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Starts With A Bang

Weekend Diversion: Draw Your Own Circuits

Tired of wires, breadboards and the traditional electrical mess? Try drawing your electrical path instead!

“Drawing is not only a way to come up with pictures: drawing is a way to educate your eye to understand visual information, organizing it into a more hierarchical way, a more economical way. When you see something, if you draw often and frequently, you examine a room very differently.” –Vik Muniz

Whenever someone’s first exposed to the inner workings of electricity, it feels a bit like magic. By connecting two ends of a power source to a machine, a light bulb, a resistor or other apparatus, you can suddenly turn it on, giving a kind of mechanical life to something that was previously altogether inanimate. Have a listen to Forest City Lovers as they sing about a different kind of electrification in their song, Light You Up,

While you consider the mess than circuit-building normally is.

Image credit: Randofo of Instructables, via

This entire process presented a set of the greatest challenges for me when I was both learning experimental physics initially and teaching it to students:

  • keeping your wiring straight,
  • making sure everything was hooked up the way you wanted it hooked up,
  • making sure no wires were inserted incorrectly,
  • and testing to ensure that all of your connections were good.

It was often maddening, that you could draw out a circuit diagram perfectly and easily, and yet when it came time to physically wire it up, everything went to hell-in-a-handbasket in short order.

Image credit: © Michael Richmond at RIT, via

If only there were better way, particularly for simple circuits, to electrify them than either tying wires together or using those heinous and complex breadboards that are never wired as simply or straightforwardly as you want.

Image credit: Circuit Scribe’s website, via

Well, that was exactly the idea behind Circuit Scribe, a company that developed a silver, conductive pen whose ink works just as well as any ball-point pen, and allows you to construct your own circuits simply by drawing them the same way you’d draw on anything from a piece of paper to a photograph to a napkin.

Image credit: Circuit Scribe’s Kickstarter, via

Once you’ve got that down, if you’ve got any sort of curiosity inside of you, you’ll want to know what you can make out of a circuit like this. Circuit Scribe has gone and put together some fantastic educational kits, complete with resistors, LEDs, switches, potentiometers, buzzers, and even transistors.

Image credit: Circuit Scribe’s Maker Kit, via

What I’m very excited about, too, is that they have educational workbooks, classroom kits and teacher materials designed to use this as an aid in classrooms. Best of all, it’s suitable — depending on the teacher and the lessons they’ve designed — for any age range from upper elementary school all the way through high school, depending on the level of your kids.

I’d highly recommend one of the smaller kits for parents who homeschool their kids, also, since you can get an individual kit as a standalone, complete with workbooks and a whole slew of equipment.

Image credit: Circuit Scribe’s kits page, via

The most advanced (developer) kit also comes fully compatible with higher-tech applications, including breadboards, Makey Makey and Arduino, so you can have quite a nice segue from beginning circuit-building into whatever you choose should come next.

One of the more remarkable things about Circuit Scribe is that it started out as a Kickstarter, and was such a success that it’s not only its own company now, but it’s thriving, and many of the kits (including just the pen as a standalone) are available on Amazon.

Image credit: Circuit Scribe’s Kickstarter, via

I also really enjoy that most kits come with a magnetic sheet, so that students (or anyone) can more easily apply their electronics to one side of a sheet of paper and use it to complement whatever’s on the other side. Very clever!

The company they’ve spawned is now known as Electroninks, and they’ve put together a nice, quick intro to the Circuit Scribe concept.

For full disclosure, I haven’t received anything from Circuit Scribe or Electroninks, but I’m married to an electrician and I’m still a below-average circuit builder for a physics professor. This product has a pretty remarkable story, too, coming from a fun conductive ink developed just four years ago from research at UIUC; it sure didn’t take long to make it into a fantastic educational application!

I hope this tickles your fancy, and if you know of anyone who needs a great project for a curious kid of any age, consider teaching them how to take advantage of the wonders of electricity for themselves. You never know what creativity it might inspire in them!

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