Make Custom (& Inexpensive) Circuit Blocks!

Create, build, and play with your very own LEGO-inspired circuit blocks! Explore the basics of electricity and circuits, discover how sensors work and use ’em to design your own experiments, and incorporate upcycled materials to improve on your materials-sourcing & MacGuyver-ing skills! That old gum wrapper? Make it into a resistor or a switch!

But seriously, this is a super fun (and inexpensive) project/toy/game to teach electronics to kids (and adults!) of all ages and experience levels. The total cost of this project is under $30 and it takes about 2 hours to design and build.

 

Ok.. so where do we start?

First we need a base, the circuit block itself. This design uses breadboards* as the circuit block bases. I chose mini color breadboards so that each color denotes a specific type of electronic component (see next section). These are super cheap, typically less than $1 per board. Follow my design or create your own!

For each breadboard/component, we also need at least two or more breadboard wires (or 22 or 24 stranded wire), so for 20 breadboards with a single component we need 40 or more breadboard wires.

*Breadboards are non-edible, inexpensive prototyping boards for electronics projects. See photo above for a quick illustration of how breadboards work, or check out this tutorial.

 

Gather Electronic Components!

If you happen to have an assortment of electronic components around, gather them up and go through them to find the most choice pieces — we want components with only two leads, like simple motors, fans, LEDs, resistors, capacitors, etc. Check out websites like SparkFun or Amazon and search for electronic components.

Hey, wait, where can I get this stuff for free??

Dig up that box of broken electronics in your garage and see what you can find inside the electronics!

The best sources for components are electronic toys that move and/or make noise, speakers, telephones, and other medium-sized electronics.You’ll need wire cutters and pliers to remove the pieces, be sure to keep the legs intact so they can easily connect to the breadboard.

Avoid smartphones, tablets and laptops since the circuit components are suuuuper small and difficult to attach to a breadboard (unless that’s what you’re going for, then extract away!). For safety reasons, avoid appliances (e.g. microwaves, televisions, refrigerators, etc.), and do not use capacitors that are larger than a child’s thumb.

 

Build the Circuit Blocks!

The breadboard assortment I got included red, blue, white, green and black, mini breadboards. I broke up the colors into the following categories and components:

 

Red boards (power devices): One 1 W solar panel, one 9V battery clip, one 2 AA battery box, and two coin cell cases.

 

 

 

Blue boards (simple active): one motor w/ propeller, six LEDs of different colors (three per board), and one transistor (the transistor is pretty tricky — I’d recommend replacing this with another motor).

 

 

 

Green boards (sensors): one photoresistor, one buzzer/piezoelectric sensor, one peltier junction, and one capacitive sensor (this didn’t end up working, so replace it with a pressure sensor or other cool, two-lead sensor).

 

 

 

White boards (simple passive): six resistors of varying values (three per board), two (small electrolytic) capacitors of different values, and one potentiometer.

 

 

 

 

Black boards (electromechanical): Two pushbutton switches of different sizes/types (one per board), two toggle switches (single board), and one cooling fan.

 

 

 

To build each circuit block:
Connect each component to the first rows of each breadboard (be sure they aren’t shorted — should be on either side of the breadboard), and hot glue the wires into place. Remember to label which side is positive and which side is negative! Another fun option is to make labels for each component.

 

Plug & Play!

You’re ready to start building circuits and teaching other people the basics of electronics! Start simple, then add in more components to explore their function and see how they affect your circuit.

Here’s an example progression exploring different ways to light up an LED:

1. Use a coin cell to light up an LED.

Exploration questions: Does orientation matter? Where do the wires need to connect to the breadboard?

2. Use the solar panel to light up an LED. Move the panel into the shade (or cover it with your hand), and see how the LED brightness changes.

Exploration questions: How does the brightness of the LED change when you cover the solar panel? Why does this happen?

3. Use a coin cell and potentiometer to adjust the brightness of an LED.

Exploration questions: What do you notice? Does it matter how we connect the potentiometer?

4. Use a coin cell and a photoresistor to adjust the brightness of an LED.

Exploration questions: What do you notice?. Does it matter how we connect the photoresistor? How could we use the photoresistor in an experiment?

Build your own sequences to teach folks about specific circuit components or sensors, or use them as a fun & educational free-time project!

Interactive Survey Game!

A survey questionnaire come to life! Use (nearly) any object to gather helpful data through an interactive, engaging, and fun multiple-choice survey.

This project uses the Makey Makey microcontroller in combination with a Raspberry Pi computer to read in participants’ survey choices and save the results in a text file.

Planning & Design!

This general design is easily customized to fit a different theme. The only crucial design requirement is to use materials that conduct electricity for the survey pieces, or wrap non-conductive materials in aluminum foil.

Suggestions:
Prototype, prototype, prototype! Build different versions and test them on family, friends, co-workers, or (ideally) your target audience. Observe how folks interact with your survey, then use that to make it better! And always remember to keep it simple 🙂

Materials

Makey Makey Kit
– Computer: Raspberry Pi

– One (1) ground piece, five (5) survey response pieces, one (1) submit piece, and two (2) yes/no pieces*

22 Gauge (stranded) Wire — five (5) 10 – 16″ strips and three (3) 6″ pieces (ends stripped)

– Container:

— Wood Box (12.5″ x 12.5″)
— Plexliglass.(“12 x 12”)
— Three (3) 2″ x 2″ wood panels

* Specific materials used in this design are detailed with the corresponding procedure, although customization is encouraged!

Tools

Safety goggles, woo!
Multimeter
— Optional: Soldering iron, solder& desoldering wick
— Ruler (or calipers)
Drill w/ both drill and driver bits
Flat wood file (to prevent splinters!)
Hot glue gun
— Epoxy (permanent)
– Pliers

Reprogram the Makey Makey

To reprogram the Makey Makey, you’ll need to have the Arduino IDE with Makey Makey drivers installed. Here’s a thorough tutorial on how to do this.


1. Plug Makey Makey into computer and open the Arduino IDE.

2. Open (or copy) Makey Makey source code:
Here’s the GitHub page for the Makey Makey.
Here’s a direct link to download the full program. This is a .zip file, so be sure to extract all the files.

3. Reprogram the “click” key into an “enter” key.
For a thorough overview of how to do this, check out this tutorial.

4. Change the following keys:
These two keys are mapped in the survey program, but can be left as-is or you can choose to switch other keys (e.g. the arrow keys). Just be sure to change the mapping in the program.

A. Change the “g” into an “n”.
B. Change “space” key into “y”.

Build the Survey Response Pieces!

Specific materials used in this design:

– Two (2) wood blocks, two (2) golf balls, and one (1) jar lid.
– Aluminum foil
Unistrut 1/2″ Channel Nut with Spring
– Ten (10) 1/2″ washers
– Plexiglass [or wood] (12″ x 12″)

Procedure:

1. Wrap each of the survey response pieces at least 2 – 3 times with foil, hot gluing each layer.

2. For unistrut spring pieces, hot glue (or epoxy) the top of the spring to the bottom of each survey response piece — be sure that the metal of the spring is touching the foil of the survey piece.

3. Attach the survey pieces to plexiglass.

Determine location of survey response pieces and mark with tape. Drill a hole at each point.

Place a washer on either side of the hold and screw bolt into unistrut spring about 3 turns.

4. Connect a wire to each of the unistrut spring pieces.

Wrap wire around base of bolt (between washer and plexiglass). Hand tighten the bolt to secure wire without squishing it

Build the Ground Piece!

Specific materials used in this design:
– Styrofoam ball
– Metal pipe
– Flange stand for pipe
– Aluminum foil
– Twelve (12) washers
– 4 wood screws
– Wood panel (2″ x 2″)

Procedure

1. Build a stand for the styrofoam ball — use conductive materials or wrap pieces in foil.

2. Wrap styrofoam ball in aluminum foil, leaving a “tail” of foil. Place ball on stand and push the foil tail against the inside of  Hot glue pieces together.

3. Cover the exposed end of the ground wire (24″) to the inside, or bottom, of base and adhere with tape or epoxy.

5. Add a layer of two (2) washers under base to avoid squishing the wire, then connect base to wood pane via screws or epoxy.

Build the Enter Key!

Specific materials used in this design:

– Clothespin
– Wood panel (2″ x 2″)
– One (1) wood screw + one (1) washer

The screw should be about 1/4″ longer than the wood thickness.

– Aluminum foil

Procedure:

1. Wrap one of the handles of the clothespin in foil.

2. Remove clothespin spring clamp, align other side of the clothespin on wood panel, and drill in a screw and washer.

Foil on the other side of the clothespin should make contact with the washer + screw when closed.

3. Reconnect spring clamp and other side (may need pliers). Epoxy bottom of clothespin to wood panel.

4. Use alligator clip or wrap wire around screw and secure with hot glue.

Make the Yes and No Keys! 

Specific materials used in this design:
– Two (2) plastic container lids
– Two (2) wood panels (2″ x 2″)
– Two (2) wood screws and washers

Each screw should be about 1/4″ longer than the wood thickness.

– Aluminum foil


Procedure

1. Cut circle out of container lids. Wrap in foil.

2. Align lids on wood panels and drill in a wood screw with washer on top — be sure the screw slightly pokes through the back of the wood panel.

3. Use alligator clip or wrap wire around screw and secure with hot glue. 

Connect Pieces to Makey Makey

1. Connect ground piece lead to Makey Makey ground pads.

2. Connect survey game pieces to the first five (5) Makey Makey back header pins on the left: “w”, “a”, “s”, “f”, and “d”.

3. Connect the no button to the last (6th) back header pin, “g”

4. Connect the yes button to the “space” pads.

5. Connect the submit piece to the “click” pads.



Load the Survey Program!

Using a Raspberry Pi computer means that all of the electronics can fit into the game box! Write up a program in Python to cycle through a series of survey questions and five possible choices that map to the survey response pieces.

Here’s my code:
GitHub page!
Python program only.

Final Touches & Case!

This case is designed to withstand high traffic, experimentation, and children — and to be easily (and cheaply) fixable and adjustable. Use this design or customize your own!

Materials:
12.5″ x 12.5″ wood box
1″ x 10 ” wood panel

Procedure:
1. Epoxy wood panel onto front of box.

2. Drill the submit, yes, and no keys into the wood panel.


Recommended to put the “submit” button on the far right (switched this after further testing and feedback).

 

3. Drill hole large enough to fit an HDMI port in the back panel of the box.

I used two 3/8″ bits and filed down the hole until the HDMI port fit.

4. Label the survey game pieces and the submit, yes, and no keys.

Test, & Install!

Connect the Raspberry Pi to a monitor, keyboard, and the Makey Makey. Test the program and double check all the keys. Once everything is up and running, remove the keyboard (and mouse if connected).

Load the python program, stand back, and let passersby have a blast participating in a survey!