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Learning with MaKey MaKey: Transforming Objects / Transforming Learning

With its innovative programs, services and spaces, the NCSU Libraries has long demonstrated its commitment to developing emerging literacies by giving students and faculty access to the latest technologies. Too often, however, it is only those already familiar with emerging technologies who take advantage of these opportunities. Hoping to broaden access and exposure to ideas and tools of the Maker movement, I worked with Professor Nick Taylor, a faculty member in NCSU’s Department of Communication, to develop an innovative assignment for students with no background in circuitry or engineering.

 

With its innovative programs, services and spaces, the NCSU Libraries has long demonstrated its commitment to developing emerging literacies by giving students and faculty access to the latest technologies. Too often, however, it is only those already familiar with emerging technologies who take advantage of these opportunities. Hoping to broaden access and exposure to ideas and tools of the Maker movement, I worked with Professor Nick Taylor, a faculty member in NCSU’s Department of Communication, to develop an innovative assignment for students with no background in circuitry or engineering.

How It Got Started

The Maker Movement is a large and inclusive community of do-it-yourselfers, tinkerers, and inventors who work on projects such as building their own robots, creating wearable electronic textiles, and 3D printing works of art, sharing values of openness and a love of technology. 

Libraries of all types have embraced the Maker movement and are increasingly providing access to inexpensive rapid prototyping technologies to their users. The NCSU Libraries was an early player in this field, opening a popular library Makerspace at James B. Hunt, Jr. Library in January 2013, focusing at first on 3D printing, and eventually expanding to 3D scanning, laser cutting, and simple circuitry equipment, including Arduino and MaKey MaKey kits. 

From early on, the Makerspace was used to produce a number of successful projects, such as the NC State Institute for Transportation Research and Education's 3D-printed tactile map to help blind pedestrians navigate a complex intersection. Early user surveys revealed a broad spectrum of making taking place in the library, with students and faculty using the Makerspace’s 3D printers for class assignments, student clubs, and just for fun. The user survey also revealed that the vast majority of users of the Hunt Makerspace were College of Engineering students. 

In keeping with the library’s mission to broaden access to emerging technologies, I began thinking about ways to do outreach beyond engineering disciplines to promote maker technologies. I contacted Professors Nick Taylor and David Rieder, co-founders of the Circuit Research Studio, an interdisciplinary humanities-focused research lab, to promote the Libraries' Makerspace, Technology Lending Program, and workshops.

What Happened

Following my initial outreach, Professor Taylor contacted me about the Libraries supporting a class assignment he wanted to develop for COM 250: Communications & Technology using the MaKey MaKey circuit kit. MaKey MaKey is a simple electronic circuit that allows one to transform anything that can conduct an electrical impulse (e.g. a piece of copper wire, a person, or an apple) into a physical interface for software.

For the assignment, Professor Taylor asked students to “transform an everyday object into an interface for a particular software program” using the MaKey MaKey, and then create a video “draw[ing] on course concepts and readings to reflect on what this means for our understanding of ‘communication technologies’.”

students at NCSU Libraries circuitry workshop

To support Professor Taylor’s students in this assignment, I did a classroom presentation on MaKey MaKey. I talked about how the Libraries could help students complete their assignments, from borrowing MaKey MaKeys for their projects from the library’s Technology Lending Program to attending Introduction to Arduino and MaKey MaKey workshops I taught during the semester. 

 

How It Went

This collaboration piloted a successful model for libraries working with forward-thinking faculty to co-create innovative assignments and projects around new literacies and Maker technologies.

Professor Taylor’s students demonstrated the sort of enhanced learning that is made possible by simple circuits like MaKey MaKey by building physical representations of intellectual concepts from the course. Students used the MaKey MaKey as an experimental communications medium, learning about both self-expression and electronics prototyping in novel ways.

None of the students had had previous experience working with electronics, and several of them reflected upon their feelings of empowerment and confidence having learned to express themselves in a new medium using a new tool.

MaKey MaKey Flower Piano from NCSU Libraries on Vimeo.

“Now even flowers can be considered a means of communications technology”

This student (playfully) engages with McLuhan's claim that in the future, even a flower could be a piece of communication technology.

NCSU student's makey-makey flower piano project