(Note- This is a guest post for Eureka!Factory by Chuck Stephens as part of their Instructables Build Night program.)
As a freelance educator and 'maker maker', I'm always eager to check out new electronics learning systems and educational toys. When I saw the Circuitscribe kit from Electroninks I was intrigued. It combined the simplicity of Snap Circuits and other electronics building systems with an artistic twist- conductive ink. I'll admit that I was fascinated by the promise of conductive ink. This seemed like a promising development and I was eager to play with it. I opened the kit and was surprised by the variety of included components. Circuitscribe kits use 'wires' that are drawn onto paper with conductive silver ink. The electronic components are mounted onto boards with magnetic feet. A thin steel sheet is placed under the the paper, the circuit is drawn with special pens and the components are arranged and held in place magnetically. The kit I had to play with was the Developer Kit. It had switches, basic components, transistors, photo sensors, pots, a timer, a buzzer, LEDs and a few other goodies. It even had pieces that could accept external components, like a simple breadboard. This allows the student to swap out resistor or capacitor values to see the effect on a circuit. I thought this was a good idea, so I decided to expand on it by creating a prototyping board for the Circuitscribe kit. In the bottom of the kit I found the DIY Board. It had magnetic contacts like the other kit components, but it had bare solder pads to install your own components. This allows the user to create their own boards for the kit. After a bit of brainstorming, I had an idea for a Circuitscribe Prototyping Board using female pin headers and a small 170 hole breadboard. Due to the unique design of the Circuitscribe's DIY Board, this was really easy.
Keep reading to find out how to make your own to take your Circuitscribe designs to the next level.
Step 1: Preparing the DIY Board
The DIY Board from the Circuitscribe kit has five sections with two magnetic contact pads on each section. One section has pads for a through hole or SMD two-lead component, like a resistor, Capacitor, diode or LED. The other four sections were interesting. Each section had solder pads for an 8 pin DIP IC. Each section's DIP pads were connected to their counterparts on the other sections. The pads were also connected to the eight magnetic contact pads on the four sections. This means that pin one of the first section is connected to pin one of each other section and to the magnetic contact pad in the top left position. The same is true for pins two through eight. If an 8 pin integrated circuit is soldered to any of the DIP pads of the DIY Board it can be incorporated into your drawn circuits. Since I was interested in the four sections with the 8 pin DIP pads, I cut the extra section off with some angle cutters. This left a jagged edge so I used some sand paper to knock down the sharp points. I set the extra section aside for later. Now it's time to figure out the breadboard layout.
Step 2: Adding Headers and a Breadboard
The idea of the Prototyping Board is to incorporate a small breadboard into Circuitscribe projects. By soldering two four-hole female headers in the first 8 pin DIP position, I could use jumper wires to connect the breadboard to the magnetic contact pads. I only had one four-hole header and another eight hole header. I trimmed the eight hole header down and sanded the cut edge smooth. I taped the headers onto the DIY Board and clamped it in the helping hand upside down. I soldered the eight pins to the solder pads. I took the board out of the helping hand and removed the tape. I removed the backing from the breadboard's adhesive and carefully placed it on the DIY board flush with the headers. I pressed the breadboard down firmly and the Circuitscribe Prototyping Board was done. So now what?
Step 3: Getting Started With the Prototyping Board
Electronic learning systems like Circuitscribe, Snap Circuits or the old Radio Shack 200-in-1 sets are great for teaching situations. They allow the student to quickly assemble a circuit and see how it works. The larger sized components allow the learner to visualize the circuit's structure and the flow of electricity. They're also very useful to illustrate sub-circuits from a larger circuit. With electronics education, I've found that ease is essential in the early stages. The easier it is to assemble and visualize how circuits work, the quicker the student will advance to more complex and satisfying projects.
A breadboard is a tool circuit designers and hobbyists use to quickly assemble and test circuits. Breadboarding is the next level for students after they master the basics with a simpler learning system. By incorporating a small breadboard into a Circuitscribe compatible format, it allows a smooth transition from designing a circuit with the kit to more versatile and advanced techniques.
Step 4: Bonus: What's in the Spare Parts Bin? a Thermistor!
I love that they included a modable DIY Board. This allows for a little more flexibility and allows educators to customize the kit to meet classroom objectives. Since I had the extra two pad section left over, I went digging through the parts bin for something interesting. I found a thermistor. A thermistor is a variable resistor, like a potentiometer or photoresistor. A thermistor, as the name implies, changes its resistance depending on its temperature. This allows project circuits to be affected by heat or cold. When combined with an op-amp or inverter it's the basis of a simple thermostatic control switch. Making a Circuitscribe board with a two lead component is simple- insert the leads into the respective holes, solder them and trim the excess lead wire. Super simple. It works the same for a photoresitor, IR sensor, piezo contact, incandescent lamp, laser diode, actuator or any other two lead part. Get creative and see what you can come up with.
Step 5: The Verdict
This is a cool kit that has a place in institutional and makerspace situations as well as a fun home learning tool. The large elements make demonstrating basic circuit concepts to a small group quite easy. Small hands will also find these components much easier to work with. The addition of the DIY Board is a nice touch and a tip of the hat to the maker community that other companies have been more reluctant to make. The visual approach to electronics is a lot less intimidating to some students. I find that newbs have a hard time 'getting' breadboards but this is easy to understand.
The Developer Kit that I had to play with goes for $200. Compared to other similar kits I've seen, you get a lot of bang for your buck. There was a good variety of components and a bright kid could pick up a good introductory knowledge of electronics. I think this would also be a good resource for collaborative home schoolers or large families who could pass it along as kids outgrow it. The parts seem pretty robust. Replacement pens are available and you can use any smooth paper, so it will see a lot of use.
The main drawback was the conductive ink pens. If they're not stored properly and used regularly, they tend to settle and clog. It took a bit of shaking and tapping to get the ink flowing smoothly enough to draw the circuits. The ink also doesn't dry as a solid- it's smudgy and messy. Don't get me wrong- this is an amazing product that's about 95% ready for prime time, it just needs a little improvement. If they could develop a conductive glue to use in conjunction with the ink you could draw traces and glue components to cardboard PCBs to prototype circuits. That would be amazing!
The really cool thing about Circuitscribe is that it was successfully funded through Kickstarter. With so many scams and vaporware products out there, it's nice to see crowd funding work to bring a cool and original product to market.
Circuitscribe gets a thumbs up.