Introduction: Makey Makey in the Classroom

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This is part of a series of Instructables intended for teachers about educating students in the classroom around making and tinkering. For more about the details of this project, check out our blog.

Makey Makey is an incredibly fun and innovative tool for teaching kids about conductivity and electric circuits. It is very easy to set up and play with, while also being incredibly versatile and encourages experimentation and play. Makey Makey was developed by students at MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten and funded through Kickstarter.

While this Instructable will focus on using Makey Makey to create a controller for playing video games, there are many other uses and all sorts of creative devices that it can be utilized in to interact with a computer - as you read this Instructable, think of what you might create on your own!

Step 1: Materials Needed

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You don't need much to make this activity work, but it's helpful to have a variety of items on hand.

  • Makey Makey Kit - comes with 7 alligator clips, Makey Makey board, USB cable, jumper wires, and instructions
  • Conductive materials - anything conductive will work, really. I like the following:
    • Bananas (though celery is a better option that gets less gross)
    • Copper tape - if it's an option, get the conductive adhesive version
    • Graphite - I got artist's pencils type 6B, but No. 2 pencils work okay too
    • Aluminum foil
    • Play-Doh - homemade or store bought both work
    • A friend or classmate (more on that later)
  • Insulators like paper, cardboard, masking tape, etc.
  • A computer with a USB port and working internet connection or Scratch installed and no internet. Platform doesn't matter really, Chromebooks or Macs or PCs all work fine.
  • Optional: ESD grounding bracelet to attach to your wrist for the ground connection. This frees up both hands for your controller. You can purchase one of these or simply make your own with an alligator test lead and some aluminum foil.

Step 2: Hook Up the Makey Makey and Test

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Before going full tilt on making a controller, it's helpful to hook everything up and test it out to see if it will work. Simply plug in the USB cable to an available port on your computer, and plug the other end into the Makey Makey. These use the drivers for generic keyboards and mice, so there are no programs to install or anything. On a Mac you may get a message that a new device was discovered, I just click OK on it and it all works. If you have issues with connectivity, see the Makey Makey quick start guide for details but in my experience there has not ever been a computer I've hooked one up to and had it not work right away - even a computer that hasn't been connected to the internet for updates since 2011!

Go to the Makey Makey Apps website and pick something simple like Bongos. You can either hook up test leads to each of the directions and keys (Up, Down, Left, Right, Space, Click) or just press them with your fingers. Here's where the circuitry comes in - the bar on the bottom of the board is the Earth (Ground) Bar. To complete a circuit for the Makey Makey to register a key press, you have to connect one of the keys indicated above to the ground bar. So, hold the ground bar and just touch the Left button or Space with the Bongos app, and it will play one of those two sounds. Yay, everything is working right!

How Makey Makey works is rather simple - the board is sending out a small amount of electricity on the different keys, and when the circuit is completed between that key and the ground bar, it tells the computer that that is a key press. The beauty of the design is that you can use anything conductive to achieve this - bananas, play-doh, metal, etc. Even another person can be one of the buttons on your keyboard - high fives are a great way to do this, with one person holding a lead attached to a key, and the other holding a lead attached to the ground bar.

Additionally, I've yet to find the upper limit of how many people the signal will travel through. A great activity to do with a large class is to get them all to stand in a circle and hold hands. One person on one end of the circle touches a key, and on the other end the person touches the ground board. The most I've done is 32 people, and everything still worked fine! In this scenario, the electricity travels through each person to complete the circuit.

Step 3: Make a Controller and Get Playing!

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Now it's time for the real fun - making your own controller for a game. All of the games on the Makey Makey Apps site are kid-friendly and optimized for the Makey Makey, but I've found others that are great such as Dance Dance Revolution, Mario Brothers and Pac-Man.

I recommend mounting your controller on a piece of paper or cardboard. This is especially important if you are working on a metal surface so you don't get a short circuit. Having a few cardboard boxes on hand is a great way to add some variety to this activity - instead of a 2D mounted controller, make one that is 3D!

It's also helpful to label which items press which key, as it's hard to remember if you're in the middle of an intense game of Pac-Man if the banana is up or down, or if your car keys are left or right.

The possibilities of controller design are endless, so don't prime the students to make one exactly like the one shown above. It can be a hat, a box that has a metal ball rolling around in it, etc.

If things are not working, it's likely that one of the test leads has come loose either on the Makey Makey or on the conductor that you've attached it too. Also, it's important to remember that you are completing the circuit, not just pressing the button on the Makey Makey, so the ground bar needs to be a part of the circuit.

If the game you are playing needs more keys than the ones on the front face, you're in luck - the extra jumper cables supplied with the kit can be plugged into the back of the Makey Makey for additional keys. See the image above for which ones will work.

Lastly, if you are working with kids that are familiar with Scratch, it is very easy to write your own game or Scratch program to interact with the Makey Makey. If you want to reprogram the Makey Makey key bindings, this great Instructable will show you how to do that.

Step 4: Explain, Expand, Evaluate

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Explain and Expand:

  • What is a circuit, and what does it mean for a circuit to be open or closed?
  • What other materials do you think would work for this activity? Pickles? Kiwi fruit? Cheese?
  • Sometimes you can trick the Makey Makey into thinking a key has been pressed even though you are not touching ground by building up a good static charge. What is going on here?

Evaluate:

  • What is something exotic that you think would work well as a button key?
  • What will happen if you attach an insulator to test lead that is connected to the Makey Makey? Will it work?
  • Can you think of a non-computer game that you could create using the Makey Makey? (Example: a door alarm that alerted someone when a door was opened).

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Bio: I'm the Museum Coordinator for the spectrUM Discovery Area, a hands-on science museum in Missoula, MT. I love to make, tinker and play both ... More »
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