Soft Circuits Reloaded

I had the opportunity to help with another amazing ChickTech event. This was a six hour soft-circuit workshop for high school girls and was held at Portland Community College's Sylvania Campus. The goal was to have them do something fun and creative while sneaking in some computer programming and electrical theory. I created several example projects based on Leah Buechley's new book Sew Electric and using her LilyPad USB Arduino board. There was a stuffed monster who played music and flashed an LED when his hands were touched. The second project was a playable felt piano.
Photos courtesy of

Six hours may seem like a long time to work on a project, but time flies when you are having fun and lunch was provided. The first order of business was connecting the LilyPad to a computer and learning how to upload code to it. There is an on-board LED you can flash in patterns without adding any circuity.

My Example Template

The next job is deciding on the project. My examples were just to show the possibilities. The girls were free to come up with their own designs. Having an internet connected computer and Google helped with inspiration. Project ideas ranged from a floral arrangement with blinking LEDs (my favorite) to an Opera singer whose dress would play different tones when touched.

To really round out the experience, we included some soldering. I used OSHPark's service to created some inexpensive, small "break-out" boards that allowed them to solder the LEDs, photo cells, or speakers to PCB boards containing large eyelets to enable sewing them into the circuit using conductive thread. They proved their worth in making quick, reliable connections, something that has been a problem using other techniques.

In the introduction, I told the girls that they were going to get frustrated at some point during the day and that they were going to have to have faith that:

  1. The problem would be because of a logical, discoverable reason, and that ...
  2. If they had patience and were persistent, they could discover and solve the problem. 
I had many opportunities to demonstrate those principles as we worked through troubleshooting their various circuits. I think a project like this is one part creativity, one part engineering, one part programming, and one part troubleshooting. The girls brought plenty of creativity. Hopefully they picked up a little of rest as the day wore on.

These events never go quite as planned or expected, but in all, I thought it went well. I was amazed at their creativity and how quickly they picked up the new skills. There were lots of smiles and I even got a high-five for soldering four LEDs together for an "epic" heart. Everyone had fun and went home with a working programmable circuit. They also went home with knowledge and confidence to reprogram the hardware to do something else for their next project. The next project always comes out better than the first, just like this workshop was far better that my last. Based on what these ladies came up with this time around, their next one should be spectacular!


  1. Sounds like fun. Do you try these projects out on your girls first?

    1. None of them really have caught the "bug". I mainly use my library Teen Maker group and Arduino Group at work to bounce ideas and projects around.

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