Circuit Scribes (Guest Post)

Guest post, Reviews
I put my husband, David Hrycewicz, in charge of Circuit Scribes during last weeks Students Involved with Technology conference. I had purchased these kits from a Kickstarter campaign.  When the kit came, I sort of freaked out and didn’t know what to do with them.  I was able once or twice to complete the circuit, but would I be able to do with kids?  I doubted myself.  I put off opening the kit and sharing it with kids and then the conference opportunity fell in our laps.  Dave was great with the kids.  He doesn’t normally work with kids, although he’s done a lot of training.  Listed below is his review.  

Robot Basics:
• What is it?

Circuit Scribe is a nice tool to give students experience with basics of electric and electronic circuits. The base kit provides just enough components to demonstrate basic circuits and controls; additional modules can be purchased to do more advanced circuit functions as well as creative/inventive-type projects. The basic kit also comes with a users guide.

• What’s in the Box?

The base kit we used contained one battery module, two LED modules, one switch module, one resistor plug-in module, one transistor module, and one conductive ink pen. Circuits are drawn on a sheet of paper; a template helps with design and layouts of the circuits. When complete – the paper is placed on a covered metal sheet which enables the magnets of the circuit components “lock” down onto the “wires” drawn on the sheet of paper.

• How Much?

$59.99

• Age Range?

Advertised as ages 13 and up.

• How Did We Acquire it?

Purchased with library funds.

Ideas for Use

My recommendation for an initial set of projects would be as follows:
– Explain concept of electric circuit
– Demonstrate battery connected via two “wires” to LED
– Demonstrate battery connected via two “wires” to two LEDs in parallel
– Demonstrate use of single-throw/single-pole switch to control power to one LED
– Demonstrate use of two LEDs connected to battery in series
I don’t recommend use of the advanced components of the base kit (transistor, resistors, and capacitors) except under direct/advanced supervision with a proper test plan. My reasoning is simple. First, some of the components (resistors, capacitors) are small and loose – and are likely to get lost. Second, their use is not intuitive and some advanced knowledge is required to demonstrate their proper use. Is it reasonable to expect that, for our example, library staff hold this expertise? Probably not. Is it reasonable for younger library patrons to be able to use these components on their own? Probably not.

Time Involved

I recommend that the first time leader/teacher spend at least an hour on their own familiarizing themselves with the Circuit Scribe concepts, components, and basic use. I also recommend that they take the time to run through the experiments ahead of time to have a working prototype that can be demonstrated to students. There are a couple of reasons for this, as I will further explain in the review/comments section. One is that the conductive ink can be somewhat finicky, another is that the ink is rather expensive.
For actual instructional/demo use – I would allot a minimum of 10-15 minutes of time per student/group of students to develop a basic circuit consisting of the battery, two “wires”, and one LED light module. Additional time can be allotted to accommodate more advanced experiments.

One-time or Recurring Program

Circuit Scribe is intended to be a multi-use tool. With some exceptions, the components appear to be well designed and should provide a long service life.

Skills You Need

A basic understanding of circuits.

Other Tools You Need

A cheap electronic multi-meter would be a useful tool for “debugging” drawn “wires” that do not appear to work. One uses this to verify its ability to conduct electricity.

Good Stuff

I liked the idea of the conductive ink. I liked how some of the component modules were packaged in an easy-to-use component.

This Vine video shows some of the good stuff.  She wrote out “Brightly Shine” with conductive ink. Indeed.

Garrett doodled and Jack wrote Hello World (Java anyone?).

Frustrations

I found the ink pen to be frustrating to use. It didn’t always draw clear, crisp lines.
Even after following the hints/tips provided by the vendor I still found the ink to be problematic.
I also thought that the resistor/capacitor module was not well designed.

As delivered – one uses the component in a circuit and then manually plugs in the desired resistor(s)/capacitor to do what the circuit calls for. I thought this design was cumbersome – almost to the point of being an afterthought. A better approach might be to incorporate the discrete component into its own module. To demonstrate use of multiple resistors – the component modules might be designed to be “stackable” – applying the resistance in parallel.

Ending Thoughts/Observations

As a kid growing up during the Nixon/Ford era – I had my share of experiences with the electronics kits of the era – sets by Heathkit, Tandy, Lafayette, and others, along with the build-it-yourself kits that made transistor radios and other useful things. These typically had lots of wires, discrete electronic components (“cool, dad – it’s a transistor – what’s a transistor?”), some use of soldering guns (or not, depending on whether parents are accepting of solder burns on dining room tables) – and usually very little in the way of useful learning opportunity. More often than not – components would be irreparably damaged due to misuse before any practical experiment using them could be completed.
So – some things have changed considerably over the past 30-40 years and some things have stayed pretty much the same. Electric/electronic circuit basics haven’t really changed much – and it’s good to see that Circuit Scribe embraces these while it also embraces newer components such as light emitting diodes (LEDs) and more.
Each new generation of electronic kit has refined the usefulness of components, typically through modularization to make the pieces more “plug-n-play” easy and Circuit Scribe is no exception.
What sets Circuit Scribe apart from its peers is that the “wires” which connect the various components together – thus completing the circuit – are drawn freehand on paper using special conductive ink pens. This has a natural “hands-on” appeal for kids that want to draw and make their drawings “do something.”

A project as simple as connecting a battery to an LED actually generated two bright lights – one on the LED itself, and one on the child’s face when they realize that the wires they “drew” actually worked!
We had some problems using the supplied conductive ink pens. First, students tended to use them as they might a regular pen – with downward pressure that generates a narrow line of ink. Second, we used a hard surface for drawing and design – in hindsight, a softer surface might have worked better but our lab environment did not allow for this. Third, the pens seemed to empty fairly quickly – causing problems for a couple of students attempting to draw circuits. Fourth, all of the students required “debugging” time whereby they’d draw a circuit and then we’d spend time inspecting their result to look for flaws which might result in breaks of electric current and thus an open circuit. In some cases – students were able to quickly remedy faults and achieve success; in other cases – they became frustrated when they couldn’t fix things and see success.

Another problem was the natural tendency for students to “doodle” while trying to draw circuits. In some cases – this was a success – mixing creativity with success, while in other cases it was a failure – using the expensive pen as a doodling tool without understanding what was needed. One option might be to first have the student draw their circuits on regular paper with normal ink to gain “approval” prior to making the commitment using the conductive ink pen.
A “hindsight is 20/20” thought – having an electric multimeter tester available might be handy for testing how well student’s lines are drawn – by demonstrating whether they’ll hold an electric current or not.
There are a number of web pages that provide information for making one’s own conductive ink. However tempting this might be – one has to carefully consider all potential ramifications of doing so – especially from a safety point of view.

I tried a low-tech substitute – a high-quality old fashioned graphite lead pencil – without success. Graphite is a conductor of electricity – perhaps not as good as a metal or even the conductive ink provided by Circuit Scribe. But it’s proven technology – and it’s readily available. A good experiment might be to draw a line using Circuit Scribe’s ink and a graphite pencil and test each with a multimeter to find out how close/disparate each is in terms of electric conductivity.

Don’t get me wrong – I think that what the Circuit Scribe folks have done is marvelous. However, from a repeatable project perspective – use of the Circuit Scribe ink is for all intents and purposes unsustainable from a cost perspective (when each pen costs nearly $20USD).

Overall Rating:

I would give it a C+. The ink gets both high and low points for its uniqueness and cost/effectiveness. And I think the resistor/capacitor components could have been done better to make them more ‘foolproof.’

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