Making Stuff Light Up and Move!


by Tracy Rudzitis -

My sixth and seventh grade STEAM students immersed themselves in the wonder of electricity this school year. They started out by exploring basic circuits, using blocks that I constructed using the Exploratorium’s ideas from their electricity exploration curriculum


The overall learning targets for this unit were:

  • Students will learn how to handle and connect components without overloading, damaging, or destroying them
  • Students will learn what an electrical circuit is
  • Students will learn how to understand and measure electricity and resistance
  • Students will draw, build and identify the characteristics of a series circuit and a parallel circuit
  • Students will construct a circuit of their own design using a variety of conductive and non conductive materials that includes a switch, an output device, and a sensor (input device).


Tinkering and exploring how circuits and electricity works generated many questions from the students. In each of my 10 classes we wrote down some of the questions so we could use these ideas to drive the projects that students would immerse themselves in to really develop their understanding of electricity.


My approach to student inquiry into content is that it should be directly related to questions they have about how and why things work. Without providing all the answers upfront first, students will choose ideas to work on that might answer some of the questions they have about what ever the subject is we are in the midst of. 


I wanted my students to think big about what they wanted to “make” so I provided some very big prompts:

  • Build something that can see
  • Build something that can talk
  • Build something that makes sounds and responds to touch
  • Build something that makes art
  • Build an interactive toy
  • Build something that performs a simple task that makes life easier
  • Build something that helps people
  • Build something that you can wear
  • Build something that makes music
  • Build an interactive house
  • Build something powered by the sun


I didn’t want students to think about the tools or materials that would be used in the projects at first, I wanted them to think about ideas and what they were curious about. Once the students (and I teach 300 of them!!) decided upon an idea, I was able to direct them towards the kind of materials or possible existing projects (Instructables is a great resource for ideas), that they may use as resources and reference for their own work. Students who were perhaps a little overwhelmed at all this could choose from some ideas and examples I had in the classroom. Simple soft circuits or paper circuits that could be made with simple materials, yet still allow for these students to demonstrate their understandings of the learning targets that make up a middle school science class.


I wanted students to be using a range of materials. This is the first year of the school’s STEAM lab and in the back of my mind I also saw this project having potential for showcasing the different materials and electronics that are available in the lab. I pointed students in the direction of the Arduino, the MakeyMakey’s, the Make!Sense boards, Hummingbirds,  NXT Bricks. I provided solar panels, various DC motors and servos, LEDs and batteries and lot’s of wire and copper tape. The student’s imaginations and creativity fill in the spaces and the results were pretty spectacular.


Student’s documented their work, and they wrote up instructions that we published as pdf files on our STEAM Lab site so that other’s could share in the experience of making and learning and exploring electricity.


Take a look at the awesome and amazing things that were dreamed up and made. The pdf files can inspire and provide some instructions and ideas so that others can make these projects. The photos and videos that students took of their work, as it was being made or as finished products, give you a glimpse into the process, the thinking, the questions, that happen as the project unfolds. 


When students are engaged and motivated by exploring their own questions, their own ideas, their own interests, they are learning so much, and better yet, really retaining so much of what it is that we want them to learn. By embedding the learning in rich and sometimes difficult and complex activity, they student comes away with a deeper understanding. Sharing in these experiences and wonderfully creative ideas and inventions that only middle school students can have, the teacher comes away with new ideas, deeper understandings, and admiration for the amazing minds that these students possess.



Heather Pang's picture

I love these projects. I wish I had a chance to build all of them. Maybe I will try that, a little summer self directed professional development?

Erin Riley's picture

The process you have developed for your students that brings them through a full cycle of learning is inspiring! Having them work from big prompts to design a project, then to document it in a “how-to” to share with peers is such a great idea!

Thank you!'s picture

Thank you for posting such a thorough explanation of your process with your students. I really enjoy seeing the differenciation of their projects and how you are documenting your journey with them as well.

Please keep posting!