Saturday, May 07, 2016

LilyPad Arduino In the Classroom: Interactive Shirts

Last summer as a participant in the Constructing Modern Knowledge conference I had the opportunity to develop a project with the LilyPad Arduino (and meet Leah Buechley!). I worked with a wonderful group of educators to prototype a hat that lets you know with LEDs when you should apply sunscreen. I had only prototyped circuits with the LilyPad before, never actually sewing one into a project, so one big thing I learned during that project is that embedding the components into fabric involves as much problem solving and time as programming and prototyping the circuit.

I brought the LilyPad into the classroom in a collaboration with a science teacher. We designed a unit in which the students learned about benefits and dangers of different micronutrients in 8th grade science class while in technology class they learned about circuits, developed graphics, and integrated electronics into educational shirts. One thing I should say about how this project proceeded is LilyPad projects can be designed to be washable (as long as you remove the battery) and long-lasting. But for this project we decided to tape down rather than sew the conductive thread because sewing them was really hard for the students and because the thread would look too conspicuous poking through the white shirts we used for the project.

Learning Circuitry

LilyPad circuits can get complicated. Before getting into that I wanted to review basic electronic circuits. My students had learned about them before but I wanted to kick it up a notch by introducing the breadboard. I gave them materials and this handout and they spent one class period making LEDs light up and adding switches. They learned about the importance of the resistor by burning out a few LEDs (I had given them 9V batteries that did the job quickly).

Getting To Know The LilyPad

Next, to relate directly to the circuits they just made, I wanted them to see how the LilyPad's + and - pins can provide constant power to any component you connect. They tried out connecting LEDs and the buzzer using alligator clip wires. They learned that while this could turn something on they would not be able to control it beyond that without programming. They also learned that there was not enough power to light LEDs in series. I walked them through two programming activities with this handout. We used for the Arduino programming, which worked great with their Chromebooks. Following the handout they were able to control an LED with a light sensor and a motor with a button.

Shirt Design, Circuitry, Programming, and Embedding

Now it was time to apply that knowledge to making something. The student groups chose a micronutrient from a list provided by the science teacher and used Pixlr to create graphics that illustrated the point they wanted to make about their micronutrient. 
I printed their graphics with an Inkjet printer on Avery Iron-on Fabric Transfer paper and they ironed their graphics on white cotton T-shirts. They used this handout to plan their circuit, drawing what would need to connect to what.
Peeling away the transfer paper
Then they created their circuit using alligator clip wires--lots of them! For 14 total shirts I think I needed about 130 of them. The final step, embedding the circuitry, takes some careful planning. I made sure their circuit diagram was correctly drawn and had them use that and their working alligator clipped circuit to plan out their shirt layout on the inside of the shirt.
Draw the connections on the
inside of the shirt
They used pencil to trace the LilyPad components, label the connections, and draw lines between them. Then they used white, non-conductive thread to sew the components on the shirt, makign sure the LEDs were facing the
They tied the conductive thread to each connection, taping it
down with masking tape. The masking tape made it much easier to plan out the connections as threads could overlap without causing short circuits with the tape as an insulator.

The Final Product

After a lot of work, and sometimes re-work, the students are very proud of their shirts. Here they are. Now that they are working I have been arranging presentations to different grades so their messages and medium can be appreciated and used. 

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