littleBits First Lesson – A Success with Digital and Analog Circuits

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Hi! I’m pretty psyched about this lesson I did using littleBits with my 6th grade class. We had finished a few weeks of coding and scratching and they were getting antsy to get away from computers because I had been on jury duty for three weeks so there were a lot of “at desk” assignments. I had wanted to use littleBits for a while in class, but had never gotten beyond offering them as a reward to play with for those who finished early with other assignments.

Let me back up right here, if you don’t know what littleBits are, please check out their website linked above and watch this video if you like:

If you do (or you do now) know about littleBits, you know they are pretty amazing. Their ability to let kids – and adults – be creative is unlike anything I have seen since I started teaching with robots. There are many projects I have wanted to have students  do with littleBits and so many great things they could create but I was stuck with two major questions: 1) How do I get started? and 2) How do I make sure I teach basic circuitry concepts w/o stifling their imagination? Plus I was keenly aware of this quote from the Educator’s Guide:

Free play with littleBits has its definite advantages, but students will sometimes disengage after a time . Having a goal or design challenge to help structure the play engages students  for a longer period of time and helps meet specific learning standards.

After toying with many ideas I finally put together a two day lesson which worked pretty well.  Here’s how it went:

The day before the lesson I allowed a few students to play with littleBits after finishing their work early so there was some buzz about the items and curiosity about what was going in the back of the classroom with the noise and lights.

On the first day I had the students gather outside of my classroom and I handed each one of them a card. Eleven of them received blue power cards, eleven of them received green output cards, and eleven of them received pink input cards. The cards corresponded to the colors and specific types of bits littleBits makes. Here’s examples of the input and output cards:

These cards come in the packages when you order individual bits but they also  are available en masse in a .pdf provided by littleBits and available on the educators’ page linked to above. I had our school’s print service print them out back to back and laminate them.

When all the students had the cards, I had them gather at the back by my whiteboard tables and proceeded to share with them the learning target for the day:

I can create and describe a circuit with an input and output using littleBits.

Then I showed them the cart full of drawers where I have the littleBits sorted. Each drawer has either blue, green, pink, or orange tape on it for easy location of bits.

 

I pointed them to the blue tape drawer and asked all students with blue power cards to retrieve a 9v battery, cable, and power bit and go take a seat. Then I had them connect the battery to the power bit and turn them on.

At this point I shared three definitions with the class on the board:

  1. circuit – A closed path through which an electric current flows or may flow
  2. digital – digital signals have two positions: on or off
  3. analog – analog signals have a varying range from a low point to a high point

I asked the class to discuss with the person next to them if we had created a circuit already and a great discussion ensued amongst the students. Though no output was attached yet, there is a small red led that comes on to indicate power is working and some thought this meant we had created a circuit, while some felt that you had to have something happen for a circuit to be made. I didn’t give them a definitive answer as I like to keep their minds interested and open.

Once the discussion died down I pointed out the green drawer where the outputs are and asked each student holding a green card to find their output and take it to a table and join a power bit holder. Next I told them to connect the power bit to the output bit and record what happened. Please note that I did not tell them how to connect the bits. littleBits are made with magnets whose poles line up so that there is only one correct way you can align the bits. All my students figured it out intuitively without me telling them how to do it. Here’s some of their work:

I even had one group go the next step and draw their circuit even though I had not asked them to do so:

CircuitDiagramAfter the observations of the power and output circuits I (finally!) gave the pink input card holders the same directions as the green output card holders. If I have a criticism of this lesson it is that it takes a while for this last group to to get into the lesson, though they were watching intently. Once the pink card holders grabbed their inputs from the drawer they joined the teams and created new circuits, again writing down their observations on the table:

Notice that first group in the pictures above kept their pre-input observation and compared it to their post-input observation. I though this was pretty cool of them.

And that was it for the first day. It takes a while to safely and correctly put all the pieces back, erase the tables, collect the cards and so forth, so this is as far as we got with the first day lesson.

The second day the students came in I presented them with the learning target:

I can create an analog or digital light circuit using power, inputs, and outputs from littleBits.

This time instead of handing them cards I counted the class off from 1-10 and had them gather together with their like numbers in the back of the room (all ones with ones, all twos with twos, etc.) This way I had ten groups of three each, with two leftover who formed a smaller group.

After reviewing our definitions from the previous day (circuit, analog, and digital) I asked each group to discuss whether the light switch in the classroom was analog or digital. We shared and discussed answers and then I had each group come up with an example of an analog circuit. While most mentioned light dimmers as I had started off with lights, a lot of them talked about volume on their phones or tablets.

I instructed them that they had to create a circuit that output some type of light and was either digital or analog. Due to having a large class I counted my bar graph bits as lights so combined with leds, bright leds, light wires, uv leds and a few others I had over ten light outputs.

To make sure each student participated I had the student with the shortest hair in each group retrieve and set up the power bit, the student with the longest hair come up and choose the type of light output, and the remaining student choose they type of input. One unexpected outcome that I should have anticipated is almost all the students went for dimmers or pressure sensors as they were more fun. So I had more analog than digital circuits in the end. But either way if they can create and describe a circuit successfully, they have met the learning target.

Here is a slideshow of their circuits, observations, and diagrams:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One group described their circuit as analog because they chose the dimmer, while the other groups were all able to describe the action of the input, for example “…because you can change the brightness of the light by sliding the dimmer.” You can also see that I’m not worried about spelling or grammar in these quick observations as they get in the way of the students directly relating their thought process. They will adjust their mechanics when it comes time to present projects.

In summary I think I answered my two concerns in the beginning. I was able to insert some specific vocabulary and have the students understand they were creating different types of circuits. At the same time I kept them interested because littleBits are cool and they had a lot of choice in how they created their circuits. Finally their observations where their own. As long as they described the circuit accurately I wasn’t worried about how the format they chose to describe their circuit.

I feel like I have built a proper foundation with this 6th grade class that they will be able to tackle their first littleBits project successfully.

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