Geeky Gadgetry: Squishy Circuits

This article originally appeared as Geeky Gadgetry: Build Squishy Circuits at Cosplay, Comics, and Geek Culture In Libraries.

Children and teens are natural scientists trying to find out neat ways the world works. There are some inexpensive gadgets that a library can teach patrons how to build that can expand the world around them and exercise their scientific inquiry and their aesthetic sense. In this Geeky Gadgetry series, projects provide a platform for them to express their interests and get started on fulfilling pathways toward creation and ownership of their ideas and expressions.

Squishy Circuits

There is an unmatched joy in being able to make play dough light LEDs, drive motors, and make really loud buzzing sounds. Using recipes provided by the University of St. Thomas Playful Learning Lab, Squishy Circuits produces two blobs of dough, one meant to conduct electricity, one meant to resist it, which can then be sculpted, shaped, poked, or designed into any artistic form that also creates a complete circuit path. The addition of LEDs, motors, buzzers, or other elements that can be powered by batteries hooked up to the dough makes it possible for dough sculptures to move, light up, make noise, or otherwise become more than just colored dough.

Squishy Circuits are great for teaching basic principles of electricity and circuitry, as well as a rapid prototyping material for creative older tweens and teens who might be looking for ways to incorporate electronics into their art or to try and get an idea of a form they might want to eventually create using a 3D printer, saving plastic and giving the prototypers a chance to discover where potential issues might be in their finished product.

The St. Thomas website only provides a recipe for making the dough, which can be a program by itself for young scientists. Constructing the dough itself is an opportunity for kids to work safely with chemistry, create mixtures, and get their hands dirty learning about how to safely handle heat, why following directions is important – as I’ve found out, if you try to add too much water at once to the insulating dough mix, you’ll spend a really long time trying to add enough flour back into it to absorb that water and prevent the insulating dough from being a giant sticky mess – and some physical activity of adding coloration and kneading the dough into a usable consistency. Making Squishy Circuit dough and making bread dough share a lot of the same characteristics, so perhaps a compare-and-contrast type of program, with all the great science involved in rising dough versus making the playing dough is in order.

Once the dough is made, you’re ready to begin making your circuits. Common items to use for circuitry are LEDs, motors, electric buzzers, and other sensors or elements that can have probes attached to them so that they can make firm contact with the dough and conduct the electricity. You’ll also need some battery boxes to provide power to the entire circuit, which may also need probes or leads attached to them to be effective. If you have a soldering iron and teens who are interested in learning how to make those connections, this could also be a project or program for them, so they can gain experience and produce something that will be helpful to others. (Volunteer credit may be a good enticement, as well.) If you don’t have volunteers, time, or don’t trust your own technical expertise for this, a complete starter kit with LEDS, motors, and buzzers ready to work with Squishy Circuits is available from the (unaffiliated with St. Thomas University) Squishy Circuits Store for a reasonable price. (They also sell individual components so that you can have enough to go around.)

Once everything is assembled, you can build your own curriculum regarding how circuits work and how to use both the conductive and insulative doughs to direct the flow of electricity, or use Squishy Circuits curricula that are already on the Internet, or you can set out the materials and do a quick primer on what the necessary parts are to make a complete, working circuit and let imagination take over from there. Sculpted animals with light-up noses or feet, sushi-looking things that make noise, or anything that could be conceived, so long as it contains a complete circuit And if something doesn’t work like it is supposed to, it’s an opportunity to diagnose and troubleshoot what’s wrong with the circuit while the circuit is laid out in front of them.

Squishy Circuits are also reasonably safe things – unless components are directly touching each other, it’s not likely that any of the components will be burnt out from the flow of electricity, and it’s possible to add and remove components to the dough while the power is switched on, even if it’s not a good habit to get in to when it comes to actual wiring. There’s no risk of electric shock so long as everything is being done on a dry surface.

The finished products look really cool, too, when you can see them at work. And there’s a certain “cool!” factor that comes with being able to take some dough, sculpt it, stick in a light and some battery probes, and watch the sculpture light up, as if by magic.

Squishy Circuits is a great introductory Geeky Gadget for all ages and ability levels, and it can provide a solid foundation of how electricity and circuits work, so that if you move on to other projects in the same vein of building a circuit into art, the skills learned here will be transferable. Have fun and take pictures!