May 25, 2017

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SLJ Reviews the MaKey MaKey | Test Drive

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SLJ1504-TK-Makey_Bannanas

The Arduino kit makes a game of learning. Banana pianos are just a start.

“We just played a song on our sandwich!” “I made a Minecraft controller out of Playdough!” “Did you know you can control your computer with a book with this?!” Few pieces of hardware spark as many oohs, ahs, and epiphanies right out of the box as the MaKey MaKey does. Disguised as a slightly out-of-date video game controller (think 8-bit nostalgia), the MaKey MaKey ($49.95, makeymakey.com) delivers playful, tactile, and delightful lessons in basic circuitry, conductivity, and design.

MaKey-what?

The MaKey MaKey itself is a stylized, open-source hardware micro-controller built off of the Arduino platform. Each kit ships with a MaKey MaKey board and two bundles of wires. The wires in the first bundle end in alligator clips, which attach to the top of the board, while the wires in the second bundle end in normal points that plug into the pins on the underside of the board.

Here’s how it works. You connect the MaKey MaKey to your computer with a USB cord. Then you clip your alligator-pin wires to spots on the board labeled with input names—up, down, right, left, space, and click—that correspond to keys on your keyboard or buttons on your mouse. Then you clip at least one more wire to the “earth” bar at the bottom of the MaKey MaKey, and you’re good to go. So long as you connect one of your input wires to your earth wire through any kind of conductive material, the MaKey MaKey will tell your computer to “press” that button. Connect the “space” wire to the “earth” wire, and your computer will “press” the space key.

What does “any kind of conductive material” mean? It means exactly that. Two people holding two wires—say the mouse click wire and an earth wire—can high-five each other to play a note on a virtual keyboard. You can hold an earth wire and tap a banana or glob of salt dough with another wire jammed into it and achieve the same result. So long as the MaKey MaKey’s teensy voltage can travel from the board, through its wires, across a conductive medium, and then back to the board again, whatever keyboard command you trigger will execute.

While the top of the board features universally handy keyboard commands, the underside has pins for more specialized controls. For example, if you want to use WASD (the standard configuration of arrow keys) to move a character in a game instead of the arrow keys, you can connect normal wires to pins for those keys under the board. You can also connect wires to pins that let you scroll up and down a page or move your mouse. There are a small number of extra earth pins beneath the board, as well as a set of output pins you can use as a kind of tiny Arduino board to manipulate an LED or two at a time—or to control some other element, like a buzzer.

SLJ1504-TK-MaKeyMarioSLJ1504-TK-MakeyScoreIn fact, while the MaKey MaKey ships pre-programmed to act as an external output device for your computer, you can re-program its pins with Arduino software for different functionality should the need arise (makeymakey.com/remap)—but, really, it would be a shame to spoil MaKey MaKey’s fun.

A helpfully illustrated, black-and-white quick-start guide also comes with each kit and shows you how to connect the MaKey MaKey to your computer. It also suggests a few fun beginner projects such as the “banana bongos” and “fist-bump remote control.” The instructions link you to an online start-up guide, including several online toys (such as virtual pianos and drum kits) that let you test out your MaKey MaKey’s functionality.

What does it teach?

Out of the box, the MaKey MaKey creates highly interactive, 3-D models of circuits that help kids map the flow of electricity and test materials’ conductivity in really concrete ways. It’s a very user-friendly and intuitive inquiry tool for budding materials scientists. More than that, it’s an invitation to extend learning across content areas and to help kids get interested in the kinds of industrial design that make computer interfaces accessible, attractive, and effective for their users.

For example, an educator might introduce MaKey MaKey to class with some free play or a “mystery powder”-like activity through which learners find out which materials available for a project make the best conductors. Then the educator might help kids use Scratch or another digital storytelling medium to create an animation or game about a class concept like basic two-dimensional shapes.

After completing their digital stories, kids could then use MaKey MaKey boards along with cardboard, glue, or tape, and some kind of conductor (like salt dough or aluminum foil) to create controllers wired to their computers through their MaKey MaKeys. One controller might use a button in the shape of a triangle to trigger, say, the up arrow on the keyboard, which could then be the command programmed inside a story or game about shapes to draw a new triangle on the screen. Working like this to extend key concepts from class asks learners to consider how they can design holistic learning experiences that connect what’s happening on their screens to the physical cues built into their controllers. Asking students to create something like a digital story, as well as an input to control it, lets themes summarize content, model it physically and in code, all at the same time, so to speak. This depth is scalable to students’ understandings and represents a very self-evident kind of rigor embodied in multi-modal performance assessment.

Combining essential content knowledge with digital communications skills through an interactive, intuitive, craftable, and expandable piece of ed tech like the MaKey MaKey is something we should do more often in our pursuit of meaningful technology integration in schools.

There is really little to bemoan here. MaKey MaKey, quite literally, puts technology in our kids’ hands and invites them to make something from it. It can take time to figure out how to work a MaKey MaKey into class, but once you do, the returns on learning are ones you can hear, see, and touch.

Favorite MaKey-MaKey Makes

• Christian McKay’s “Digitally Interfaced Book.” Combines handmade books, MaKey MaKeys, and Scratch.

• Eric Rosenbaum’s “MaKey MaKey Music Examples.” A diverse set of creative instrument makes on YouTube.

• From Chad Sansing’s classroom, “Minecraft Controller” on Instructables. How to make your own arcade cabinet for a new video game classic.

• MakerJawn’s”‘oneKey” How to build your own DIY MaKey Makey on GitHub

• MakerJawn’s “Magnetic Mazes” interconnects a table-top maze with its digital double programmed in Scratch.

Chad Sansing (csansing@gmail.com) teaches middle school language arts in Staunton, VA.

This article was published in School Library Journal's April 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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