Thursday, December 28, 2017

Laser Cut Boxes and Light Up Plushies: Pulling Out All the Stops In the Maker Space

I just did a hard and fun project with two English teachers as part of their 11/12 grade students reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. They made stuffed monster plushie dolls with hand sewn LED circuits and designed wood and acrylic boxes to "contain" them (containing the monster being one of the themes in Frankenstein).
We have some amazing resources in our new maker space and in planning the project I wanted to see what tools made sense to use while making sure there was enough of a hands-on experience. I would like to reflect on the process of doing this project as well, now that it's done, and will insert reflections as bullet points throughout.


Two sections of 18 students each spent 3 and 4 hour-long class periods, respectively, working on the project. Pairs worked together, collaborating on their monsters' traits, then working separately on the box and the plushie.

  • The section that spent 3 hours didn't have time to do the circuitry, and many students committed extra time outside of class to finish various tasks. To make the whole process less stressful, overall 5 classes would be more appropriate if possible. 
  • For both classes, the first session was overwhelming. They needed help with more than I anticipated—Illustrator, sewing, drawing, and planning—which made me frantic and created bottlenecks where I didn't anticipate. And many instructions I had carefully prepared were not followed, which necessitated my providing solutions when they got stuck by going too far down a wrong turn. I would consider doing the monster first, then starting the box while the monster is being stuffed. There is a rhythm to the project where students can be more independent in some places.
  • Another cause of wrong turns and bottlenecks was a general lack of understanding of the whole process. I knew why certain steps needed to be followed and explained them carefully in my handouts, but they didn't have that understanding as a basis for following them as carefully. A solution to this would be to make a video of the process showing how it all worked so they could appreciate the steps better. They could watch the video before hand. 

The Monster

Here is my monster handout. Students brought their own fabric. They snipped rectangular and square pieces and sewed these together on the sewing machine to make two 12" X 12" patchwork pieces. 
They drew an outline of their monster with a sharpie, giving generous width to its dimensions as some of its dimension would be taken up by seams. 
I snapped a photo of their outline, cropped and increased the brightness on my phone to make a good contrast for Image Trace in Illustrator, and air dropped it to my laptop. On my laptop I resized it in Preview down to about 600 px wide. I placed that in Illustrator, did an Image Trace > Expand, and removed the white with the Magic Wand. I did Object > Path > Outline Stroke, changed to no fill, black stroke, selected the inner shape stroke and deleted it. The outline had to be closed or it got messed up and I had to edit the paths a fair amount. Then I saved this as svg. This I imported to Cricut Design Space. I then cut their design from the 2 patchwork pieces they sewed together on the Cricut Maker
  • Could they have cut their own outlines? Yes, with very good fabric scissors, I think they could by pinning their outlines on their fabric like you usually would. A few did cut out their own as their outlines were simple. This part of the process was also a lot of work for me, and they needed a lot of help getting the outline drawn correctly and making patchworks that would work in the Cricut. On the other hand, it was pretty amazing watching the machine work. Next time I might have more of them cut them out and save the Cricut for the more difficult monster designs that involved more appendages, things that would be harder to cut by hand and get two matching pieces. 
Next they hand sewed their monsters, right side in, leaving a hole to stuff them with once they had turned them right side out. We used poly-fill for stuffing. Some added sewn on features which were really cute and creative, and some drew on details with markers.

The Circuit

For the circuit, here is my handout. The circuitry was the last step for those who had time—about two-thirds of them—and here I found basic knowledge of polarity and electrical shorts were sorely lacking. The circuit I modeled included 1 or 2 LEDs, a 3V 2032 battery with 3D printed holder I designed, a LilyPad sewable switch, and LilyPad steel conductive thread. The main problems they had were applying a circuit diagram with the required polarity of LEDs to their monster—as in just imagining how they would lay out the parts, avoiding shorts, sewing components tightly enough, tying knots, and paying attention to LED polarity. But most of their circuits were actually successful and really added an exciting dimension to their monsters.
This monster's left LED is reversed, so it would not light up.
But that became part of the monster's character; a defective eye!

  • Again, I think a video would help here, illustrating how a circuit diagram can be applied to the 3d shape of their monster. 
  • Students in general also need to have more experience with basic circuitry before going into any project involving electronics, as many of them did not appreciate the significance of positive and negative charged wires touching with no load for any amount of time. 
  • Some also made the mistake of choosing 2 different color LEDs that draw different amounts of current, such as red and white, resulting in only the red LED lighting up, since they are on a parallel circuit and the current will flow to the easiest route. They needed a demo of this rather than just an explanation.

The Box

Here is my box handout. First they drew their box dimensions out on a large piece of paper, showing the bottom and one side. This was so they could plan their monster dimensions and box dimensions in accordance. They then used Makercase to get their box layout svg. Once placing it in a new document with the dimensions of our laser cutter, 24in X 12in, they ungrouped and rearranged the pieces to fit on one artboard or used a second layer to separate them. The pairs had brainstormed words and phrases that would relate their monsters to themes in the text. They added these as text to the sides and top and bottom of the box pieces and formatted it to etch (black fill) or cut (no fill, red stroke, 0.001 pt). Then they did Create Outlines on all text as the PC connected to the laser would likely not have the same fonts installed (they used Macs for Illustrator). I then cut their designs and they assembled them with wood glue or plastic glue (don't have the brand right now).

  • I didn't have a model to show them and some didn't understand why their box should be short rather than a big cube. So a model will be helpful next time to show them how their monster will lay down in the box so it only needs to be 2 or 3 inches in height. 
  • A couple things to emphasize, as these pitfalls kept happening: Don't resize any box parts or the fingers won't fit! Create Outlines on all fonts! 
  • One step I included but think I can leave out, is that on the Makercase website I had them add the words "top", "bottom", "right", etc on the actual sides of the box, then delete them in Illustrator. I thought this would be helpful because the way the layout comes in to Illustrator there's no way to tell which is which. But in the end it really didn't matter as it was not crucial to their designs whether text came out on the right or left side, and the Makercase plans are such that opposing pieces are interchangeable. 

The Result

Overall the students worked really hard and produced some really fantastic monsters and their containers. I loved seeing them come up with connections between their reading and their projects and can't wait to read their written analyses. They had to justify things like the material they used for their box, the text on their box, and the appearance of their monsters, and some came up with wonderful details, like cutting the sides of their box into bars to look like a jail. And another wanted to cut a hole through their monster to give it an emptiness where the heart should be, though cutting through and sewing the edges back together proved too daunting.

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