Tinkering with Arduino & MaKey MaKey

This one comes to you a little late, but that just goes to show how busy we stay at the Creativity Lab.

I got a better chance to tinker with Arduino and MaKey Makey at our (go figure) “Learn to Make: Arduino & MaKey MaKey” workshop. For those of you who are really familiar with the Maker Movement, you understand the importance of tinkering in learning. For the rest of you, you may not even know what exactly tinkering is, let alone its part in the making/learning process. This might give you an idea:

One of my third-grade science units was on circuity. Every day, for an hour, my class would spread out on the floor with plastic baggies of wires, bulbs, and batteries, and connect positives to negatives and negatives to positives, following the instructions of our photocopied textbook worksheets. It was boring, and formulaic, and frustrating when I couldn’t make anything happen, and the experience left me with an aversion to all things light bulb for years to come. That was 1996.

There was no tinkering in third grade. The worksheet was our Rosetta Stone. We could make the lightbulb work, or we could be wrong. Those were the options–and you sure as heck didn’t want to be wrong.

So, eighteen years later, in the Creativity Lab. How were things different? Well, we pulled out the plastic baggies with the circuitry kits, spread out–and then we played. Tinkering means exploring possibilities and getting messy, rather than achieving some goal with a straightforward plan. Going into it, no one really knew how to use Arduino or MaKey MaKey (okay, maybe Aaron did…but none of the rest of us). I had a general idea of MaKey MaKey from a previous session, but not much. I still wouldn’t call myself any sort of expert, but here’s what I’ve gathered just from tinkering with it:

MaKey MaKey. Plug it into your computer and you can make any object that conducts electricity into a keyboard key. (MaKey MaKey. Get it?) It sounds complicated, but once you have it in front of you, it’s not so bad. If you open up a music making platform (like GarageBand or Soundplant), you can turn whatever you’ve got at your fingertips into an instrument. We had some avid Star Wars fans in our group, so we did some exploring, downloaded some sound files, dragged them into Soundplant, hooked them up to a homemade R2D2 via MaKey MaKey, and were transported to a galaxy far far away…We just sorta figured it out as we went. Really. That’s what tinkering does for you. Other possibilities? How about a custom game of “Operation”? (One group made a pretty cool Christmas themed version.)

The great thing about MaKey MaKey is that sense of awe. You kinda end up in a momentary Wonderland, where bananas are musical instruments. But, we’ve talked it over, here at the Creativity Lab, and have something of a general opinion that, after a while, MaKey MaKey by itself becomes more of a toy than a learning tool. Which is fine, but after you’ve replaced one object for another a few times to create a circuit, you want a new way to advance your thinking. So, we added “Scratch.”

Here’s a program that I hadn’t used yet. It’s a kid-friendly software that enabled users to tell stories with simple graphics. Click here and a cartoon cat pops up on the page. Want the cat to move across the screen? Just scroll through the different actions that are offered, “When space bar is pressed, move the cat 5 steps. When Up Arrow is pressed, make the cat meow.” And so on. Scratch is a real thinking puzzle. How can I use the different commands to create the perfect story? What else can I make happen? There’s good opportunity to go explore. Tinkering, ladies and gentleman. Tinkering.

That was the introduction to the programming. Then we pulled out Arduino.

IMG_2273Arduino: Great and Powerful Oz of circuity kits. I kept hearing the tales of its awesomeness, but had never actually seen it in action. So, I was excited.

Arduino combined our programming with our circuit building. We plugged LEDs into breadboards, and connected them to computers (by the way, I had no idea what any of this fancy lingo meant a few weeks ago), then manipulated the programming to change what the LEDs did–change a number here, make them blink faster, change a number here, make them blink slower. That was pretty cool to figure out, but then I tinkered a bit more (the word of the day), and created a parallel circuit with multiple LEDs without even knowing it. Now, this one brought me back. See, I remember talking about parallel circuits, back in third grade, with the Great and Powerful Worksheet. But back then it was boring. Back then it was a waste of my time. I had no idea what I was doing, and I couldn’t have cared less. This time around, I was into it. I was solving problems, and figuring things out, and going off and trying new ideas on my own.

This time around, it was fun.


David is the documentarian and professional development coordinator for the Creativity Lab. In 2014, he received a BA in creative writing from Louisiana State University, with focuses on short fiction and screenwriting. In partnering with New Orleans-based independent film company, Asymptote Pictures, his work has been featured in film festivals across the country. He likes his espresso maker, and vegetarian tacos.