastic bags make for better parachutes, finding plastic bags in a Berkeley home is challenging: stores no longer give them out; we use compostable bags for our dog’s poop; I couldn’t find my circulating cache of vegetable bags.

Kids could tie yarn to the parachute but guess what. They are six. Most of them can’t tie things easily. So we opted for pipe cleaners.

I gave them options for decorating and creating dudes or buddies to have plummet to a certain death in their parachutes.

One of the boys is a brilliant tinkerer/troubleshooter. He reworked his parachute several times, adding and removing items to see what the effect of weight changes on its flight. I love the way he works. He’s incredibly diligent and focused.

Boy holding coffee filter parachute with colorful gems for weight.

Next time I would cut the plastic bags ahead of time. I bought new hole punchers so I would probably do half and let the kids who can manage the hole punchers take that on. I would also cut the yarn ahead of time. I’d have an adult on hand who could tie knots. Every week I wish for one more adult.



MiniMaker Club: Parachutes

MiniMaker Club: Glow in the Dark Goo (Gak)


For week two, I thought mixing things in jars and cups would be a good idea. Twelve kids, how could this go wrong? 


Nothing went wrong, if you want to be Jane Austen specific about it, but I wouldn't teach/make goo this way again.

What I did:

  • Kids were loosely divided between two tables. I had three mixing bowls (1/4 ratio) and three squirt bottles (ditto). The squirt bottles held the borax and water mix (the mix that puts the goo in goo). We dumped glue and water into the bowls, then added glow in the dark paint.
  • I bought small plastic to go containers at the restaurant supply shop (same with the bowls and squirt bottles; never underestimate restaurant supply shops for amazing finds) for them to take the goo home in. You can use plastic bags, but those are a pain. Right?
  • I brought glitter (stanard in the maker box) and food coloring. I brought high-lighters in case we wanted to try the high-lighter method of color extraction. (We didn't.)
  • So. Glue gets mixed in the big bowls, and then I scoop some out in a plastic bowl and give it to a child. She gets to add the borax mix and food coloring. 
  • Mayhem. I came with eight bottles of food coloring and left with one. A couple of the students' hands were a deeply convincing shade of blue. Many of the glow in the dark batches looked like fresh livers sitting in a to go box. Everyone had fun.

What I would do next time: 

  • In some ways, it feels kind of maker-y to let them do each step. If I omit the big mix, then they aren't making. But, with 12 small people, many of whom are six or seven, it's a bit nutty. 
  • Mix the borax in the small bottles as this time. I would probably not mix the glue in the giant bowl, but we'd measure out individual portions and let them mix in their little to go containers. Now, would I have each person measure, or do it myself ahead of time. Perhaps a combination so things move along. 
  • Popsicle sticks make AWESOME stir sticks.
  • I'd have a batch of goo made in various shades so they could see how it glowed and didn't glow. 
  • Bring a flashlight for better glow-check.
  • I think I'd like them to do two batches each, one plain and one livered-up, so they could compare and contrast the glow levels.


We brought two batches home, one that the girl happily dumped blue food dye in, the other was left over I brought home for the boy. It has only glitter in it. 


We held them up to the bathroom light and then I took a picture. You can see the glitter batch glowing in the top right corner. You can't see the blue batch, which had cool streaks that looked bioluminescent phytoplankton (a great book for preK-1 that features phytoplankton is Whale Shines). 


MiniMaker Club: Glow in the Dark Goo (Gak)

MiniMaker Club: Sun Prints

The school’s MiniMaker Club kicked off with sun prints. I have a mix of 14 first through fifth graders, primarily first graders. The fifth graders are helpful and organized and eager to lead the youngers. Go Vigotsky.


What I had forgotten about working with children is pretty much everything.

So, when there’s more than a couple (you know, like the two I have) don’t put anything on the table. Also, if you’re going to do sun prints,make sure you’ve got full sun, not late afternoon limpid winter sun that eeks across the edge of the building creating a one-inch sliver not big enough for a full sheet of paper, let alone bleach it out into a print.

But my makers were game and tried putting their carefully layered works in the bit of sun they could find and letting it rest for a bit.


What worked: buttons, screws, structured plants, butterfly cut-outs, poms.

What didn’t: fake feathers, whispy things.


I wouldn’t leave out those failures, because that’s part of the lesson — what works and what doesn’t.

Sun, doo-dads, all of it becomes part of the process and the experiment.


To bridge the sun to rinse time, I had them decorate greeting cards with a photo window. When the prints were dry enough, we trimmed them down to fit so they had something spiffy to take home and show off.

Next time:

make sure you have sun, leave ALL the goods in one place, let the fifth graders help as much as they want

MiniMaker Club: Sun Prints

And, we’re back

I don't know how back we will be, as I get TinyMights up and running with my partner, but I need a place to write, you know? (She said, writing into the wind.)


We moved back from New York a year ago and I've been cold a lot since then. Californians, the ones who grow up in the northern half, not our southern cousins and not the transplants, we just don't know what to do about dressing for weather. I spend much of fall and winter slightly underprepared all the time. Puffy coats are overkill, but my down vest isn't enough. I can't bring myself to purchase a proper jacket because it's California, when will I wear it? (Um, now? Maybe not today with its unseasonably global-warming, California is on the brink of disaster mid-70s weather.)

The smalls are thriving. They love their schools and continue to develop new friendships and strengthen old ones.


We have seen our cousins and aunties and uncles and grandmother and nana often, even for a hike! 


(How often do we become friends with people in our adult years and forget, if we ever considered, that they have siblings? Sometimes we do! These are mine. 🙂


We can't get enough of the beach in cold weather. We leave, so cold we can't get the sand off, teeth clattering, in search of hot chocolate. 



And, we’re back