As part of the Principles of Practice project, NYSCI and CMP each undertook a design experiment. The Little Makers team chose to focus on an activity that had posed quite a challenge for us: introducing simple circuits to our youngest makers. Our first attempt at circuits in a Little Makers workshop was an unmitigated disaster. We had seen NYSCI’s Maker Space team tinkering with paper circuits, and thought it would be a natural place to start. We quickly discovered that paper circuits, despite the use of simple materials (construction paper, copper tape, LEDs and coin batteries), were challenging for facilitators and parents to grasp and successfully make, and nearly impossible for our audience of four year olds


To dive into the design experiment, each Early Childhood Resident identified an aspect of the activity, lesson plan, learning environment, or facilitation design to study and improve in order to bring the principles of practice to life in the simple circuits workshop.  We ambitiously (and with a bit of trepidation), put three simple circuits workshops on the Little Makers calendar. 

The Residents first identified the key science concepts and skills young learners would need to explore circuits. Unlike with paper circuits where the focus was on making a switch, they chose to concentrate on creating a closed circuit and using everyday materials to explore conductivity. They expanded the materials list to include aluminum foil, paper clips, brass fasteners, copper tape, plastic drinking straws, wooden skewers, yarn and pipe cleaners, and introduced a materials testing station where families experimented with each material, determined if it completed the circuit (and illuminated the light bulb) and sorted them into bins labeled conductive and non-conductive. 

The introduction of a planning station invited children to brainstorm and sketch what they would make from the assortment of everyday objects. One young maker, a five-year-old girl, first drew a heart on a sheet of manila paper. She marked out where she would place her LED and battery pack. Her mom helped her label her heart, indicating a positive path and a negative path. After thoughtful planning, she moved on to making station and brought her sketch to life, crafting her heart from aluminum foil wrapped around pipe cleaners, and connecting the LED leads to the battery using the foil as wires. 

Beyond changing the materials explored and introducing the testing and planning stations, Residents experimented with the structure of the workshop. Little Makers workshops are typically drop-in and free flowing – during each two hour workshop, anywhere from fifteen to fifty families drop in to the Maker Space and move fluidly through the stations at their own pace, driven by what captures and keeps their child’s interest. For the design experiment, the Residents instead broke up the workshop into two-hour long sessions, and limited the number of families in each session to 15. The team noted that introducing sessions made the space feel more intimate, let them dive deeper into the science concepts, gave Residents and Explainers an opportunity to work more in depth with each family, and increased parents’ active engagement in the activity, lending to more collaboration, and less instances of parents taking over and completing the project for their children. 

With each instantiation of the Creative Circuitry workshop, as Residents brought their key learning and experiments to life, they noticed that young learners picked up the concepts of conductivity and creating a closed circuit quickly, demonstrated a better understanding of materials’ properties, were genuinely engaged in the process, and that the 3-D sculptures they divined from everyday materials were significantly more creative than the original paper circuits. 

The design experiment not only improved our approach to exploring simple circuits with young learners, it catalyzed the creation of lesson plan template used across all our programs and a formal process of documenting our reflections and key learning.