Crafting Electricity Workshop

NASA Space Apps proved to be more important than I ever thought — it helped me to win an award from Systers, a female tech organization.  The award is called “Pass-It-On”, and is geared to help women on the tech path, with the understanding that they will give back in some way.  My award was for a class called Crafting Electricity at Shakerag Workshops in TN.  It was already amazing to be winning an award, but there was yet another surprise.  As I checked my email in the airport, I discovered that the woman in Florida that assisted me on the Orbit Skirt for NASA, Brooks Zurn, was also signed up for this workshop!  In fact, one of us was over the amount of seats that were available in the class, and had they not allowed one extra seat, one of us would have been eliminated.  I guess Brooks and I were just meant to be. 🙂  Back to the story…  Leah Buechley, my fave tech artist and inventor of the Lilypad Arduino, was the teacher.  It took a while for me to get used to being in the same room with a rock star, but once the fog wore off, I was able to concentrate on paper circuits.  I was doing really well working with the copper tape, but once we got to surface-mount LED’s, well, that was another story.  Leah had given us an assignment to make a little story called “Boy Meets Girl”.  Well, it took me a whole day just to get one LED soldered correctly, granted they are just a bit bigger than a grain of rice.  So, my story ended up being rather short and sweet.  Our entire class struggled in some way or form and we all ended up going to bed about 3:00 AM! LED StoryThe one thing that I did spend quite a bit of time on was the power source.  While most people in the class chose to use a button cell battery on the corner of the page to connect to their circuit, I invented a conductive bookmark.  The top had copper tape, while the bottom had a battery and conductive thread tassel.  When the bookmark is held over the open bracket of the circuit, it completes it.  The beauty of this method is that you can create a whole book and just use the bookmark to activate each page.  I’m sure I will make a prettier version and one day use it for someone’s scrapbook — that’s the beauty of having a week long course to tinker. Once we had gotten our feet wet with paper circuits, we moved onto combining a microcontroller into our work.  Since we were working with Leah, it was only appropriate that we use the Lilypad Arduino.  The model she chose for our class was a newer once which had a self contained LiPo battery, as well as a removable snap base.  I was so excited by the base, because microcontrollers are expensive, and this meant you could have multiple projects that all share one microcontroller.  It was pure genius.  We began with a simple program to light up another surface mount LED, and this time we used conductive paint.  I really enjoyed the conductive paint because it is an easy way to make connections without solder.  This means it really lends itself to classes with young people.  Lilypad PaperAnother nice feature in this particular circuit is the bendable flap with the copper tape.  Throughout the week we found ourselves experimenting with switches.  The green LED on the Lilypad shows the device being on.  The surface mount LED is the tiny yellowish speck on the left side of the painted circuit.  I couldn’t take the photo with it on because it is actually extremely bright and blows out the picture.  They make great light sources for Halloween masks, artwork and gift cards. Since we had connected the ideas of circuits, programming and craft materials, it was time to embark on a project.  Leah happened to demonstrate a piano program that used capacitive sense.  You may remember from one of my earlier posts, that this was the exact type of program that I needed to make my musical spider’s web.  It looked  like my opportunity had arrived.  I started with a sketch and then strung my first model on some chair legs in the studio.  I knew things would be challenging,  because I only had conductive thread, not conductive yarn on hand.  The thread would occasionally break and I would have to start hand stitching onto the Arduino  as I was hanging it.  Gradually I got the pressure right and it started to resemble something that “Charlotte” would have been proud of.  The inside lobby of the building was my chosen spot for the web since it was scheduled to rain the next day.  The architecture was very modern and actually very similar in shape to tree branches.  The best part is that the metal rods were painted, which meant they were no longer conductive.  That was one short I didn’t have to worry about, however,  there were others.  I learned how to felt from a fellow classmate and made a cute hatch to hide the Lilypad Arduino.  The felt looked great, but it attracted every little piece of conductive thread that I had snipped.  One of my trickiest shorts ended up being a 1/2″ thread lodged on some stitching.  It’s all part of the learning process, and to be honest, it looked so cool that I never minded a single minute troubleshooting.  The finished web was playable on the spokes, while the center swirled string was merely decorative.  Incidentally, the center string came from another group at Shakerag that was working on natural dye methods.  There was much cross pollination between the classes during our stay, which merely added to the inventiveness of the projects.  Check out the finished web video.


The talent in our class included  filmmakers, painters, woodworkers, felters, papermakers and graphic artists.  It was really great seeing so many possibilities combining microcontrollers and circuits with these materials.  I leave  you with more examples from our Crafting Electricity class.  In the meantime, I’m already contemplating classes I’ll be doing at my local tech art org — The Hacktory.  I believe the first one will be doing paper pop up circuit cards for the holidays with a young woman that was attending Shakerag from Philadelphia.  I’m also contemplating programmable pumpkins for Halloween — light up LED eyes and spooky sounds.  It looks like my tech art teaching has begun.




One thought on “Crafting Electricity Workshop

  1. I’m so glad you posted your conductive bookmark! Absolutely brilliant idea. There was so much information coming at us, I’d completely forgotten about it.

    Claire Reischman told us later that she made extra room in the class for everyone. The limit was supposed to be 14, but Leah couldn’t say no to Claire. And I couldn’t imagine the class without you in it.

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