Chris Connors and his Scrappy Circuits

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One sunny, chilly-but-sparkling afternoon, I visited Chris Connors, who teaches computer science at MVRHS, to learn about his booth at the Martha’s Vineyard Mini Maker Faire on Saturday, May 11, at the Agricultural Hall from 10 am to 4 pm. In Connors’ classroom, I discovered that with just a handful of regular, small binder paper clips, a battery-operated LED tea candle, some cardboard cut into small rectangles, aluminum foil twisted to create electrical “wire,” and a screwdriver and something with which to cut the cardboard, you can make your very own electrical circuit just following the simple directions on makezine.com/projects/scrappy-circuits/. The steps are easy to follow, starting with taking apart that small tea light, popping out the three-volt round battery, and detaching the little light bulb with its two thin, attached metal wires. You hold each of them in place respectively with binder clips on small cardboard “bricks.” Next, you can connect the bricks together with twisted aluminum foil or, for instance, using wires from an old set of headphones. The creative part the maker can play is in inventing different kinds of switches to turn the light on and off. What you’re learning, if you are a newcomer like myself, is the difference between a conductor, which allows electricity to flow, and an insulator, which stops electricity from flowing.

Connors answered some questions while we were working away:

What is Scrappy Circuits?

The idea is that you can build a kit to learn electricity for just a few dollars per participant with inexpensive items you have around the house or can buy. It’s based largely around tea candles, which you can buy online wholesale or at the dollar store for very little money.

How did you get into creating Scrappy Circuits?

My background is in art, and I teach computer science; I’m multidisciplinary by nature. I have been working with electric circuits and programming side by side for the past 15 to 20 years. It’s a neat thing to see that you can make something work and experiment with it and make different versions of things out of a common set of materials.

Last summer, Mike Carroll and I went to Cornell University, and we worked with them to develop an education kit that had a dollar limit of $2 per participant. We came up with two different versions of it, and this one was the most successful. It’s more flexible in how to teach people how to work with electricity.

What brought you to playing around with electricity?

Basically, I like helping people be curious. And electricity is a neat system, and it’s around us all. One hundred and fifty years ago, no one really understood it. People were doing parlor tricks with it. And now, all the stuff around us is using electricity and … people still don’t understand a whole lot about it. So this is the way to address some of those misunderstandings. To build little fun things you can make yourself, and the cost of it isn’t really a barrier either.

It’s a project that has an easy on ramp with many possibilities [in how you configure your circuit]. That’s a good thing educationally. It’s easy to get in, it’s easy to try it out. Not a whole lot of understanding limitations. It’s easy to understand — yes, it makes a circuit, but then from there you could get a Ph.D. in electrical engineering or you could make artwork with it. There are lots of different directions you can go with it. A basic kit like this could lead you into physics.

At our booth at the Martha’s Vineyard Mini Maker Faire, they’ll learn how to build electric circuits and exercise their curiosity.

Martha’s Vineyard Mini Maker Faire, Saturday, May 11, 10 am to 4 pm, Agricultural Hall, West Tisbury. For more information, visit marthasvineyard.makerfaire.com.