At the intersection of creating and communicating

Katie Bohn
May 20, 2016

The students were hunched over the tables in Penn State’s Invention Studio, concentrating on the gadgets in front of them. One was creating a remote-controlled insect, another worked on a tripwire alarm. All were using littleBits — electronic building blocks that can be mixed and matched — to create their inventions.

Although the students were tinkering with wireless transmitters and light sensors, this wasn’t an engineering course. It was a technical writing course.

Designed and taught by Penn State English faculty as a Penn State Digital English Studio project, the littleBits exercise was a new spin on an old assignment. Traditionally, almost all technical writing students are asked to write a set of instructions for completing a task, like describing the steps for tying a tie.

But Stuart Selber, associate professor of English and director of the Digital English Studio, thought that while the assignment is valuable, it could also be improved upon.

When Penn State announced its Invention Studio in fall 2015, Selber saw an interesting opportunity to revitalize the classic writing assignment. He worked with Information Technology Services and Maker Commons staff members to design a project in which the students would first create their own inventions using littleBits and then write a set of instructions on how to build it.

Getting into the maker mindset

The Invention Studio is housed within Penn State’s Maker Commons in the University Libraries, which opened earlier this year as a space where students, faculty and staff can learn through 3-D printing and rapid prototyping with such technologies as littleBits.

“The commons gives all Penn Staters the opportunity to explore creating, learning and inventing with technology,” said Markus Fürer, coordinator of the Maker Commons. “When you invent something, having that end product is great, but you also learn from the actual process of creating. LittleBits is a conduit for that kind of learning.”

Fürer describes this type of learning as getting into the “maker mindset.” Because littleBits are so easy to use — the bits snap together with magnets and don’t require knowledge of wiring, welding or programming — students can start creating immediately, regardless of their major.

Selber thought that because writing is also a form of invention, littleBits would fit in nicely with the technical writing course. The team decided to test the new project in two class sections, with the goal of discovering whether littleBits could indeed help students better engage with the writing assignment.

At work in the studio

Debra Placky, a lecturer of English at Penn State, volunteered to teach one of the class sections, hoping to expand her own skills and knowledge.

“I consider myself a lifelong learner and always enjoy pushing myself to learn about new technologies and teaching techniques,” said Placky. “This was my first time hearing about littleBits, and it sounded like an interesting way to further engage students.”

The project required the students to spend three class periods in the Invention Studio. During their first visit, the students were introduced to the studio and trained on how to use littleBits. They built their inventions in the second session and tested and refined them in the last. They then returned to the classroom to write the building instructions and complete the assignment.

Placky says the students did seem more engaged than usual, and she enjoyed watching the students be creative and work together in ways she normally doesn’t get to see in an English class.

"They really wowed me with how naturally creative they seemed to be with the product," Placky said. "Even though they were working on individual projects, many of them came together to solve problems. It was satisfying to see students from different backgrounds and majors work together to help each other be successful, not for a grade, but just to be helpful."

Creating and communicating

Jon Kobrynich, a senior majoring in energy engineering who participated in the class, decided to build a wireless key finder for his project.

The invention had two parts: one that attached to the user’s keys and one that the user kept with them. When the button on the user’s end was pressed, the device attached to the keys picked up the signal wirelessly. It then lit up, beeped and vibrated, alerting the user to its location.

Kobrynich says that while his engineering background made it easy to learn how to use littleBits, figuring out the best way to describe the building process took more time — time he thought was well spent.

“In today’s work environment, it’s so important to be able to effectively communicate. You can have great ideas, but if you can’t communicate them, you won’t be as successful,” said Kobrynich. "It was great practice before entering the professional world. We had the opportunity to create something with the littleBits and learn how they work in order to describe how to build and operate our inventions."

Selber says that in the end, the littleBits exercise was a success and that this intersection of creating and communicating was just what he and the other project members were striving for.

“Although littleBits themselves are quite simple, I think the students found that their simplified nature was still hard to communicate,” said Selber. “So being able to break things down and explain them clearly was the actual challenge of this exercise. And I think they succeeded.”

  • An instructor in a floral dress observes two students as they work at computers

    Debra Placky observes her students as they work on their projects.

    IMAGE: Joe Bueter
  • LittleBits rest on the dry-erase panel of a table with the word "input" written on it and pointing to a littleBit.

    Inventors can use the dream tables to label their inventions as they build and create.

    IMAGE: Katie Bohn
  • A man in a black outfit stands at a table of littleBits and uses a dry erase marker to write on the table.

    Markus Furer stands at one of the "dream tables," which has a dry-erase panel that users can write on to label their creations.

    IMAGE: Katie Bohn
  • Close-up photo of a littleBit fan connected to other bits

    Penn State's library of littleBits includes an electric fan connected to a bit.

    IMAGE: Katie Bohn
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Last Updated May 27, 2016