November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Hack Your Notebook: Circuitry mixes with paper in a creative project for 21st century learners

Natalie Freed’s ocean-themed sketchbook. Photo Courtesy of NEXMAP

Natalie Freed’s ocean-themed sketchbook.
Photo Courtesy of NEXMAP

The notebook is a critical tool in so many disciplines, from writing to art to engineering. It’s used to capture an inspiration, as with an artist’s sketchbook and a journal, or prototype a schematic, as with an engineer’s notebook.

In schools, however, notebooks have often been co-opted as vehicles for assignments, not necessarily—or even usually—powered by interest and imagination.

What if we were given the opportunity to reappropriate notebooks and the creativity they can foster? It might look something like “Hack Your Notebook,” an effort to add illumination—literally—to what you write or draw with a craft called paper circuitry. Picture tiny lights mounted beneath the page of a notebook that can light up the eyes of a dragon illustration or emphasize particular words of a written phrase.

Paper circuitry lives at the intersection of technical expertise and creative expression. It leverages newly developed artifacts, such as LED light stickers, along with commonly found materials such as watch batteries and conductive copper tape. Instead of making electric circuits the way I learned to—with ceramic bulb holders, clunky nine-volt batteries, and plastic-coated wires—you create them with sleek materials that stick to paper.

Pu Gong Ying Tu (Dandelion Painting) by Jie Qi.  Photo courtesy of Jie Qi

Pu Gong Ying Tu (Dandelion Painting) by Jie Qi.
Photo courtesy of Jie Qi

These notebooks become pages with illuminated circuits overlaid by drawings, narratives, or designs—or any combination of the three. Collectively, they leverage light and give new dimensionality to creative aspirations.

No longer are you making a circuit simply to make a circuit. You’re doing it to convey a message, to realize a self-directed purpose. To hack your notebook.

At a recent professional development event in North Carolina, educators at a “making” and literacy institute were asked to illuminate an “aha!” moment in their personal notebooks. Some added light to images—of a campfire or an infographic, for instance—while others lit up text, such as the phrase “Maybe I shouldn’t talk so often.” Their palettes of words, pictures, and light represented their thinking.

The epitome of the hacked notebook may be a creation by Natalie Freed, an educator at a San Francisco high school and MIT Media Lab graduate. Freed programmed lights in her ocean-themed sketchbook that match live tidal data she pulls from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Her notebook also includes watercolors of driftwood and seashells, a poem, and tiny blue LEDs illuminating a shore. It’s a gorgeous testament to the power of creativity unleashed by curiosity and creative tools.

LED light stickers were invented by artist Jie Qi, Freed’s MIT Media Lab colleague and a leading light (pardon the pun) and pioneer in this movement. Jie’s interactive painting Pu Gong Ying Tu (Dandelion Painting) is an amazing example of paper circuitry. When viewers blow on the dandelions, their seeds, dots of light, disperse (see clip below).

Notebook hacking with students

Inspired by Jie Qi, Bay Area educator and program developer David Cole; NEXMAP, an organization dedicated to experimental art; and the National Writing Project (NWP), supporting teachers of writing (where I work), got together. We are bringing paper circuitry and notebook hacking to schools, libraries, and museums. With links to an open Google+ community, the NEXMAP site engages with Freed and others to explore their ideas further.

Through our efforts such as a “Hack Your Notebook Day” in July, educators and young people from across the country have made their own creations. Watching works by young people unfold, we’ve witnessed the intersection of literacy, learning, and making.

Molly Adams, a NWP high school English teacher outside of Dallas, used paper circuitry with her students during a unit on the symbolism of light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Her students crafted light creations alongside reflective writing. They produced a 1920s-era car out of wood that lit up to represent death; an eerie, light-strewn wedding cake; and a broken Coney Island roller coaster, among other objects.

Along with such sculpture-like projects, students elsewhere developed cards that lit up and illuminated comic strips.

Interested in paper circuitry?

You’ll find the resources you need at NEXMAP

• Materials lists and places to purchase items like copper tape and LED stickers

• Step-by-step video demos

• Animated gif tutorials

• Downloadable PDF notebook templates that provide working spaces and context for the work, including connections to Common Core State Standards

For more support from notebook hacking colleagues (who are also helpful sounding boards), join the 21st Century Notebooking Google Group.

Instilling “grit”

Notebook hacking engenders persistence, or what these days has popularly been called “grit.” Without fail, at an event or professional development session, if someone hasn’t quite completed their circuit or resulting creation in the allotted time, they stay to finish. Never mind that the next session may be about to begin. They want to realize their vision.

As with writing, paper circuitry invariably involves failed attempts that lead to new iterations based on greater understanding of what might work—prototyping and revision. This, in turn, leads to shout-out-loud, “I did it!” moments.

Those engaged in notebook hacking tend to see the cross-disciplinary connections among science, technology (even engineering), language arts, and creativity. Many an English teacher from the NWP has admitted to “not being good” at science prior to completing a complex circuit work.

“I liked that it made me think bigger than the classroom,” one of Adams’s students wrote about her Gatsby project. “What I learned is a) cool and b) actually applicable. I feel like we get too wrapped up in one subject at school…so this was a nice change.”

When young people are asked to be designers and systems thinkers, they must understand the systemic nature of a circuit as well as their conceptual “system”: the interplay among text, art, and technology.

To learn more, check out our archive of Hack Your Notebook Day activities and take a look at the terrific educator resources, including video tutorials, downloadable templates, and places to buy needed materials at NEXMAP.

Start hacking your own notebook—and experience, as Cole calls it, your own lightbulb moment.

Paul Oh is a senior associate at the National Writing Project.

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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Comments

  1. Bro AJK says:

    Thank you for this very cool idea!