Circuit Stickers, Notebook Hacking and Learning as Debugging

I’ve been writing for 45 years, and have always owned more physical notebooks than I need at any one time, and I’m an enthusiastic novice at electronics, so several of my antennae tingled vigorously when I first came across the term “circuit stickers” — peel-and-stick circuitry and components that are flat enough to make paper pages blink and boop. We’re used to thinking of words as, well, dead — they signify but (in most cases) don’t perform. Documents didn’t connect with each other through clickable links before the Web, either. Why NOT compose writing with light and sound as well as form and meaning? Calligraphy is legit, so why not writing that blinks, changes colors or makes sounds when you touch it? How about an Internet-linked notebook that displays beautiful seascapes in colored light that correspond with the current state of the tides?

Embracing new tools sometimes means discarding older tools and sometimes amplifies capabilities of existing technologies and sometimes brings the capability of doing things that weren’t possible before. I started out with a pen (and still use them), learned to operate a typewriter (which I discarded decades ago), and welcomed the new world of on-screen text editing (in fact, I started getting interest in personal computers when I heard that it would be possible to move words and paragraphs around without retyping). Hypertext? Even better! For those who want to check my sources or dive more deeply into the subjects I write about, I can embed links in my prose. Writing with ink on paper and publishing hypertext are both tools that I use every day. When I heard that the National Writing Project was using circuit stickers for “Hack Your Notebook Day,” that cinched it. I sent away for my starter kit.

When I asked the National Writing Project’s Paul Oh to introduce someone I could interview about notebook hacking, he put me in touch with David Cole, who lives close enough to me to go on a long walk and to sit down at my electronics bench with me. Like Jie Qui, the MIT Media Lab student who launched circuit stickers, Mia Zamora, the literature and writing professor who recently wrote about how notebook hacking enhances “writing as making,” and Nexmap’s “21st Century Notebooking” program director Jennifer Dick, San Francisco educator and curriculum developer David Cole knows that notebook hacking is not just about learning electronics. It’s about learning learning.

So much of learning is trial and error, yet the test-driven and grades-competitive curriculum seems to leave little room for the error part. Failing is shameful in many school situations — not an opportunity for inquiry and debugging. One of the first things to learn about electronics (and programming) is that things rarely work as soon as you’ve assembled the components and hooked them together. You usually have to go through an investigative debugging process to find out which wire isn’t connected correctly or which component is probably a dud. It’s not about failure. It’s about the process of getting it to work.  Debugging is essential to learning as well as circuitry.

Collaboration also is an essential part of hardware and software tinkering — and learning — today. If you are trying to solve a problem with a circuit or a program, you can find out who is discussing that precise problem online if you know how to look for them. For now, while paper circuitry is still new, the space for innovation in the medium is broad and inviting: tinkerers share their discoveries online, others build on them, and communities emerge. Inquiry is also built into these early stages of this new literacy: “What else can I do with circuit stickers and paper books?” is a wide open and generative question that can spread infectiously through groups of learners.

Lou Buran, one of the educators in the “Hack Your Notebook” seminar at the 2013 National Writing Project conference in Boston, asked his students to reflect on their making and learning. He also tried it out with his two boys:

A great thing about this project is that the boys did not require my help to find success. Both the 6- and the 10-year-olds were perfectly capable of design, implementation, and troubleshooting. Noah patiently worked on a bug for 15 minutes until he discovered that by turning the battery over, he could get his circuit to work. This led to a conversation about what he learned regarding polarity and the flow of electricity.

The connection between debugging a project and understanding the principles it is based on, and the conversation about it, are what project-based learning at its best can stimulate.

As always with new media, the first examples of notebook hacking point the way to possibilities, trace the outlines of the possibility space, but the extent of possibility only becomes visible after communities of practitioners play and work with the medium. One example that certainly retingled my antenna was Natalie Freed’s wi-fi connected tidal notebook:

Natalie begins with a hand-drawn map of Northern California tide pools done in watercolor—an especially appropriate medium, given the subject! This is followed by a poem about tides by Walt Whitman. She then explored different artistic media to test their hues and visual quality on her notebook’s paper. She made a list of questions she had on the topic of tide pools. She created a number of thumbnail storyboard sketches exploring possible visual compositions for her tidal data visualization. This was followed with technical notes about the SparkCore, what the different status color codes on the chip meant. Finally, she painted her tidal image and created the paper circuit underneath using Jie’s LED circuit stickers.

Banner images courtesy NEXMAP