A Hallway MaKey MaKey Drive-by

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We now have a handful of MaKey MaKey units to be used between our Sandbox Makerspace and 7th/8th Grade Project Science. After playing around for an afternoon with them, I decided to put them someplace visible and open-ended to invite people to use them. I was looking for a combination of advertising for the makerspace, easy-entry programming task, and high-visibility play for the school. After a couple hours of experimentation, I had the Pie Plate Programming Platform: a combined demo of MaKey Makey and Scratch that had Middle School and Upper School students laughing, engaging and asking (along with the Faculty) “Are you going to leave this here for a while?”

The MaKey MaKey is a small board designed to allow you to use any conductive material as a “key” on a USB input. The examples that are usually given are fairly limited– controlling a Mario emulator, playing a Flash piano. I’ve largely dismissed the MaKey MaKey for the last year for being too limited based on the software side. While students can create gamepads out of interesting material, the device seemed to only help explore one question: Is this conductive (the pad works by completing a circuit between a ground and whatever the alligator clips are attached to)? Then I hooked it up to Scratch.

The device has multiple inputs and connections which are mapped to keyboard input. This means that in Scratch, the MaKey MaKey can give as many as 18 discrete inputs, all of which can be set to trigger different functions. Programming in Scratch is drag-and-drop, and features mostly natural language commands.

The Setup

I took 7 pie tins and taped them to the table, labeled with the four directional arrows, “a,” “s,” and “w” (three of the input choices on the board). I hooked these up to the MaKey MaKey with the alligator clips, and attached the ground to an anti-static ground wrist strap from Best Buy (Dynex, $4.00). The kit comes with an alligator clip for ground as well, but I don’t particularly like that option since I think it’s a bit clumsy and easier to accidentally disconnect.

All of this was connected to my MacBook, which I opened up to Scratch, hooked up to a TV monitor on the table, and left running. I printed some basic instructions and taped them to the wall next to the station.

Instructions: Put the wrist strap on. Touch a pie tin.

Instructions: Put the wrist strap on. Touch a pie tin.

For two days, I left it running the hallway and periodically came back to check on it. I used some longer cabling to hide my MacBook out of the way for security (I originally tried to hide it in the nearby lockers, but I couldn’t get the HDMI cable through the holes in the side).

And Now We Wait

Students were not shy about coming over to investigate. The spectacle was large enough and in a high-traffic area that people definitely saw and came to explore. Some kids immediately saw Scratch on the screen and recognized it, while many did not.

During high-traffic times (lunch, etc.) I sat back to watch and intervene when necessary. Despite the large instructions telling students how to change the program, most students required a gentle nudge to begin tinkering with the program. My goal was that Scratch would be self-explanatory to the point where students could modify the program without any prompting. But let’s face it– they didn’t read the instructions. Perhaps if I added blinking lights to the instruction board? While the original plan of “hit play and walk away” might have been a bit of a reach, the kids did get into it with minimal prompting.

Reactions

I heard lots of “this is cool!” and saw people recruiting their friends to come join them. Lots of sharing and peer-coaching took place as well: each student that I got going on the program brought at least one or two friends into the programming window as well. Teachers were pretty positive as well– some asked if this would be up “for a while,” while some others stayed and played with the tool enough to ask questions about what else could be done with it in their classes.

Interestingly, students tended to approach it without needing any context. Adults wanted to know “what’s the purpose?” There were exceptions on each side, of course, but it was interesting to see how adults wanted to know how this fit into a structured program. Kids were happy to play.

Technical Notes

A few miscellaneous notes on the operation: first, there were many times when the program wouldn’t be running. A user would touch the pie tin, but nothing would register on the computer. The MaKey MaKey has an LED indicator to show that a signal has been received, but Scratch didn’t show an input. When this happened, I just assumed that the browser was on an odd pane or not registering the input correctly. A quick click on the cat figure on the stage reset that problem.

If any of the pie tins are touching, the input circuit will obviously not respond correctly. I taped the pie tins to the table to keep them anchored, but make sure that none of the alligator clips are touching either.

I struggled with whether or not to include speakers in our setup. Scratch has a whole host of sound controls, and students wanted to use those regularly. Off a laptop in the hallway, some notes were too low to be heard clearly. Also, since the laptop was a couple feet away from the main installation for security, none of the sounds traveled particularly well. On the other hand, I didn’t want students creating a noisy program that would disrupt classes and offices nearby. For example, one student did program “Set Volume=500%, Play “Meow”, Repeat 12001 Times.” (Fortunately, computers use different rules than motivational speakers– there is nothing past 100% in Scratch-speak) In the end, I left the speakers off, but I didn’t particularly like the results, that example notwithstanding.

So What?

In the end, it was a great introduction to our Maker and Tinker lab, and got the attention of students who otherwise might not be attracted to a “programming activity.” It definitely introduced a new set of tools to students and teachers. Next, I’ll offer an after school MaKey MaKey clinic and use the pictures of this station to help advertise it. Future displays in this style will need a better/clearer/more obvious instruction method, but again the quality of the instructions may not the point: if it’s designed for kids to pick up and play, expecting them to read the directions first may be a non-starter. Future attempts should also focus on activities that are as self-explanatory as possible.

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