Introduction: Circuit Tiles!

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For all the wee Edisons and Teslas to be, circuit tiles are the best! These are a great way to introduce people to circuits in a fun, ridiculous, iterative way. This is great for just one person exploring or an entire class working together. And your collection can keep growing over time! It's like Pokemon, electronics-version.

  • What: Circuit Tiles!
  • Time: ~ 1 hour per 10 tiles
  • Cost: ~ $1 per tile, depending on elements
  • Concepts: Circuits, current, voltage, parallel vs. series, resistance
  • Materials:
    • Wood for tiles (A chopped up 2x4 works well)
    • Thin screws (We used 1.5")
    • Electronic Elements (motors, lights, switches, potentiometers, power sources, etc)
    • Wire (thin wire for hooking up electronics)
    • Gator Clip leads
  • Tools:
    • Saw (power saws make it go way quicker)
    • Sandpaper
    • Drill
    • Hot glue gun / hot glue
    • Soldering iron / solder
    • Wire strippers
    • Pliers (optional)

This project is an adaptation of one that my science teacher made for me in elementary school, for which I am very grateful. My hope is to share it with other educators out there.

Need a lightswitch? An impromptu pager? A veritable cornucopia of christmas light patterns? Circuit Tiles has you covered! Let's start!

This came inspired by The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium. Check them out!

Step 1: Make Wood Tiles

An easy way to make these is to just shop up a 2x4 into smaller pieces. For our dimensions, we used 3.5 x 3.5" which worked out pretty niftily for most electronics items. Sand them down to make them look purdy.

Step 2: Drill Screws In

So many screws! So little time. Find some skinny steel screws (ours were 1.5"), and you're going to screw them just a bit into the wood, so it's nice and secure. By the end, you have what looks like a bunch of torture devices. But no, silly, they're learning devices.

For most simple electronic elements, two screws will do, but for a couple, you may want use make 3 or 4. Go for it!

User JoBar007 had the tremendous idea of using slotted screws for the negative terminals and phillips head screws for the positive terminals, so you could have a "+" and "-" sign on top of the screws. See photo in comments. Brilliant!

Step 3: Electronics Time!

From here on out, you can do everything with a hot glue gun, soldering iron, and wire cutters. You're going to take electronics elements, glue them to a tile, shorten their wires to the right length, and solder them to the screws. Not too bad, right?

Here are some tips:

  • Test out all your elements with your power source before gluing and soldering
  • For elements that need wire, solder to the element first, then the screws
  • Soldering to a big exposed screw can be hard. Wrap the wire in a screw thread and spend a bit of time heating up the screw so it takes the solder.

Let's get to the different kinds of things you might have!

Step 4: Power Sources!

For circuit tiles, I've found that 3V is a good target for many simple electronic elements, so a battery pack with 2 AA or 2 AAA should work great. It also means no zaps for the kids, and not much risk (the only problem is sometimes things heat up).

Solar panels are also fun, and so are watch batteries. Go power crazy.

Step 5: Lights!

Oh the lights! There are so many great lights to use. 5mm super-bright LEDs work out great, and do a great job about teaching about polarity of currents, and how they affect LEDs. Another great light to use is incandescent X-mas lights (chopped off the string), as they work with both polarities, and you can really use potentiometers well with them.

Step 6: Motors!

Things that move are just the best. Adding things to the ends of motors make the spindle motion much more visible. A piece of scotch tape works great, corks work great, you really can't go wrong.

Motors that have an off-center center of mass are great, and are how things like pagers work. These tiles will jiggle and slide across the table, too.

I also just wanted to show a close-up of the cutest little motor in all the land. Look at that widdle iddy biddy guy!

Step 7: Switches

There are so many types of switches out there! Light switches, clamp switches, push-buttons, sliders, the works.

If you want to get even more ridiculous, Jameco has come amazing switches like combination lock switches, key-lock switches, decibel switches, centripetal switches, so you can have a lot of fun.

Step 8: Potentiometers / Dimmers

The cousin of switches, potentiometers and dimmers work great in series with lights, motors, and buzzers. With the right resistance, you can make faders that work really well. Test them out with your lights and motors to find the range that works for you.

Also, many of these will have more than two tabs to solder to. Check the combination that gets the fade you want, and solder up.

Step 9: Add Other Wacky Stuff!

There are so many things you can find in machines, or that you can make yourself!

Here are a couple other ideas for things that have been great in the past:

  • Fans
  • Buzzers
  • Electro-magnets
  • A resistor tile
  • A tile of different materials to see which ones are conductive
  • Homemade switches with aluminum foil.

Let us know what ones you figure out!

Step 10: Bring Your Circuits to Life!

Using gator clip leads, your circuit tiles can become a circuit wonderland. Have fun connecting, disconnecting, and bringing these elements to life!

If you're working with a class, here are a few challenges you can give them to start uncovering truths about electronics:

  • Make an LED light up
  • Make a motor spin
  • Make a motor spin the opposite way
  • Make two motors spin at the same time
  • Make a light and a motor go at the same time
  • Add a dimmer to a light
  • Add a dimmer to a motor
  • Make a buzzer that goes off when a switch is down
  • Make two lights alternate being on with a switch (like a stoplight)

Have some good ol' fashioned voltage-induced fun!