A new tool opens up a variety of creative possibilities for students

makey-makeyTell me if this sounds familiar…

You want to increase student buy-in on a project by designing a challenge with a connection to the “real world.” You want your students to see their work as authentic and not just an academic exercise, but as you brainstorm project ideas with your students, you quickly realize that the things they view as “real” projects require background knowledge that is far beyond their current skills.

When your sixth grade student tells you she wants to create new type of video game controller so that her disabled brother can play video games with her, you might consider all of the concepts of electronics that would have to go into such an invention. You might think about the need to program a microcontroller or concepts such as digital logic or serial communication. You would then feel torn between telling this student to abandon an incredibly motivating, personally engaging project, or encouraging her to press on, knowing that she will almost certainly flounder for weeks before giving up in frustration.

The challenge for many teachers is that there is a gap between the types of real problems that allow students to find authenticity in their learning and the background knowledge and competence required to engage in solving those problems. It reminds me of all the “science labs” I used to do as a student. If we were following a prescribed set of steps toward a predetermined outcome, these labs felt more like a cooking class than real scientific work. But the reason for this was that none of us had enough scientific knowledge to cure a disease or discover a new molecule.

It is precisely this problem that Jay Silver and Eric Rosenbaum of the MIT Media Lab have solved with their invention, the MaKey MaKey.

(Next page: The MaKey MaKey’s potential)

The MaKey MaKey is a microcontroller about the size of a credit card. By connecting wires to various input points on the board and selectively connecting them to an electrical ground, a student can send digital signals to the board. These signals are then interpreted by the board and sent to a computer as keyboard commands through a USB cable. It requires no software or drivers of any kind. Like a keyboard, it plugs into the USB port and works. So at its most basic level, the MaKey MaKey becomes a keyboard with only six keys: up, down, right, left, enter, and spacebar.

This may seem like a step backward to some. I mean, most of us already have a keyboard that can do a lot more than that. The potential for MaKey MaKey, however, lies in the fact that students can design a computer input device that is not limited to use by one’s fingers. They can invest all their creative energy inventing new ways for people to interact with computers. More importantly, they can do this in a few minutes, with little or no experience in electronics.

A keystroke is triggered when an electrical circuit is completed, and students can use any conductive material to complete these circuits including foil, food, or Play Doh. When you combine the programming language Scratch with a MaKey MaKey, and an open-ended challenge to a student’s creative abilities, it’s easy to imagine the myriad fun, innovative, and (most importantly) authentic project possibilities.

The introductory video on the MaKey MaKey site demonstrates several innovative creations, such as a digital keyboard made of bananas or an interface to Dance Dance Revolution that substitutes buckets of water for the foot pads. These examples help students conceptualize what is possible and prepare students to tackle any number of creative projects grounded in design thinking.

Armed with a MaKey MaKey, my hypothetical sixth grader can absolutely design a video game controller for her disabled brother. She can experiment with a variety of different designs and materials without the fear that her limited knowledge of electronics might have her simply stabbing in the dark or headed down a dead-end path.

This low barrier to entry coupled with the expandability of additional ports and programming create what seems to be the perfect amount of scaffolding for nearly any student to get started. The metaphorical training wheels can be removed for students who are ready, and all students can engage in truly authentic projects that would have been otherwise completely out of their reach.

Trevor Shaw has worked as an ed-tech leader, speaker, writer, consultant, and classroom teacher for over 20 years. He is currently the director of technology at the Dwight-Englewood School and can be reached at @shawt, +TrevorShaw, and shawt@d-e.org.