LittleBits as Planning Tools

LittleBits as planners
A Stark Future Ahead?

There are these wonderful new (if expensive!) toys called LittleBits. They’re kind of like Legos, but for electronics geeks instead of would-be architects.

And today, inspired by the photo of the guy in MAKE magazine who built a pyro arm, and by my own efforts at making a costume gauntlet, the students in my Monday MakerLab class decided that they wanted to try building their own gauntlets. They pretty much agreed that they couldn’t build a fully-functional pyro-glove in time for Halloween (phew! for me), but the idea of light-up gauntlets was pretty thrilling in and of itself.

None of us are electronics geeks, which is unfortunate.  However, we do have some LittleBits, which we got on sale through an educational discount last year.  So we modeled what it is that we want to do.

Here it is — a battery pack mounted in or around the bicep of the armor-glove/gauntlet thing that we’ll build.  Some wires headed down the arm to a pressure-operated button at the wrist or even better in the palm (so the lights flash when you make a fist).  And a series of LEDs that light up when the pressure switch is active.  If I can work some EL wire in there, that’s perhaps always on or flashing, with shades of TRON or various anime — well.  I don’t think it will be so bad.

Armor-Glove prototype: Trying the glove on
Me, trying on the too-small gauntlet I built…

It doesn’t SEEM very complicated.  It does seem like a very good project to start out a bunch of aspiring builders who take their inspiration from comic books very seriously.    It will involve some soldering, I’m sure; but it will also involve some pretty serious thinking about electronics on the part of some fourth and fifth graders.  And it will not likely look anything like the clean white-and-colorful bits in the LittleBits boxes when they’re done building it.

But I think about how utterly beyond me this would have been six months to a year ago… I would have looked at the drawers and drawers of electronic parts I had, and wondered how, on earth, I could possibly figure out how to build this thing I was expected to build.  Now thanks to Josh, and Frank, and LittleBits, I can see what it is that I’m trying to build: a power pack wired to a pressure-switch wired to a system of LED lights, looping back to the powerpack.

Without having the LittleBits, I would have struggled to understand that much.  All those demos with a battery pack and a lamp and a couple of wires, every couple of years at a Science Fair, wouldn’t have helped me.  Even the EL wire that I bought last year for the Design Lab wouldn’t have helped.  But this collection of components, combined with this collection of kids, combined with this particular desire — build elements of Halloween costumes in four weeks — this I get.  And this I think I can do:  it’s a low-enough bar that it can be achieved, and give our kids a much needed success, and a much-needed success for the program.  But more than that, it’s a beginner project, much like my beginner projects for my sewing and knitting efforts.  It’s a great way to learn how electronics work, and how they’re made.  It has just a little bit of danger, too, with the soldering (eventually).

These things are achievable, believable, controllable and desirable — A, B, C, D.  And more’s to the point, this is exactly why a bunch of electronics geeks invented LittleBits — to help bring a whole new crew of tinkerers into the kind of experimentation that makes their work possible and relevant.  This is why these toys exist.

And today, I got to see them put to that use.  I was very excited.

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