Our first project was the simple and fun Solar Cockroach. For the longest time we've been trying to find a fun way of making a version of that project for even younger students; and this is what we came up with!
We found that younger students need a good tactile approach when it comes to solar energy, and we also wanted to our project part "art" as well as part "science." By showing that solar energy can be turned into vibrations we're able give students immediate feedback that they can feel. If you're doing this activity in a classroom we've included a sample lesson plan at the end where students can compare different sources of light, then use the power of the vibrations to compare light power.
Our little Solar Bug is a solar powered vibrobot. This means that it gets it's motion from the large vibrating motor on it's under side. While this isn't a great form of movement, it is a form of movement similar to Bristlebots.
While we at Brown Dog Gadgets sell a kit for this project we encourage parents to make their own version at home. It's simple, fun, inexpensive, and easy to replicate over and over again. If you're not convinced, watch our video and prepare to have your mind blown.
Step 1: Parts and Supplies
The complete kit for this project can be found at Brown Dog Gadgets. Otherwise there are many places online to find small solar cells and vibrating motors. Often the most difficult part is finding the right powered motor to go with your solar cell.
Laser Cut Body
Double-sided Foam Tape
You'll need a soldering iron to attach the solar cell and motor. As for the body, you can easily cut one out from thick cardboard or wood. You can also just hot glue (melt glue) the motor in place. If you're having issues with pipe cleaners for legs, use solid core wire. It transmits the vibrations better than pipe cleaners, but doesn't look as nice.
Step 2: Video and Laser Cut Files
We've included a PDF of our laser cut files in case you want to make your own bodies. We typically use 1/8th inch Baltic Birch or acrylic for our bodies. Acrylic works as well (and you can do some awesome things with neon acrylic!).
If you're making these from scratch, you can always print off the bodies and then cut up cardboard instead of wood. The more rigid the material the better.
We've also included a short video showing you how to make this project.
Step 3: Decorate Your Bug
Use paint, markers, or pencils to decorate your bug.
Our laser cut pieces have the solar cell marked out, so you can design around it.
If painting, make sure you let everything dry before moving on. Foam tape tends to stick much better when the paint has fully dried.
Step 4: Pop in Your Motor
First, slide one rubber o-ring onto the motor. Push it nearly to the top.
Next, push the motor into the body. Go from the top down.
When the motor is most of the way through put a second o-ring onto the motor. The two o-rings work together to keep the motor in place.
It sometimes helps to use the solar cell to push the motor down.
Once the motor is secure, remove the protective layer of the foam tape and press the solar cell into place.
Step 5: Add Legs
Use the included pipe cleaners to make the legs for your Solar Bug.
Take one pipe cleaner and fold it into thirds. Cut at the folds.
Do the same to a second pipe cleaner.
Push one piece of pipe cleaner through a leg hole. Stick it through far enough so that your'e able to twist it together and secure it. Make sure to twist it together very tight. The tighter the better!
Do the same for all six legs.
Step 6: Adding an Antenna and Eyes
Cut a strip of pipe cleaner in half.
Use the strips as antennas for your bug by inserting them into the pre-cut holes. Bend and twist them for a whimsical effect.
If you'd like to give you bug some eyes, peel off the back protective layer on your googley eyes and stick them on your bug.
Step 7: You're Finished! Now Have Some Fun!
Take your Solar Bug out into the sun and watch it in action. Smooth flat surfaces work best to watch it vibrate around. If your bug isn't moving much, try tightening up the legs. If that doesn't work, use solid core wire instead.
Thanks for reading our guide! We had a blast designing these for a friend's 3rd grade classroom and we hope you'll have a blast playing around with them. While you can make them from scratch you can also grab a kit from us at BrownDogGadgets.com. We'll keep designing fun solar projects if you keep having fun with them.
Also be sure to use direct, natural, unfiltered, sunlight. Artificial light will not work.*
That being said, read the next step about the classroom activity you can do using Solar Bugs to compare artificial light sources.
Step 8: Classroom and Learning Activities
The Solar Bug was originally designed for a 3rd grade classroom. This activity could easily be scaled up to middle school or high school levels by adding deeper critical thinking questions or adding extra light sources and/or filters on the light sources (such as sun glasses or UV protected glass).
In this step, I'm going to outline the classroom activity I had the students do.
Paint & Paint Brushes
Various Forms of Artificial Light
Questions for students to answer:
Question: Which is stronger, light from the sun or artificial light?
Question: Which source of light is strongest? How can we tell?
Question: Why does Sunlight cause a sunburn, but artificial light does not?
Student will use the solar bugs as "sensors" to see which type of light makes the motor spin/ vibrate fastest. Students can either rate the light sources from 1-10, with 10 being the strongest source and 1 being no movement, or can make a list of strongest to weakest.
Place your light sources around the classroom. Label each station with a number or name, such as "Station 1: 60 Watt Lightbulb." It helps to have at least four types of artificial light and a window with natural sunlight coming through.
Have students (in pairs or individually) go from station to station. Depending on your classroom you may wish to give each student/pair a set amount of time at each station and then have everyone switch. This way, no station gets too crowded. If your students can handle going from station to station on their own, I highly recommend it. This allows students to go back to previous stations if they want to compare results.
When finished making their list, have them present it to the teacher to see if they have the right order. If not, have them go and do more testing.
When their order is correct have students return to their seat to answer additional questions.
Which light source was the strongest? How were you able to tell?
Besides the motor vibrating, what other ways were you able to compare light sources?
Plants use light to make food. Which source of light would be best for feeding plants?
Can people get sunburns from artificial light? Why or why not?
Add in your own additional vocabulary or critical thinking questions!